Essay, Film Review

Monday Column: Fences on Screen vs Fences on Stage

Spoiler warning. You shouldn’t read this if you haven’t watched Fences in some form or another.

Fences was meant for the stage but I originally saw it on the screen because Denzel Washington decided it would be a good film for people like me to see. Denzel’s version of Fences made me hungry to go find other renditions of August Wilson’s plays, here in Vegas we got the stage rendition of Fences. The desire to watch his other work hasn’t subsided but a stage version of Fences will have to hold me over.

The stage has its limitations with set and angles but Denzel Washington’s screen version worked hard to feel like the stage on the big screen. It was benefit to have watched both versions sitting down in a theater and not at home. It was a benefit that this play was written in the 80s and not today because it likely would have been cut for time to come in under two hours. The stage version took away from Denzel Washington’s and Viola Davis’ performance because the actors in our local version had just as much strength and as much emotion as seeing the more famous actors work.



 

My wife and I have always loved the stage but we’re still novices to the world of theater acting. We see what looks interesting around town and we go watch. Then if we enjoy what we see we look into it the playwright, our theater going is built around small independent theaters in Las Vegas. We’re a long way from the headline making theaters in New York, but if you read Not Part of Your Scene you know I prefer to operate on the fringes. Experimental rock, Black Metal, Noise Rap and corner theaters in Las Vegas far away from the lights most readers of this website would be familiar with when they think about Las Vegas.

August Wilson wasn’t on my radar but I’m glad he is now. It’s a matter of the titles of his works catching my eye so I don’t miss them. It is a long list and he attempts to capture a piece of African American life over the span of ten decades in plays that are only serial in theme and not so much in plot.

From my point of view as a white male who is interested and enjoys his work this quote have the most relevance:

Mr. Wilson did not write plays with specific political agendas, but he did believe art could subtly effect social change. And while his essential aim was to evoke and ennoble the collective African-American experience, he also believed his work could help rewrite some of those rules.

“I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans,” he told The Paris Review. “For instance, in ‘Fences’ they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

Political change and political thought are best told in a manner that links people’s emotion and base moral compass. Fences has no real political activism in it except that is depicting an African American family in a certain time period. Without trying, the political overtone exists and hovers over everything all to the play’s benefit. The play itself is about a garbageman dealing with life and its obstacles the best way he knows how despite becoming an antagonist to certain other characters in the play. Yet it wouldn’t be easy to say that you could transpose working class whites and the play will be the same. So much of what made Troy who and what he is are the experiences he had to go through as an African American in that time period. A working class white character would have to have a different set of life experiences to do and react to things the way Troy does, the same goes for Rose. That’s where the genius of the script comes through. It’s both “our story” as Americans and “their story” as African Americans. A lot of good art can’t succeed at both, August Wilson succeeds at both in Fences.

These are the underlying themes that drive me to go see more of August Wilson’s work.

Fences clocks in a two and half hours. Despite my wife being enthralled with the story, she is pregnant and I could tell she was very tired. She stuck it through and was happy she was able. The length of the play would be a hindrance getting published today. Actors primarily talking with little to no action and today’s audience is supposed to sit there, today’s audience? I suppose they do sit there, because Fences and plays of similar length are still being acted in and watched. It still makes me wonder what would happen if Fences as it looks today ended up on an editor’s desk or was submitted as a screenplay. Maybe I have a bad opinion of selling and writing work as it stands today, maybe it is clearly wonderful art and would have had the same success if released today as it did in the 80s. But long form and epic is something we are saying we want more and more yet views and statistics are not always confirming that desire.

I was one of the many moviegoers who though Denzel was incredible in his role in the theatrical release of Fences and that Viola Davis as Rose was even better. After seeing local Las Vegas actors succeed at both roles, it makes wonder whether Denzel and Viola didn’t have success set up for them by a great play. The Las Vegas group most likely watched the film version of Fences and perhaps their performances were influenced by cast of the theatrical version.

There is still the matter of execution and the cast of UNLV’s Conservatory Theater proves that you can find great acting and directing in places you wouldn’t expect even to the level of Oscar winners.