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Washington treaded carefully
in adapting Fences to film
When August Wilson's wid-
ow first toured the set for the
new movie based on his play
Fences, she carefully examined
the modest two-story brick
house, the small yard and the
tree where a ball hung from a
rope --- and she wept.
Constanza Romero, who lost
her playwright husband in 2005,
has visited many theatrical sets
for Wilson's most popular and
perhaps most personal play, but
the one used for its first film adap-
tation reconnected her with him.
"It was like, 'Oh, my gosh. I'm
inside August Wilson's world.
This is August Wilson's world
complete,'" Romero recalled.
"It was just such a feeling that
August's words had become
Romero found herself in tears,
trying to catch her breath, when
she glanced at Denzel Washing-
ton, the film's director and star.
"Oh, I understand," he told her.
"I understand those tears."
The tears were as much out
of relief as gratitude. Adapting
Wilson's masterpiece has taken
more than 30 years and it's easy
to see why: It's a two-hour, dia-
logue-heavy story rooted in a front
yard in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
Washington, who won a Tony
for his performance in the Broad-
way revival of Fences seven years
ago, made some key decisions
when he was first tapped to trans-
late the play onto 35 mm film.
First, he reunited five of the
main actors from the Broadway
revival --- himself, Viola Davis,
Stephen McKinley Henderson,
Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Wil-
liamson. Then he added up-and-
comers Jovan Adepo and Saniyya
Then he put them in an actu-
al front yard in Pittsburgh's Hill
District. There would be no Hol-
lywood sound stages this time.
Just a worn, small home with
plastic-covered furniture in the
neighbourhood where Wilson
"Once it was clear we were all
getting that same band back to-
gether, with a couple of new hot
players and a little different ar-
rangement --- and doing it in Pitts-
burgh --- then I knew that there
was no way it wasn't destined to at
least be respectful," said Hender-
son, who's performed a number of
It seems to have worked. Since
opening wide on Christmas, the
Paramount release has made
US$32.4 million, making it one
of the more lucrative stage-to-
screen adaptations in recent years.
Fences, set in 1957, tells the story
of Troy Maxson, a larger-than-life
garbage man whose dashed dream
of baseball glory in a white world
of pro ball has given him a rigid,
embittered sense of responsibility
that has a profound effect on his
wife, Rose, and his sons.
Washington, who plays Maxson,
had to tread carefully, respecting
the play --- and it's stifling, claus-
trophobic quality --- but also mak-
ing it cinematic. He added short
scenes like kids playing stickball
in the street, a time-lapse mon-
tage and a few forays away from
the home that are referenced in
Henderson said he welcomed
the shift from stage to screen, say-
ing he was liberated from the need
to project his voice to the last seats
in a theatre: "You're freed to live
the text rather than perform it."
Fences is only the second time
one of Wilson's works has been
adapted for the screen. The other
time was an edited version of The
Piano Lesson that aired in 2002
on the Hallmark channel. This
version of Fences took no scalpel
to the text.
"It is in the right hands," Hen-
derson said. On why the play took
so long to be adapted, he was phil-
osophical: "If it had been done
earlier, it might not have been
More adaptations are on their
way. Washington will produce
an additional nine Wilson's plays
for HBO. Henderson, a so-called
Wilsonian soldier, hopes he might
snag a role in a few. "I'd serve if
called upon," he said, laughing.
"I'd definitely serve." (In addi-
tion, a live Jitney is opening on
Broadway on January 19.)
The irony is that Wilson him-
self wasn't really a huge movie
fan. "He was a language man,"
said Romero. "I made him watch
a lot of things with me and he en-
joyed a lot of films. But if I wasn't
with him, I think that he would
see a film."
With Fences, though, Romero is
convinced Wilson would approve.
There may even have been a su-
pernatural clue toward the end
of the "Fences" shoot that the
actors believe shows the master
playwright was on board.
In a powerful scene in which the
characters look toward heaven and
the Pearly Gates, a gate door be-
hind the performers mysteriously
closed. "That was not cinemati-
cally rigged in any way. Just at the
moment that he was trying to open
the gates, the gate opened," said
The consensus was Wilson
wanted to make an appearance.
"That's exactly where we put
that," Henderson said. (AP)
Denzel Washington, left, and Viola Davis in a scene from Fences. AP PHOTOS
Denzel Washington directed as well as stars in his adaptation of the
August Wilson play Fences.
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