FENCES: From Stage To Screen

How August Wilson’s classic play made it to cinema.

Fences is in theaters soon. Get your tickets here!

As with every stage production, the story starts out as words on a paper. Then the words are read. Then they are performed and embodied and sprouted into actors with all their individual inflections and quirks. And maybe someday, the words are converted into a different type of script, a screenplay, and interpreted into visuals.

In 1987, August Wilson’s Fences premiered at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway with James Earl Jones and Mary Rose as the leading characters, Troy and Rose. It earned Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play. Fences was just one play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a ten-play collection portraying black American struggles across ten decades. But it was his most commercially successful of the bunch.

From star baseball player to garbage man and failed family man, Troy Mason is a bulky figure who can’t hide his frailties before his wife and sons. Like Arthur Miller’s iconic failure Willy Loman of the classic play Death of a Salesman, Troy strives for a vision of the American Dream and entertains nostalgia for bygone glory days. Though unlike Willy Loman, he suffers the weight of inhabiting a society unkind to a black man. Like Loman, he is a failed paternal figure who can’t see eye-to-eye with his son and unintentionally under-appreciates the emotional needs and devotion of his wife. But for all his deficiencies, Wilson does not deny Troy great sympathy. When inquired about the parallels to Miller’s play, Wilson insisted it was “the blues” that stirred the writing. In this intrinsically black American narrative, Fences pegs down the universal ache for the past and the price of familial devotion and betrayal.

Wilson had been engaged in talks of a Fences film adaptation since its Broadway debut in 1987. In one interview, Wilson claimed, “If it happens, it happens. It’s gotta happen the way I want it to happen because I gotta look in the mirror, face myself.”

But the alleged lack of availability of black directors hindered it somewhat. Even though Wilson persuaded executives of existing black directors, he had to wait for a greenlight and for the right black director.

In the final months of his life, ridden with liver cancer, Wilson composed a rewrite of his screenplay. But Wilson never lived to see his film adaptation. Nor would he live to see the acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival, directed by his collaborator and friend Kenny Leon. It starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and raked in ten Tony Award nominations, winning the 2010 Best Revival of a Play and a double-win for Washington and Davis for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively.

Come 2016, not only do Washington and Davis reprise their respective leadings roles in a feature film, but Washington is at the helm as director.

A champion of August Wilson’s works, Washington offers the words of Wilson to the cinematic world with plans to adapt the rest of the Pittsburgh Cycle after Fences. Although Wilson did not live to see the fruits of the attempts and wishes, he would hope that Denzel Washington could swing him a home run in the fidelity of his play—and that the blues will be strong with this movie.

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