Fans of the plays of August Wilson rejoice! Playbill announced recently that on April 22 production began on the long-awaited film version of Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences. Fueled by the recent Oscar controversy over diversity in nominations, and armed with his own A-list celebrity status, actor Denzel Washington was able to get the project green lit by Hollywood after languishing for decades. Denzel is slated to both act in and direct the film, drawing upon the success of his 2010 Broadway revival in which he starred as the play’s central male figure, Troy Maxson, a frustrated husband and father, and former baseball player in the Negro leagues.
Fences, set mostly in Pittsburgh of 1957, tells the story of the Maxson family: husband Troy, wife Rose, their athletically promising son Cory, Troy’s mentally impaired brother Gabriel, and their extended family. Its major themes of bitterness over lost opportunities and how, who, and where we choose to invest our love are timeless. Of all the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh or Century Cycle, Fences is perhaps the most universally relatable and deserves to be produced first. And therein lays the big question.
In 2015, HBO announced that they had cut a deal with August Wilson’s widow (he died in 2005) to produce all ten plays in the cycle, a deal that Denzel Washington was also implicated in. However, this production of Fences seems to be outside the boundaries of that contract, being produced through other sources with no connection to HBO. Could it be that this Fences, which is attempting to be released in 2016, could be the first of two versions of Fences to be released over the next several years? Time will only tell. One thing’s for sure with Wilson’s work: one version is never enough to mine the richness of his lyrical writing.
In part, the decades long delay in bringing August Wilson’s work to the screen (with the sole exception of a gorgeous adaptation of The Piano Lesson, directed by Lloyd Richards for The Hallmark Channel back in 1995) was of his own making. Wilson refused to have any of his work brought to the screen unless it was helmed by an African-American director, and Hollywood in the 1990s and 2000s – with the sole exception of director Spike Lee – had no faith in African-American directors’ abilities to open a film successfully and across racial lines. Wilson wasn’t interested in having Lee direct, so every attempt languished…until now.
Whatever your feelings on Hollywood’s or Wilson’s stances, that bridge has now been crossed, and this independent Fences is shaping up to be the first in a line of highly anticipated screen adaptations – both big and small – that may finally bring this genius playwright’s work to a broader audience. I, myself, have been a fan of his work since the early 1990s, and my wife and I have traveled far and wide to catch the right play with the right cast and the right director on more than one occasion. We were proudly there on Opening Night on Broadway of Radio Golf (the 1990s play in the cycle), and we were there for the final preview of Denzel’s Broadway production of Fences, and I have no doubt that when this film debuts in the fall we will be amongst the first in line to see it. His plays and his legacy are just that good.
Won’t you join us?
The Playbill article upon which this blog post is based can be viewed here: