The Intimate World of August Wilson’s Fences

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, and Stephen Henderson, has been gaining a lot of critical buzz. Fingers crossed that the Oscars this year aren’t #SoWhite, because the cast of Fences render Oscar worthy performances. I sat with Mykelti Williamson, who plays Gabriel and Stephen Henderson, who plays Bono, on a rainy San Francisco morning for a brief conversation to discuss their dynamic roles in Fences and what it’s like to live in August Wilson’s world.

[SS]: The film has so many universal truths as most of August Wilson’s plays do. As black men acting in this film, there is a very specific world that August Wilson’s characters inhabit. Did you borrow from your lives in any way to fully realize these roles?

[MW]: We are Americans, but we are Africans. We have a different kind of communication. It’s instantaneous communication. In the grander world, you can take a minute to invite someone to Thanksgiving. However, in the black world, it’s “Thanksgiving. Who coming?”  It’s quick. August Wilson knows who we are, he speaks our language and it’s easy for us to come to it. August said he wanted black directors directing his work. It’s no different from a Jewish director who has a background understanding Yiddish, directing a Yiddish play. His or her experience elevates the direction.

[SH]: Absolutely! Amen!

Gabriel Maxson, played by Mykelti Williamson, is pictured in a scene from the 2016 Denzel Washington film, Fences.

[SS]: What role do you think shame plays in Troy’s relationship with Gabriel?

 

[MW]: I think shame plays a powerful role in Troy’s relationship with Gabriel. Troy is 53 years old and in the words of August Wilson, “53 years old and if it wasn’t for his brother having a plate in his head.” Troy wouldn’t have anything and he knows that. Troy has to live with that demon chasing him every single day. He is ashamed of the man that he is and the choices he has to make to survive. He has to use his younger brother’s military injury to survive and I think that’s a great source of shame for Troy.

[SS]: How do you think Troy’s relationship with Bono evolves over the course of the film?

[SH]: They begin and they are the very best of friends. They met in prison and Bono has been lead by Troy as a follower for many, many years, and it has served him well. It has been very good for him. One of the best things that has ever happened in his life was meeting Troy Maxson. And because of the way Troy helped him, he feels the need to help [Troy] when the times come. It is because of what my mentor did for me that I want to be there for him, when he goes against his own principles. Their friendship survives, but it changes.

[SS]: Right, and you definitely see that. Do you think at any point Bono evolves past Troy?

[SH]: I don’t think he evolves past Troy. I think he moved into the center of his own life, instead of just being a satellite of someone else’s life. But Troy helps him with that as well. The same thing that makes you laugh, makes you cry sometimes.

Troy and Bono walk home, in a scene from the 2016 Denzel Washington film, Fences, starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and others.

[SS]: You worked with August Wilson quite a lot and you were relatively close to him. Did you feel a pressure to uphold his legacy?

[SH]: You said relatively, and you are right. Everything is relative. I met a guy who said to me in Pittsburg, “You are in Freddie’s place.” I said, “Freddie’s play, what do you mean?” He said, “You are in Freddie’s Kittel’s play.”

[The man] knew August when he was a child, when his name was Freddie Kittel, before he became August Wilson. That’s someone that knew him for a really long time. I knew him from 1993, until his death. I can say I’m a long time friend, because I will be his friend for a long time. Long past his death.

What he meant to me, what he gave me, I will cherish it forever, but I know he will be pleased with this work coming into fruition the way it did. It don’t come when you want it, but it’s right on time. He put these 10 plays out there, he did the work, and then he left us. I could see in his living that there was a mission to it.

For me to get to apply the trade that I practice and to get to do it on his work and to get to do it with these men and women that came together. And I’m talking about everyone behind the scene. Everybody’s step was guided to be a part of this and its crafted with love and respect. The movie is made with love and respect.

[SS]: It shows.

[SH]: And [August Wilson] will be too. He will be glad that you are accepting it.

Pictured left to right: Mykelti Williams and Stephen Henderson, stars in the 2016 Denzel Washington film, Fences, based on the August Wilson play.

[SS]: It is a film that needed to have happened. It is important to the legacy of African American filmmaking. One thing we do at REELYDOPE is ask the people we interview for their REELYDOPE recommendations. Do you have any for our readers?

[MH]: I know people don’t have time to read so I recommend audiobooks. Robert Kiyasaki, the guy who wrote “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” wrote a book called the “Cashflow Quadrant.” I highly recommend it for all young people and all people who want to understand what’s coming economically. There is a shift happening right now and if you want to be prepared, you need to get up on the “Cashflow Quadrant.”

[SH]: We live in an age of great documentary. This is probably one of the greatest periods in documentary. I will ask all of the readers to make sure that they are aware of some of the great documentarians. I particularly suggest the 13th. [Ava DuVernay] has really put something wonderful together, that is constructive and useful.

[SS]: Ava DuVernay is amazing. Thank you gentlemen for taking the time to speak to me. Your performances are truly wonderful.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Samiat Salami’s life goal is to earn enough money to hire someone else to write her bio. In person, she is the African girl with the confusing accent. She is currently writing and developing a web series about two ambiguously ethnic girl-women — it is named EASY.  She can be found browsing ethical clothing shops she can’t afford in Oakland or on her therapist’s couch. If you know the answer to what it all means, ‘it’ in this situation meaning life, let her know at samiatsalami.com. If you also want to pay her to write more rants on the internet, that’s cool too. IG/Twitter