- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2016

Playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005, never lived to see any of his mammoth “Pittsburgh Cycle” translated to film. But Oscar-winner Denzel Washington is undertaking that mammoth task, starting with “Fences,” opening in the District on Christmas Eve.

Each of the entries in Wilson’s decalogue of plays tells the story of the African-American experience in one of the decades of the 20th century. “Fences” focuses on an unstable garbageman named Troy (Mr. Washington, who also directed), whose 1950s life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District is coming unbound due to his own choices. And in a reprise of her role opposite Mr. Washington on Broadway, Oscar-nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) co-stars as Troy’s put-upon wife, Rose, who is far too often the victim of his choices — but nonetheless stands her own ground against him.

“It was a joy to be a part of it, because you know it’s going to reach more people than the play in all the years it was done,” said actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who co-stars as Troy’s co-worker and friend Jim Bono — also in a reprise of his part during the Broadway run. “When [Laurence] Olivier [filmed] Shakespeare’s plays, more people [were able] to see ‘Hamlet’ than had seen Shakespeare’s plays since the 1600s,” he said.

Mr. Henderson was joined in a roundtable discussion with The Washington Times by co-stars Mykelti Williamson (“Forrest Gump”) Jovan Adepo (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) and Russell Hornsby (“Grimm”). All save Mr. Adepo co-starred with Mr. Washington and Miss Davis in the Broadway production.

“It was a privilege to re-examine and re-investigate the material,” said Mr. Hornsby, who portrays Troy’s adult son, Lyons, adding that rehearsing the material for both the stage and screen allowed the cast to gain deeper examination of the themes of the work, “which is rare on a film.”

Mr. Williamson, perhaps best known to cinema audiences as Forrest Gump’s Vietnam buddy Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue, described Mr. Washington’s handling of the duties of director and star of the piece as “seamless.”

“There were some things that I learned from him as an actor directing himself that I’ve never seen before,” Mr. Williamson said.

“He had been preparing for this, in a way, since the first movie he directed,” added Mr. Henderson, referring to “Antwone Fisher” from 2002. “He came so prepared to do this work.” (Mr. Washington has directed only two movies prior to “Fences” and one episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”)

Mr. Washington, who is all but incapable of delivering a subpar performance, likewise imbues Troy with a passionate, regretful smolder, a fearsome anger at circumstances and the world that he unleashes on both the world and his family. No one receives more of this ire than Mr. Adepo’s Cory, a college-age young man with a sparkle in his eye — one that Troy seemingly cannot help but want to stamp out.

“The situation that Troy and Corey find themselves in is something that a lot of young men encounter when they’re dealing with their fathers,” Mr. Adepo said. “Me personally, I could relate to it because my dad — who definitely wasn’t as intense as Troy — he was a military man, so I was very familiar with the ‘yes, sir, no, sir’” that Troy insists upon from his son.

Mr. Washington and Mr. Adepo go many minutes of screen time in one another’s faces, with audiences all but hiding under their seats anticipating that the confrontations might come to blows. Mr. Adepo said that his director and co-star allowed him leeway to find just the right amount of fury and resentment when Corey goes toe to toe with his father.

Denzel was completely comfortable in allowing me to figure out what works for me,” he said of the man who was a major influence on him as an actor. “He didn’t want me to rush into the end result if there was supposed to be another level of intensity. [He said] let’s find that naturally.”

“You go deep within and you pull out as much truth as you possibly can for the moment,” added Mr. Hornsby. “It’s about bringing in the truth and having a willingness to examine those areas of yourself and see where it takes you.”

Mr. Williamson’s character, Gabriel, is both Troy’s brother and a man whose experiences in World War II have scarred him. Gabriel wanders the streets of the Hill District, occasionally blowing on his trumpet at odd hours, and all the while seemingly barely on the edge of a dissociative episode.

“It was an important time, but it was also a painful time in our history,” Mr. Williamson said of the black urban experience of the ‘50s, which was the end result of the great migration of millions from their historical roots in the South to the industrial jobs of the North. “You think about the migration of a people who were escaping Southern tradition and looking for the promised land, so to speak, and the pain and the obstacles they encountered when they went north,” he said.

Mr. Williamson said that veterans groups have continually warmed to him, both for his portrayal of Bubba Blue and for imbuing Gabriel with the pain of battle that often walks home with veterans.

“I’ve spent many Thanksgivings going back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan with our troops,” Mr. Williamson, who plays several musical instruments — though, interestingly, not the trumpet — said. “You honor them through your work, and you create a human being” in the character.

While race relations in America have arguably improved since the 1950s, the 2016 presidential election saw racial politics once again used as a cudgel to attract — or repel — a certain segment of the electorate.

“I’m a revolutionary optimist, because in times like this, it’s revolutionary to be optimistic,” Mr. Henderson, smiling throughout this interview, said. The actor, born in 1949, added that he was once privileged to meet Sidney Poitier, who was integral to the civil rights movement.

“The storm doesn’t matter until the storm starts to get you down,” Mr. Henderson said.

“I don’t politicize my gift, because I feel like God gave it to me, and it’s not really for sale,” added Mr. Williamson. “I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, I’m an American. And above that, I’m a human.

“Right now I see politicians with their fingers in people’s nostrils leading them around. Those are our employees,” Mr. Williams said for emphasis. “The reason you never seen me standing behind a politician is because, when I go to work, I don’t call my political friends to come to work with me.”

Mr. Henderson said that Wilson bears much in common with Olivier, as both men were looking back at the supposed heyday of their respective cultures. Wilson wrote the script for “Fences” long before his death 21 years ago, with Mr. Washington laboring for years to bring the project to fruition.

The plans call for Mr. Washington to direct a movie per year until the entire “Pittsburgh Cycle” is committed to film.

“August’s mission is being fulfilled,” Mr. Henderson said, adding it was gratifying to know that Wilson “is about to join that kinship [of renowned playwrights] and will be around for generations to come.”

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