Those April showers that bring the flowers brought a bumper crop of waterlogged first-nighters to the Cort Theatre April 26 where director Kenny Leon set up Fences until July 11. The Cort, with its tiny marquee and lobby, does not weather bad weather well, sheltering none from the storm. Soggy celebs huddled in puddles and then scurried inside to their seats without so much as a comment, requiring fast lenses from the photographers and track shoes for the print press.
Sprinting through the spring rain were Mike Nichols; the "Precious" Oscar nominee, Gabourey Sidibe; Joan Didion, 75, and Ruby Dee, 85; James Gandolfini and wife; Jesse Eisenberg; former heavyweight champ Michael Spinks; Jessica Lange and old-flame Mikhail Baryshnikov (they share a now-grown daughter together); Natalie Cole and Denise Rich; a baseball-capped, still-sandpaper-throated Harry Belafonte; John Krasinski with Emily Blunt; Mexican actress Mizan Nunes, and TV talk-show cook Rachael Ray. All had come to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis challenge the Tony-winning bar set by James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in 1987, and the drama awaiting them inside the house outweighed the drama outside.
August Wilson's Tony winner, and the first of his two Pulitzer-Prize plays, tells of The Maxsons of the Hill District in Pittsburgh — the site of all but one in Wilson's cycle of ten plays exploring by-the-decades the 20th century African-American experience.
Set in 1957, Fences chronologically comes sixth in the playwright's cosmic scheme of things, but it was the second to pop out of his typewriter on to the stage. A mountain of a man, Jones ruled Troy Maxson's roost with an iron fist, a boom-box voice and sheer size, adhering to his own set of warped values and generally making life difficult for wife Rose and two sons, Lyons by a previous marriage and Cory by his current one. The sins of his father he passed onto them, partly because of the rotten breaks he has gotten in life. Troy had early promise as a baseballer in the Negro League, but he spent 15 of his peak years in prison on a murder charge, and, when he was released, his best option was to be a sanitation worker. As the play begins, he has worked his way up to driving a garbage truck instead of filling it.
Washington delivers the domestic abuse in subtler strokes and smaller doses but no less effectively. Decency has clung Washington's persona for years, and it lingers here. But it's deceptive decency. He exudes a good-old-boy quality that camouflages his menace until, suddenly, it snaps, lashes out and wounds those he says he loves.
The contradiction of his decent-guy image has produced one of his two Oscar-winning performances (the rogue cop in "Training Day"), and it seems to be pointing him toward a Tony-winning one. "Well, it's an interesting social experiment, we'll say," he told the press after the show. "I don't know so much tonight with an invited audience, but there's an audience that's coming to see me, and I give them what they think they're there for — and then the play heads in another direction so it's really an interesting experiment to see if they stick with me. And, thank goodness, at the end of the play — and I give Kenny credit — he has that family portrait start the curtain call. It's, like, 'Okay, we 're just kidding. We're all friends.' There's a lot of humor in it.
"Kenny's a great director. He keeps going and creates a great experience and really unifies everybody. Team guy — one of the best directors I've ever worked with."
Washington credits producer Scott Rudin with jump-starting this project when he pitched the actor the screenplay of Fences. "I think it's the only screenplay that August Wilson wrote. Scott said, 'What do you want to do? Act in it? Produce it? Direct it?' I said, 'Well, I'll read it first.' Which I did, and that reminded me of what a great play it was so then I read the play. A few times it broke my heart.
"I knew I wanted to get back on the stage. I'd been here five years ago with Julius Caesar so I knew I wanted to get back. And I'm the right age for this now. I'm, like, 'Scott, now's the time. I'm the right age for this. Let's do the play.' So he called Carole Shorenstein Hays, who produced the original, and here we are."
Director Leon believed that the contradiction between Washington's image and his role here was worth playing with. "Denzel has to explore the joyous sides of the character and he has to explore the dark sides of his character. What makes the character work is that he embraces those fully — he embraces the laughter fully, and he embraces the darkness fully — and, when an actor can do that on a dime like Denzel can do, it's fascinating to watch. He was easy to work with because he's so giving."
Leon has directed all ten of Wilson's plays — and Fences five times. "This play is a true classic," he contended. "It always comes across as new so it's different, depending on the cast and the design team. The set here [by the great Santo Loquasto] was different. The cast was different. They had more of a physical, raw, athletic approach to it. There was more humor, there was more life, and I think that it just speaks to us in a different way because, now that August has finished all ten plays, we can look back and see how Fences talks to the other nine.
"I think if August was here he would have a big grin on his face. And I should know. I worked on his last two Broadway shows. He left us too soon. The last thing he was doing was working on the tenth play, but we had talked about this revival — not about casting, just the idea of it. I wanted to direct it, and he wanted me to be a part of it. I always wish he was here with us to see it. On some levels, I think he does, given the end of the play and that last spiritual moment."
[flipbook] Viola Davis, who two previous brushes with August Wilson produced a Tony nomination and an actual Tony, is the wife who bears the brunt of Troy's brutal behavior. One of his out-of-nowhere revelations in the second act rattles the foundations of the home. It draws gasps from the audience and then tears, and Davis bats back a few what appears to be real ones as she stands up to her husband.
About those real tears? "It happens," the actress admitted. "It's technique and years of training, having it beaten into me, at Juilliard. And I think that when you do the work and you leave yourself emotionally available, it just happens, falls into place."
As written, Rose speaks to her — through August. "He speaks to all African-Americans, I think. He writes about us, our life, our language, our interaction with each other, our interaction with culture, our pathos, our humor, our dreams, our desires. Yeah, he speaks to me. I see my brother, I see my father, my mom. Every part of my life I see in August Wilson's writing. And it attracts me."
She loves everything about her character. "I think she's beautiful even in her imperfections because, even in her imperfections, they're so absolutely honest. She's absolutely who she is all the time. I like her strength, I like her courage, I like the fact that you can see a liberated woman — a liberated black woman in '57 — someone who is able to see that she's in a marriage that is not working and says, 'Enough.'"
In almost all of Wilson's plays is the apparently mentally impaired oracular character, and in Fences this is Troy's brother, Gabriel (replete with a banged-up bugle). Mykelti Williamson, who plays the part, bears a striking resemblance to Washington. That's not the first time that has been noted, he said. "Denzel and I have known each other since the early '80s. We go to the same church in L.A., and, when we leave church and people see us talking to each other, they say, 'You too need to play brothers.' I never thought much of it. I just figured they just see two actors about the same height, same skin complexion, same kind of hairstyle — they're just generalizing — but it all worked out this time. It's the first time we did it."
There are sizable patches of original music by Branford Marsalis filling in the cracks of Fences. "I wrote five or six songs for the show," the composer said. "Two are at the tops of the acts, there is one piece for every scene two minutes long, which would leave the sound designers time to move things around and Kenny would have more options that way. I was very happy that they approached me, and it was a matter of doing the hard sell. For a lot of reasons that make a lot of sense, the music scene has shifted away from live musicians and more to keyboards and sound and sound effects, and I really wanted to sell them on the idea that we needed to have real musicians because it's August Wilson. He was a huge jazz fan, and it takes place in 1957. The music scene in 1957 was so incredible that we should use live musicians as opposed to trying to use synthesizer sound."
Marsalis read the play several times before writing a note. "Kenny insisted that I see them in rehearsal, and I was saying, 'Well, man, it's not necessary. I have the play,' and he said, 'You're wrong. You have to see them,' so I wrote all this music — in my head and on paper — because we went on a tour in Asia for three weeks. I would read the play and write, read the play and write. Then I had two or three days off so I went to New York. As soon as I saw the play, I had to rewrite. What I did was I brought my own personal experiences of how I interpreted the play into the music. When I saw them and how they interacted with each other, I had the wrong emotional content so 60 percent I had to rewrite and start over."
The rain was unrelenting, still a waterworks-in-progress when the show ended, forcing the damp crowd to slog their way over to The Bryant Park Grill in a steady downpour. Chris Rock rushed into the restaurant focused on one thing. "Steal a table. Steal a table," he muttered rather loudly to himself as he streaked by.
Baked Atlantic salmon with lemon and caper butter sauce led the buffet supper menu. Also: wild mushroom and herb ravioli with Alfredo sauce and Mediterranean chicken. A plastic covering had been thrown over the outdoor portion of the restaurant and took quite a hammering from the rain, producing watery patches on the ground. Rather than risk it, most of the revelers retired to the safe, cozy, redwood confines of the indoor dining room, where the party finally petered out around one. Washington and wife Pauletta joined the dancing in the shank of the evening.
At the table marked Washington were a few old friends like Bob Johnson (former owner of BET) and Butch Lewis (former boxing promoter).
The press was mostly missing in action for the party since interviews were done across the street in the Cellar Bar of the Bryant Park Hotel. There really was a bar in operation but no partakers. Cast and creators were delivered under an armada of umbrellas.
Enjoying nights off from their respective plays: Janet McTeer from God of Carnage, Douglas Hodge from La Cage aux Folles and Anthony Mackie from A Behanding in Spokane. There was a pair of award-winners from the last Wilson play on Broadway — 2009's Joe Turner's Come and Gone: Roger Robinson, who won the Tony, and Chad L. Coleman, who got a Theatre World Award. The latter was the picture of paternal pride: SaCha Stewart-Coleman made her Broadway debut as Washington's daughter in Fences — and just a year and ten days after Daddy's Broadway bow.
Spike Lee, who directed Washington in four films (including "Malcolm X," which won a Best Actor nod from the New York Film Critics Circle), admitted to being moved by the performances and seemed a little envious about the theatre's ability to transfer such strong emotions. "Maybe one day I will be fortunate enough to become an important director of the Broadway stage," he deadpanned, leaning into the tape recorder for a postscript: "if God is willing and the troops are around."
Ruby Dee, who qualifies as the queen mother of African-American actors, gave a regal aura to the evening just by showing up. When she played Washington's raging mom in 2007's "American Gangster," she became the second-oldest person (after Gloria Stuart of "Titanic") to be nominated for an Oscar — and Dee did that with less than ten minutes of screen time! She also co-starred with Washington in the first of his three Broadway efforts, Checkmates, which ran 33 performances in 1978.
Star Jones, who of course had her review ready, spoke right up: "Denzel was brilliant beyond belief. He inhales the stage, and Viola — I have to tell you, she took my breath away. Everybody around me was crying. I was sitting next to Tony Award winner Roger [Robinson], and he had tears coming down his face. So, I'm sitting there thinking, 'This guy is just breaking his heart so, God knows, it's breaking everybody else's heart.' It was painful, but it was beautiful. It's nice to see Denzel return to the stage because it's like his home again. It's really wonderful to see him on stage. I guess it's a credit to Denzel that I forgot I was watching Denzel Washington, and I started thinking about Troy Maxson. That means he did his job."
Other first-nighters included Jodum Perdim Walker; BET prexy Stephen G. Hill; actor-activist Hill Harper;Billy Elliot's Tony-winning director, Stephen Daldry, who's planning to get a film in before his Dumbo musical lifts off ; Nelsan Ellis of "True Blood"; Lynn Whitfield; singer Estelle; actor-director Peter Berg who just wrote "The Losers"; Ann Dexter-Jones; playwrights John Patrick Shanley and Katori Hall; director Michael Greif; the Post's Michael Riedel and Variety's Mike Fleming; Naturi Naughton from the "Fame" movie; Jasmine Guy of "A Different World"; Nora Ephron; actor Michael Jai White; producer-actressTamara Tunie and hubby, singer Gregory Generet; Sherri Shepherd of "The View"; Rosci Diaz; agent Charles Kingand Daryl Chill Mitchell.
Mother and son from the first Fences — Mary Alice and the Tony-nominated Courtney B. Vance — were the only original cast members in attendance.
"It was one of the seminal experiences of my life," Vance admitted. "I did it for three years — on and off — so I know the play and the characters inside out. This was a beautiful experience. It just washed over me. It was a pleasure to see that there was a foundation of what Lloyd [Richards, the director], August and Ben [Mordecai, the producer] and the whole team set up. It's just a brilliant piece of writing."
This second coming of Fences had Mary Alice in a state, she admitted. "All day today it has been like I was coming to the opening of this play 23 years ago. I kept getting butterflies. It was as if I was still going to come and do this play."
The emotion didn't recede after she reached the theatre. "I sat there. It was a flood of feelings, all different kinds of feelings. Denzel was born to play this role. He was splendid. So was the rest of the cast. It was really a very good production."
There was a little melancholy at play with her emotions as well. "You know, I thought about August gone, and Lloyd, and Charlie Brown who played Lyons, and I was very thankful that I was on the other side of the fence."