I remember it was 1987, and I was ‘newbie’ when it came to Broadway shows. I had seen a lot of musicals, but only a handful of straight plays. One time I was at the TKTS boards and couldn’t decide what to see, and decided on ‘Fences,’ To be honest, I had never seen a ‘black’ play so it was going to be my first one, and I didn’t know what to expect, or if I could relate. But I went in and I remember being blown away by it, and especially by the performance of James Earl Jones. And I was also awakened by my ignorance that this is a ‘black play.’ It’s just a play, of course, documenting on the human experience, regardless of color. In a lot of ways it was a lesson for me.
Cut to a couple of years ago, when I saw the Broadway production starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. I am still amazed how moving the play was, and the star wattage was blinding that it was a different experience for me, how I looked at these characters differently, with Denzel’s winning smile, and Viola’s intensity.
So of course I just had to see the movie version, directed by Washington itself. Blown up, these characters are even larger than life, Troy maxson as terrifying and complicated as ever, and Washington is here with his movie star smile on screen to soften a lot of the edge. it’s definitely a different take than Jones’, for sure, but this performance needed Washington’s to shine more. Viola Davis deserves all the awards she will get for her Rose, though at times she is maybe a bit too Juilliard for my taste. But maybe that’s me looking for holes because she is as powerful here as she is on stage, and when she gets to that big monologue scene, everyone will be shattered in their seats.
And all these years, the play is still the thing – this one a portrait of a black man in the 1950s in working class America. Washington doesn’t open the story a lot, and it didn’t need to. One never feels closed in by the set-up. And my own lesson in 1987 still prevails to someone thinking twice about watching this movie – this is all about the human experience of living, and loving, and surviving. No skin color is immune to that.