From the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the more recent August: Osage County, a movie adaptation of a stage play is nothing new in entertainment. But a film that reunites nearly the full Broadway cast? That’s different. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s buzzed-about picture Fences. Not only do he and co-star Viola Davis reprise their Tony-winning roles as Troy and Rose Maxson from the award-winning 2010 Broadway revival, but Stephen McKinkley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson also return in their original Broadway roles. Davis has now also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in the film awards.
Washington sought the wide exposure of cinema for Wilson’s work. “It means it’s an opportunity for millions of people to see it now instead of thousands,” he tells Playbill. “And, understanding it’s a universal story,” Davis continues. “It’s not just a story about a black family; it’s a story about the human condition.”
With the Tony-winning revival serving as a rock-solid foundation, how much did the cast carry over from their Broadway outing? “The text,” says Henderson, who plays Mr. Bono. “That’s all. The only thing that informs me doing it six years later is the same text.”
“Denzel said the play was the play,” adds Hornsby, who plays Troy’s oldest son. “I think we had to reinvestigate, reexamine the material and come at it with fresh eyes. You can’t help but do that, because I’m taking a character [and] I’m six years older than I was. I’m married six years longer. I now have a son I didn’t have then. I’m a father. And so, because of that, I’m thinking about different things. It can’t help but enrich the work.”
More impactful than the six-year gap was the immediacy of the camera compared to the stage. “These are people being alive in the moment,” says Williamson, who plays Gabe, the disabled brother to Washington’s Troy. “This is much more intimate than Broadway, and from the intimacy, it gives birth to a lot of other discovery.”
Yet, many film critics say that the film’s power feels like that of a play. “Whenever people feel like you’re speaking above a whisper, they feel like you are being too big or chewing up the scenery. But [the moments] have to be out there, as they were on the stage,” Davis told Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps that rawness is the one thing that followed this cast from stage to screen. That and the brilliance of playwright August Wilson.
“August’s words, August’s stories, they never leave you,” says Hornsby.
“He is a genius,” says Washington. “He. Is. A. Genius. It was a privilege and an honor and a responsibility to bring his work to film.”