SIX QUESTIONS ABOUT FENCES FOR STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON
I saw the film Fences and most appreciated Stephen McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono in it because I think Bono represents in August Wilson’s screenplay the common Black worker who is trying to make a living honestly in a de-industrialized economy. Troy is making a living dishonestly by pretending to be a driver when he does not know how to drive. August Wilson shows through Troy that the way to climb the corporate ladder is to lie. This economy will allow Bono small technological advances like the refrigerator he buys, but not much more, and will soon, as this twenty first century will show us downsize him, and us, out of necessity. This message is important at a time when the U.S. economy under a Trump presidency is planning to downsize even more. For me, the message of this film encourages the forging of a life outside of the IMF-Wall Street based economy. I appreciated the work of Stephen McKinley Henderson since he played Bobo in the 1989 PBS American Playhouse of A Raisin in the Sun and was honored to have him answer a few questions about this 2016 film production of Fences.
1. What changes from August Wilson’s screenplay did Denzel Washington and Tony Kushner make for this film version that you know of?
The only line spoken that’s not in the play is “The commissioner will see you now,” spoken to Troy when he’s called to the commissioner’s office.
2. ShadowAndAct.com run by Tambay Obenson, reported a year ago that Paramount Pictures was initially presented with a list of Black Directors to direct Fences by Wilson, his lawyer, and Warrington Hudlin two decades ago, but Paramount declined all of them. What do you think made Scott Rudin’s effort this time around, to bring Denzel on as a director of this screenplay, so successful?
Denzel’s storied career as a bankable actor, the fact that he’s directed two other films, and along with the incomparable Viola Davis headed the Tony winning revival, made it a very wise decision.
3. While I found Denzel’s direction impeccable, after reading Dr. Sandra Shannon’s interview with August Wilson in 1991, I thought about August Wilson’s wishes for a Black director “who had some sensibilities to the culture.” I wondered why Scott Rudin and Paramount could not secure a Black film director “who had some sensibilities to the culture” who was trained exclusively in film directing to direct this Fences film. Do you think Hollywood studios in general still have an aversion to Black directors who exclusively direct like Bill Duke and in what ways could this Fences film open the door to more Black directors who have “some sensibilities to the culture”?
Bill Duke is a wonderful director with whom I’ve worked on two PBS American Playhouse films in the 80’s and 90’s. He is also a wonderful actor. Spike Lee has made three remarkable films with Denzel and Spike himself was an actor in two of them. He is also another possibility among many others. But like all the synchronicity that has accompanied August’s singular mission, Denzel was destined to be present and prepared when he was needed just as Lloyd Richards was perfectly positioned at the O’Neil Playwrights Center and Yale Repertory when he was needed. The film speaks for itself. And it is now a reality in a season with several other wonderful films by African American film directors and producers. There has been good work for many years. We arrive on giants shoulders. They brought us to these opportunities. Ossie Davis once said, “None of us could be mountain climbers were it not for the mountain movers who came before us.” This journey did not just begin nor does it depend on studios or awards ceremonies to justify it’s worthiness. It speaks well of those institutions when they honor good work but they don’t make the work good.
4. My concern about excluding a Black film director for Fences speaks to what August Wilson said about “the Black Theater” in his 1998 essay “The Ground On Which I Stand,” (http://www.yavanika.org/classes/reader/Wilson1.pdf) where he said that “we make a target for cultural imperialists who seek to empower and propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas and see the Blacks as woefully deficient.” In what ways does this production of Fences, Stephen avoid being a target of cultural imperialists?
In no way actually. The focus in making art can never be to avoid something. It must always be to cause something. If the wrong people don’t oppose you, you’re not doing something right. Even the artist has something to learn from the work they create. The work is greater than us or any cause, that’s why it outlives us and our issues.
5. What does the success of this film Fences mean for you as an artist and given both you and Denzel’s history of the Negro Ensemble Company, what do you think the success of this film says about the Negro Ensemble Company, the New Federal, and other companies producing Black theater?
I was never a member of NEC. I am proud to have worked briefly for Woodie King Jr. of New Federal. Your point I think is well founded. Without these institutions there would be no starting place for performing artists. These same institutions inspired me as a young man in far away Kansas and Missouri. The St. Louis Black Repertory offers a starting place, as does Karamu in Cleveland and Playwrights Theatre in Pittsburgh. This film has the potential to honor all the small Afrocentric institutions for keeping the mirrors clean that reflect our lives.
6. In his talk with Karen Hunter about Fences, Denzel wanted to stress the universal appeal of Fences, not just being a Black story but a universal story. While this story is universal, it is also describing Black families in the postwar U.S. North. What messages do you think this play has for the Black family today in the twenty first century?
The message is finally, no matter what the politics of the moment may be, our legacy is that of triumph together. Like all great dramatic literature Fences is timeless. It speaks to whatever the Black family faces today, tomorrow and always. Time is not the content, it is simply the context.
Thank you so much, Stephen McKinley Henderson, for your time. –RF.