ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Whiskey of Fences & The "Wrong Side of Broadway"

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: The Whiskey of Fences & The "Wrong Side of Broadway" A dram of whiskey is spilled in Fences. What does it mean? And why is the east side of Broadway the "wrong" side?
Denzel Washington in Fences
Denzel Washington in Fences Photo by Joan Marcus

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Question: In the magnificent production of Fences, Denzel Washington spills a few drops of whiskey on the ground before drinking from the bottle. This happens several times in the show. What is the significance of this action? Is it the quality of liquor or something to do with his self-esteem? — Wendy Rich, Brooklyn

Answer: Denzel Washington's character Troy Maxson is not suffering from low self-worth or auditioning as a spirits critic when he pours a bit of booze on the ground before taking a swig. The gesture, which has deep roots in the African-American community, as well as the civilized world in general, is actually a sort of tribute.

"It's a ritual and salute to those men and friends who are still in prison or who have passed on," said Kenny Leon, who directed the current Broadway revival of the August Wilson play.

The tradition is an old one, with some historians dating it back to ancient Greece, and it is still performed in regions as diverse and far-flung as Japan, Cuba, Eastern Europe and West Africa. The word libation, in fact, comes from the Latin word "libare," meaning "to pour as an offering." The origins of the practice are religious, with the first libations delivered at tribute to various gods and dieties. In time, most of these cultures also used the liquor dispensed to honor passed ancestors. However, in recent years, the ritual has also come to include loved ones who are currently incarcerated.

It's worth noting that Troy's pouring whiskey onto the ground is not written into Wilson's script, but is the invention of this particular production.

Question: Why are the theatres on the east side of Broadway often referred to as being on the "Wrong Side of Broadway?" — Playbill staff

Answer: Any Broadway producer will tell you that the theatres on the side streets to the west of Broadway are more desirable than are those on the streets to east. The general parlance is that the eastern house as on the "Wrong Side of Broadway." Prime western theatres like the Booth, St. James, Shubert, Hirschfeld, Schoenfeld and Jacobs are typically booked up as soon as they become empty. But the Lyceum, Belasco and Cort — all between Broadway and Sixth Avenue — can sometimes sit dark for months. The Belasco, for example, has been empty for more than a year (it is currently being renovated for a fall relighting). And all three houses struggle with a reputation as being the homes of flops.

The bias is decades old. Veteran press agent Shirley Herz remembered working on the Broadway premiere of the London import A Taste of Honey in 1960. "We opened at the Lyceum because nobody had much faith in it," she recalled. "Then it was a hit, and we moved it to the Booth Theatre."

Part of the problem seems to be is perception; if you say something often enough, people come to believe it. And the theatres' reputation as being unlucky is not entirely earned. The Cort, for instance, packed them in this past season, first with A View From the Bridge, and then with Fences.

Still, there is also a practical reason for the stigma, according to Herz. There is simply more foot traffic west of Broadway, she argued, and ticketbuyers are more likely to see your marquee. "44th and Shubert Alley — that's where tourists go," she said.

Others don't buy that. "I think it's just superstition," said actor Danny Burstein, who has performed in shows on both sides of the street. "Yes, there is a feeling among some that your show won't run if it is in one of those theatres. But I believe if the show is good, people will be willing to cross the street. Two of Broadway's oldest and most beautiful theaters, the Lyceum and the Belasco are on the 'wrong side' and they [have housed] interesting and worthy shows. I've played in both and can tell you that it is no more or less Broadway than any other theatre."

A recent marquee at the Cort Theatre, on the "wrong side" of Broadway.
A recent marquee at the Cort Theatre, on the "wrong side" of Broadway. Photo by Matthew Blank
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