Casual and easygoing, Washington is participating in a "Fences" press junket at Sardi's restaurant, along with co-star Viola Davis, director Kenny Leon, and cast members Chris Chalk, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson.
Though their backgrounds vary, each actor is thrilled to be in Wilson's groundbreaking play depicting the tragic but vibrant lives of a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues and his family in Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1957. This production at the Cort Theatre is the first Broadway revival since the play bowed in 1987, and won four Tony awards, including best play; the Pulitzer Prize for drama; and three Drama Desk awards.
All the Ingredients
Oscar nominee and Tony Award winner Viola Davis says she returned to Broadway because "I go where the good work leads me. I'm an African-American actress over the age of 40, so I really go where the good work leads me. When I can't do that, I feel dead. I don't endorse Revlon or do cosmetic commercials. I don't get my jollies looking at myself in magazines. Doing this play made sense."
For veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, it also made sense. He's an old hand at Wilson's work, having appeared in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "King Hedley II" on Broadway; "Jitney" Off-Broadway; and several regional productions of "Fences." Wilson has resonance for him on so many levels, starting with its poetry. "It's the difference between dialogue and text," he says. "That's a profound difference. Also to have met and known a playwright who had my cultural experience…it means everything to be part of this."
Chris Chalk, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson are making their Broadway debuts in "Fences." That alone is a career watershed, but performing in a work by Wilson and starring Washington and Davis takes the experience to another level.
"It's scary, and I have a lot to live up to," says Williamson, who has had a recurring roles in "24," "CSI: NY," and "Kidnapped." "The pressure is there, but it does not paralyze me. It motivates me."
Hornsby says working with Washington is "inspirational. He's one of the greatest actors. I put him up there with Laurence Olivier. But once I get over the reverence, we're just two actors in a room, and Denzel wouldn't have it any other way. He can walk down the street and get reverence. I'm swimming in high cotton. But I can do a mean breaststroke." Among Hornsby's credits are a long and successful run in ABC Family's "Lincoln Heights," "In Treatment," Wilson's "Jitney" Off-Broadway, and "Intimate Apparel," co-starring Davis, also Off-Broadway.
"I play Denzel's son," Chalk says, then adds metaphorically, "and I am his son. I look up to him. This is just perfect. The play, the cast, and my Broadway debut. The difference between TV/film and Broadway is that in theater, actors become part of a family and the family continues beyond the rehearsal process. We text each other back and forth if we have questions about this or that section in the play. That doesn't happen in TV or film, at least not on my tier." Chalk has guest-starred on such shows as "Nurse Jackie," "The Good Wife," and "Rescue Me." His movies include "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Rent."
Though award-winning director Kenny Leon has directed four other productions of "Fences," he is approaching this outing as if it were a premiere, and he is not worried about comparisons. He sees himself "taking the baton and introducing the play to a new generation," he says, adding, many factors will inform this production, such as "Denzel's athleticism, vocal reach, and emotional range and the fact that Viola Davis stands toe to toe with him," he says. "I won't be bringing any of my past productions of 'Fences' to this, and I'm certainly not going to be bringing anything from the 1987 production. I'm looking for surprises." Leon's Broadway work includes the 2004 Tony-winning revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," and the Tony-nominated productions of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," and "Radio Golf," and Wilson's Century Cycle at the Kennedy Center.
Trust and Faith
Leon says his actors need flexibility and truthfulness. "They have to be able to stand in the truth, not beside it, not next to it, but in it. A great production has three things: faith and trust in the director, faith and trust in the performer, and faith and trust in the words. Say the words specifically as written to hear the poetry. August has a song. I want actors who can honor that specificity."
Washington says his biggest challenge is that, "The language and rhythms are familiar. But the line structure and the sentence structure are specific." Once you think you know Wilson, you're in danger of missing the subtleties, he adds, commenting that Shakespeare is in many ways easier than Wilson.
Davis says her challenge is "to leave myself alone and just speak the lines and try to be open to what others give me. Audiences come to the theater for a slice of life, to have the kind of experience they wish they had in church, an experience that's divine. And you can only have a divine experience if you're moved, and you can only be moved if something familiar and honest is happening." She feels an added responsibility because "Wilson, like Arthur Miller, created the everyday tragic hero in those simple lives that we often dismiss," she says. "And he's elevated them and given their lives grandeur."
Williamson adds it's easy to "get lost in the words and rhythms and think it's so cool to speak his language and forget to tell the truth. We can lose sight of the fact that the characters are real and you have to identify with these characters and find them in yourself."
McKinley Henderson says playing a character in a Wilson play is not all that different from any other character. "It's like cooking greens," he says. "You cut them up into smaller pieces. But first you read the story and understand that your character is there to serve the story. You ask yourself what's his purpose in the story. The character will be there if you give yourself to the story. And then something else takes over, and if I could explain it all, I don't think it would be art."
The Particular and Universal
All the players stress the importance of August Wilson in bringing African Americans into the theater and giving roles to black actors. "If you removed him from American theater, it would be a bleak place for black actors," says Davis. "Also, he creates parts for actors of every age range."
Leon looks forward to the time when Wilson's work is routinely taught in the public schools, as well as mounted in many more regional theaters. "If you have a great play on Broadway, then theaters outside New York will be motivated to do it." He is also excited about an August Wilson monologue competition his theater, True Colors, holds for high school students. At the moment, Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh; and New York are involved. At some point every state will be involved, he says.
He believes "Fences" speaks to everyone and expects the audiences to be diverse. "I love it when people who are different from each other sit next to each other in the theater: women next to men; straight next to gay; black next to white. We will have the most diverse audience on Broadway in terms of age, race, and culture." Ideally, he adds, that kind of inclusive theater will become a model for the world.