This past spring, vintage cars lined the streets of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and actors donned 1950s clothing. Strategically placed advertising from a bygone era completed the neighborhood’s transformation for the film adaptation of Fences, the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play written by the Hill’s most famous native son, August Wilson.
Fences is the sixth play in Wilson’s The American Century Cycle, a collection of 10 plays chronicling the joys and struggles of African-American life, with one play set in each decade of the 20th century. Nine of the plays are set in the Hill. The highs and lows of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former Negro League baseball player, are at the heart of the story. Troy was a standout player, but by the time Major League Baseball was integrated, he was too old to play. His unfulfilled ambitions and frustration affect the people around him, including his devoted wife, Rose, and their son, Cory. Rounding out the cast of characters are Bono, Troy’s best friend; Lyons, Troy’s son from a previous relationship; and Troy’s brother Gabriel, a mentally disabled World War II veteran.
Troy’s disillusionment threatens his relationship with Cory, who aspires to be a college football player. The father and son disagree about a Black man’s prospects in 1957 America.
“August fought for the right of African-Americans to tell their own stories,” says Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero. “Troy Maxson’s dream was squelched by having to fight racism, segregation and incarceration. His story is as prescient today as it was then.”
Fences is the first of Wilson’s plays to be brought to the big screen, a delay due at least in part to Wilson’s insistence on a Black director for film versions of his work. Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who directs and stars in the movie, has granted Wilson’s wish nearly 30 years after Fences debuted on Broadway.
Washington (Troy) and co-star Viola Davis (Rose) won Tony Awards for their performances in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play. For the film, they are joined by Broadway castmates Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bono), Russell Hornsby (Lyons) and Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel) who reprise their original roles.
“Fences is about what it costs a community to have an unrecognized giant in its midst,” says Henderson. “Troy spread a lot of joy, but he’s fighting a great battle inside himself. He was indeed good enough to play in the major leagues; he just came along too early.”
Actor Jovan Adepo (Cory) sees Fences as a story about family. “You can’t choose your family. The best we can do is try to understand each other. Cory has to find what’s best for him, but he also wants to make his family proud.”
Charles D. King, the film’s co-executive producer, says, “The complexities of the African-American experience shine through in Fences. But the push and pull between generations, sacrificing to make your marriage work—these themes are universal.” King, founder and CEO of MACRO, a media asset holding company, is also a co-financier of the film.
King, Romero and the cast praise Washington’s tireless effort to honor Wilson’s legacy by bringing the film to fruition with the playwright’s original screenplay.
“Denzel is not playing around,” King said. “He is a gifted filmmaker. He’s given us Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. And on Fences, he rolled up his sleeves and never sat down throughout the entire production.”
Romero says she’s proud that Fences will finally reach a wider audience. “The poetry of August’s words gives hope and power to a new generation.”
Henderson agrees. “Like all of August’s works, Fences is timeless. These are tough times, but we are a tough people.”
Fences opens in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.