There will always be debate when a play or musical is adapted for film. What seemed like a powerhouse story on a small stage may lose steam on the big screen. Despite its star power and award nominations, 2014’s August Osage County, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, took in less than $40 million at the domestic box office. This season’s play-to-film offering, Fences, is positioned to do better, having raked in more than $32 million after opening in wide release on Christmas Day.
There’s been much anticipation over this film, adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Wilson, who died in 2005, thwarted previous efforts, holding out for an African-American director. Enter Denzel Washington, who had starred in a 2010 Broadway revival, which, like the film was also produced by Scott Rudin. (Rudin is one of a handful of people who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar.) With Washington as director and star, filming began in April in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the working-class neighborhood where Wilson grew up.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denzel Washington, and Jovan Adepo
Denzel’s Troy Maxson and his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are sanitation workers, hanging off the back of the truck, wondering why only white men are used as drivers. Troy has registered a complaint with his superiors, a move that could get him fired. Instead, management honors his request and makes him a driver, although that move will lead to a separation from Bono, one of the few people who manages to keep Troy grounded.
Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson
On the surface, Troy seems content. He has a job, a home, and a wife, Rose (Viola Davis), he says he loves. But as he sits in the back yard drinking, first with Bono and later with his older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his story turns out to be much darker. As an adolescent, he killed a man in a robbery and spent time in prison. (That was where he met Bono.) After being released, he played in the Negro Baseball League and still hoped for a career in the majors. He continues to blame racism rather than his age for never advancing in the sport. And when his younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is being scouted by college football teams, he refuses to meet with the recruiter or sign the necessary papers. While he justifies his stand by telling Cory that football, too, is racist, he seethes with jealousy that his son might succeed where he failed. Relations with his older son are no better. An aspiring musician, Lyons often turns up on Friday, payday, to borrow money from Troy, but what he really wants is his father’s attention. Instead, Troy refuses to go to the club to see Lyons play and continually disparages his career choice.
Troy frequently shouts that he’s the boss and the house Rose and Corey live in is his, something that’s not quite true. Troy’s brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), has a medal plate in his head, the result of a war injury. Gabe received $3,000 from the government for his mental impairment, which Troy used to buy the home. Although Gabe moved out, he lives nearby but spends most of his time wandering around the neighborhood, a tarnished trumpet tied around his neck.
While Troy thinks of himself as the head of the family, the one holding everything together is Rose. She puts up with his drinking and his ill-conceived plan to build a fence around the house. In Troy’s mind, the fence is more than just a way to enclose his property. Mentally, he’s hounded by the Grim Reaper and believes that the wooden barrier will keep evil at bay.
Washington opens up the film somewhat, with a few scenes shot in the street and in a bar. But for the most part, the action happens in Troy’s house and the backyard. Within that small space, the drama feels even more intense, brought home with close ups showing the emotions on the faces of the actors. While this is the story of an African-American working family, the themes resonate across socio-economic lines. Dreams die hard and often there is collateral damage.
Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo
Washington, in virtually every scene, has never been better. This is a dialogue heavy film and Washington alternates between delivering some lines like poetry, others like a diatribe. His Troy is not a sympathetic character, yet, at times, we feel sympathy for him, the result of Washington’s visceral performance. Troy is his own worst enemy, and as he builds his fence, this world closes in on him.
The real star of the film, however, is Davis. This actress seems to be at the top of her game no matter what she does. She continues to wow critics and fans with her role as Professor Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. No doubt, her star power will be one reason Fences does well at the box office. Her Rose is one for the ages, a performance that will be called out again and again. Watching Davis’ face as she registers the magnitude of Troy’s betrayal is painful to watch. She makes a difficult choice, one that has less to do with forgiving Troy and more to do with stopping others from suffering. It’s an heroic gesture, one that too few would have the courage to make.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
What if there is no hell? As a Christian, how would that revelation shake the foundation of your faith?
In The Christians, the pastor of a megachurch delivers a sermon that stuns his congregation and leads to much soul searching among his followers. “I don’t believe in hell so I was very much in alignment with that,” said Caroline Stefanie Clay, who plays the pastor’s wife, Elizabeth, a woman shaken by her husband’s pronouncement. “For the 90 minutes that this play exists, I have to believe in Elizabeth and in her belief system. And it’s a pleasure. That’s why we become actors, to inhabit experiences close to our own and completely foreign from what we know.”
Although the playwright, Lucas Hnath, grew up in an evangelical church, he has refrained from talking about his own beliefs, leaving it up to the audiences to carry on those discussions. The play had its New York premiere last fall at Playwrights Horizon. The Washington, D.C. premiere, directed by Gregg Henry, will be presented at Theater J from November 16 through December 11. The production includes a gospel chorus, and through the efforts of Artistic Director Adam Immwewahr, top choirs from the D.C. area will participate. “I love what Adam’s doing,” said Caroline. “I can’t think of a better way of engaging the community than by bringing in a new choir for every performance.”
Caroline, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grew up in Washington, D.C., “a proud product of the D.C. public school system.” She attended Lafayette Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, and in tenth grade auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she now teaches as an artist in residence. After high school, she went to the University of the Arts In Philadelphia. “Philly is a great theater town,” she said, describing the city as “faster than D.C., but not quite as fast as New York, a great in between place. That’s really where I got my professional feet wet.” She appeared in a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, alongside several New York-based actors, who encouraged her to move to the Big Apple. “That’s where I would make my artistic home for the next 20 years,” she said.
In 2010, her mother became ill and Caroline made the decision to move back to D.C. “The healing powers of the returning child,” she said, with a laugh. “My mother is now doing much, much better.” While Caroline was prepared to put her career on hold, determined to place her mother first, she didn’t have to make a choice. “My agent said that family is first so do whatever you have to do and know that you’re not risking losing representation, which is often very real for actors,” she said. “I’ve had so many examples of this in my life, in people believing and seeing things In me that I have not even seen for myself. That in so many ways is the definition of grace.”
Caroline was accepted into an MFA program at the University of Maryland. “They were looking for people who literally had had a professional career and were now at a transition where they wanted to consider something new,” she said. “Up to that point I had done what most actors do. My agent calls me, I go and audition, I book the gig. That’s where I was able to build my resume, my technique, all of those kinds of things. But as I became older, I became more conscious, not just as an artist, but as an artist of color, about not seeing my voice represented in ways that I would do it. I had to really take agency and say, `wait a minute! I’ve got to be that voice that I am not hearing.’ I have no problem identifying the void. What am I doing to fill it?”
Once she began writing her own work, Caroline found that a whole new world opened up to her. “I knew that my life as an artist was not based on my agent calling,” she said. “I could create my own work. In many ways I am still working within an institutional system of artistic directors, managing directors, and producers, but the more that I could generate for myself, the more that I would never be sitting there waiting for the phone to ring. That was so freeing as an artist and it’s really been fostered in this area in a way, that I really have to say, it wasn’t fostered in New York, because in New York I simply didn’t have the time.”
So far, Caroline has created two one-woman shows. “I pride myself that when I write my pieces, the subject matter is usually what I call `unsung heroes,’ the people that you haven’t heard of,” she said. Sepia Sculptress – The Life and Times of Edmonia Lewis is about a 19th century African American and Native America sculptor, who was born on a Canadian reservation, went to Oberlin College, and lived mostly abroad, including many years in Rome. “She has left behind amazing sculptures of abolitionist, historical figures, and she was amazing,” Caroline said. “But you don’t see a coffee table book with her work.”
Caroline in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theatre
Another such person is Florynce Kennedy, an attorney, activist, civil rights advocate, lecturer, and feminist. Caroline was watching an HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem when the camera caught security guards battling with a woman who was saying, “get your hands off me.” That woman was Florynce, and Caroline’s interest was piqued. “I was captivated,” she said. “I had to know everything about her.” The piece, Let it Flo! The Life and Times of Flo Kennedy, Radicalism’s Rudest Mouth, became Caroline’s dissertation. Steinem has seen the show and, according to Caroline, has been “an amazing advocate and patron of the work.” Caroline will premiere the show on February 17 in New York.
Caroline, who was an understudy for the Broadway production of Doubt, won the Helen Hayes Award, Best Supporting Actress, for her performance at the National Theatre. Right now, her plate is very full. Until November 13, she’s appearing in Sense and Sensibility at Folger Shakespeare Theater. Performances for The Christians will begin on November 16 and when we spoke, the cast was beginning rehearsals. She’s excited about the opportunity to work with Gregg Henry. “I’m so glad that Theater J has taken on [The Christians],” she said. “What I love is that Greg and the artistic team made no assumptions about any of our own spiritual proclivities.” Caroline said she will be listening to a podcast about a pastor who actually had the revelation that there is no hell and paid a dear price for that belief. “He questioned the nature of the dogma that they have been taught,” she said. “That is the essence of great drama. Talk about conflict!”
Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Gregg Henry
The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater
1529 16th Street, NW
Top Photo: Courtesy of Theater J
The Christians – Illustration by Donald Ely
Sense and Sensibility photo by Teresa Wood