Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington makes a superior performance as both director and star in Fences, a new film based on August Wilson’s play by the same name. Wilson (1945–2005) was an American playwright whose work included a series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
Fences is set in the 1950s and is the sixth in Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle. As is true of all the Pittsburgh plays, Fences explores the developing African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes, which are also universal. Wilson’s plays all deal basically and universally with discovering one’s identity.
Six years ago, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in the Broadway revival of Fences with, and both were awarded Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Play.
The movie, like the play, has a great deal of dialogue and features an iambic blues rhythm, full of rich literary devices. Although the movie has cinematic elements and more movement than the play, it looks very much like a filmed version of the play, albeit a masterful one.
In the 2016 film adaptation, Washington and Davis are reunited to step back into their Tony Award-winning roles of Troy and Rose. Controlling the film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, Washington also took on the role of director for the third time in his career.
Fences was nominated for four Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. Viola Davis took home the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role as well as a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for the same category. Washington was awarded a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, amongst dozens of other prestigious film critics awards.
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career, but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players. He tries to be a good husband and father, but his lost dream of glory eats at him, and causes him to make a decision that threatens to tear his family apart.
Some people build fences to keep people out — and other people build fences to keep people in. Academy Award® winner* Denzel Washington and Academy Award® winner Viola Davis deliver the “performance-driven masterpiece”** of the year in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film takes a passionate look at former Negro-league baseball player Troy Maxson (Washington) as he fights to provide for those he loves in a world that threatens to push him down. Washington’s directorial triumph “connects with people on a deep, emotional level” and pulses with the universal truths of love and forgiveness, despite what lies beyond your own fence.
Sonoma Christian Home has an in-depth and personal interview with English actor Jovan Adepo, who portrays Cory the teenage son of Troy and Rose. In his role of Cory, Adepo plays a talented high school football player who gets good grades. Cory is a respectful son, and is filled with the determination to fulfill his dreams.
For his role in Fences, Adepo was nominated for two Black Reel Awards for Outstanding Breakthrough Performance and Outstanding Actor, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard reports.
SCH: Tell us about your journey with performing.
JA: I performed in plays in school and at my church. I wanted to be a writer and took writing and acting workshops.
SCH: How did you break into film work?
JA: I performed in commercials, and for television (NCIS: Los Angeles and HBO’s The Leftovers). Fences was my first feature film. (Adepo will also be starring in mother!, a dramatic film, alongside Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem due in theatres October 13, 2017).
SCH: What did you learn from working with Denzel Washington as an actor, and as a director?
JA: I had a unique front row seat to watch his patience, confidence, and artistic choices.
SCH: What did you learn from working with Viola Davis?
JA: I learned the following: to be patient, to enjoy the process, to be in the moments, to breathe, and to take the journey moment by moment, even with each take.
SCH: What did you learn about August Wilson’s work?
JA: I learned from actor Stephen Henderson, who played Bono in the Broadway revival and also in the movie, about the influences of Jazz, the Blues, and what he called the Blues Pentameter in August Wilson’s theatrical work.
SCH: What is your vision for your career in the future?
JA: I want to play interesting characters and make artistic choices, as I saw Denzel, Viola, and the cast do in the movie Fences.
Themes, many of which are universal in Fences, include the following: coming of age with a recurring cycle of damaged manhood and difficult fathers; interpreting the past and planning for the future; and coping methods that include pragmatism, illusion, hope and more.
August Wilson uses the rhythm, language, and attitude of the Blues in his plays, characters, and dialogue. The blues is a melancholy song created by African Americans that tends to repeat a twelve-bar phrase of music and a 3-line stanza that repeats the first line in the second line. A blues song usually contains blue, or minor, notes in the melody and harmony.
Fences is structured like the Blues. It happens in one place as in one key of music. The characters each have their own rhythm and melody. Characters repeat phrases, or pass phrases around, like a blues band with a line of melody. Similar to the roles of repeated lyrics and melody in blues songs, Wilson’s characters display change in their lives and attitudes within repeating scenarios.
For example, Troy’s payday, is the recurring setting of three scenes. However, the audience observes the change that occurs in those common settings. Wilson repeats events and language with what he calls a “blues aesthetic.”
Troy sings two blues songs: Please Mr. Engineer, Let a Man Ride the Line and Hear it Ring! Hear it Ring! Rose sings Jesus Be a Fence All Around Mme Every Day. Troy’s song has been passed on to him by his father and in the last scene of the play, Cory and Raynell sing the song together after Troy’s death. The Blues in Fences connects generations, and keeps family roots and history alive.
During the Harlem Renaissance, when African-American artists, writers, and poets flourished in the first half of the 20th century, as well as during slavery, trains were common literary devices in African American literature and music. A character that rode a train or talked of trains, or even went to a train station, represented change.
In Fences, Troy sings the blues song about riding the train. With this song, he cries out to his wife, Rose, to let him back. With baby in hand, Troy is asking Rose to give him a free ride of forgiveness. The train song also reflects when Troy and many other African Americans wandered North during the Great Migration with “I ain’t got no ticket, please let me ride the blinds.” Troy sings the song to his newborn daughter and thereby passes on the important story of her past while linking it to present.
Denzel Washington has revealed that the estate of August Wilson has asked him to shepherd Wilson’s nine films. Washington has said that he would produce adaptations of all 10 plays in August Wilson’s cycle about African-American life in the 20th century for HBO.
“I’ve been given the opportunity by the August Wilson Estate, he did 10 plays—I’m directing, producing and acting in one, and I’m executive producing the other nine,” said Washington. “I made a deal with HBO. We’re going to do one a year for the next nine years.”
Fences is rated PG-13. It is a tragedy with some redemptive elements that is appropriate for adults, due to content and language. The movie has no F words; but Troy, the tragic figure which Denzel Washington plays, uses the N word throughout. Rose, the character whom Viola Davis plays, is a long-suffering Christian character who is loving and supportive to all in her family. She is also a tragic but a redemptive character. The tragic genre serves as a mirror and warning of what the audience should avoid. The movie Fences ends with good found even in difficulties and tragedies, as well as with renewed hope.
Fences is still in theaters but is due for Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand release March 14.
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