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Adapting August Wilson: How his play 'Fences' became a movie (and why so much of his work hasn't)

When August Wilson received word in 2005 that he had inoperable Stage IV cancer, he was not just personally but professionally disconsolate: There was still so much work to do. 

At 60, the African American playwright had accomplished enough for a dozen lifetimes, completing the canon of 10 black-oriented plays known as the American Century Cycle — not to mention bagging two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award. But he had a new play he was fiddling with. A script. A novel. And, oh yes, there were some platforms his most acclaimed work had yet to reach.

“I think he felt proud of his achievements and faced death the way he faced life: courageously and uncompromisingly,” said Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, as well as his costume designer and all-around sounding board. “But August wanted two things to happen that hadn’t happened. He wanted ‘Jitney’ [his 1970s-set play about Pittsburgh cab drivers] to finally be on Broadway. And he really, really wanted this movie to come into being.”

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“This movie” is an adaptation of his 1983 stage masterwork “Fences,” which Wilson had been working on for so long that it at one time had cast a red-hot Eddie Murphy … as a teenage character.

Five months after the diagnosis, Wilson died in his longtime hometown of Seattle, the drama no closer to reaching the screen than when Paramount had optioned it in 1987.

More than a decade after Wilson’s death, vindication has arrived with the release of a “Fences” film starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The movie’s backstory shows how race was not just an animating force but a complicating factor in the life of the self-taught Pittsburgh playwright — and how those complexities continue today.

“I think it’s very difficult for a progressive artist,” said Davis, who has starred in three Wilson plays. “What August does is he makes you sit with the pathologies of African American life — sitting with the average, everyday Negro hearing their pain, joy, humor, sexuality, frustration — and saying that, believe it or not, you will see yourself in it. But for the last several months I’ve had to push the message that this movie is ‘inclusive.’ And I have to wonder: Why do I have to do that? Why can’t you have storytelling with an all-black cast and have it be considered universal?”

The film version of “Fences,” directed by Washington and based on Wilson’s own script, opened last month to a warm reception and, to date, nearly $35 million in box office.

The monologue-heavy drama stars Washington as flawed patriarch Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage collector and former Negro League ballplayer, and Davis as Troy’s wife and homemaker Rose.

Both have received acting nominations for this Sunday’s Golden Globes. It heralds a posthumous Wilson renaissance that has included his work being added to many school curricula as well as a Tony-winning 2010 “Fences” Broadway revival, also with Washington and Davis.

According to those who knew him, all these events retroactively add a happy layer to a creative life. But they don’t negate the trickiness of that existence either. Few playwrights combined such a rich sense of fictional narrative with such outspoken — and, at times, controversial — activism. And few faced the perception they were not at the level of their older — and largely white — counterparts.

“We think of August Wilson as the August Wilson we know now,” Romero said while on a trip to New York from Seattle. “But before August wrote ‘Fences’ in 1983, people said he’s great, but is he O’Neill? Is he Arthur Miller? Is he the next great American playwright? He gave himself a challenge. He had to write his 'Long Day’s Journey Into Night' or his 'Death of a Salesman.'”

The story of how that opus — which examines the regrets and recriminations of middle age, the ‎vagaries and the victims of child-raising — reached Hollywood is also fraught.

Wilson had worked on numerous drafts of the screenplay, hoping with each passing year that “Fences” would be a movie. But nothing came of it.

“He wanted it, not in a way that was obsessive, but whenever it came up he’d make clear this was the one,” said Stephen McKinley - Henderson, a Wilson veteran who’s been in eight of the playwright’s works and starred as Troy’s pal Bono in both the “Fences” revival and movie. “This was the universal story he wanted everyone to see.”

But development would only get seriously underway several years after the writer’s death when producer Scott Rudin sent a script to Washington, hoping he might consider a film. The actor-director said he wanted to try Broadway and go from there, leading to the 2010 revival. Washington later realized he wanted to direct and star in it, and brought much of the revival cast with him.

Key to the adaptation was finding ways to preserve the drama and language without making it feel static. And if “it seems like a play” has been the chief criticism of the “Fences” film, that was partly by design. Washington famously added just one line — that Troy’s supervisor “will see you now”. Even the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, hired as a consultant, was there to advise mainly on blocking, pacing and other issues that didn’t pertain to dialogue.

“We tried to change it visually, not verbally,” said Todd Black, one of the film’s producers, noting the movie switching one scene from the play’s familiar backyard to a bar, and using a cinematic device of a montage to convey the passage of time.

Indeed, little has been lost in the language. The conversations inside the working-class home in the pre-Civil Rights moment conveyed something larger about black but also human experience, and its story of hope and has-beens feels as jolting in 2017 as it did when it was first staged on Broadway, with James Earl Jones, 30 years ago. 

Still, why a “Fences” movie didn’t happen in the 1990s or early 2000s remains a mystery: Wilson, after all, was at the peak of his theater popularity. And the studios were still regularly making human-scaled dramas.

It certainly hurt that Wilson insisted on a black director; he didn’t feel a non-black director would connect culturally — a desire expressed in a high-profile Spin magazine essay.  (“Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions," he wrote.)

That need led to a parting of ways with Barry Levinson, who had been attached, and a new host of development hurdles.

The project also ran up against a Wilsonian perfectionism. “I think August was of the notion that if it was going to be done wrong, don’t do it at all,” McKinley Henderson said.

Romero said at the time of his death her husband was not only working on a new play and novel but another film script, this one set during the Boxer Rebellion. It was the kind of project that took his mind off a nagging theatrical frustration—that a lone play in the Cycle, “Jitney,” had not made it to Broadway, despite success around the U.S. and in the U.K.

It also won't be lost on observers that a man who wrote 10 of the most acclaimed plays in modern America had never before had a feature film made of his work. (a Hallmark TV movie was made of “The Piano Lesson” the 1930s-set work that won Wilson one of his two Pulitzers.) Did other plays — from the music-business depths of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" and “Seven Guitars” to the 1980s world of street hustling of “King Hedley II” — not make it to the screen because they were seen as too specific, too subcultural, too black, for largely white financiers and producers?

“It’s a great and difficult question,” said Harry Elam, a Stanford University professor and Wilson scholar. “My cynical answer is that a story with black actors is seen as a ‘black film,’ while a movie like ‘Ordinary People’ with upper-middle class, white New Yorkers is seen as a movie about — just look at the title — ordinary people.”

Still, he said, “You do have to remember that the work of August Wilson is not as easy as some other playwrights to change for the screen.” (That is due to his revered status but also to his executor; Romero is a genial presence but known for her conservatism in licensing her late husband's work. “I’m not beating down people’s doors in Hollywood,” she concedes.)

“And some of the plays are three hours long,” Elam noted.

That said, HBO has acquired the other nine works in the cycle and set Washington as their godfather and producer, with the 1920s-set “Ma Rainey” first up. Washington says he has an impulse to guide them even if Wilson never seemed in a rush to make any movie besides “Fences.” “There was a relief when I finished this one. ‘I didn’t mess it up,’” Washington said, laughing. “So I say, let’s do one at a time and see how it goes.”

Wilson‎ was a voluble figure in his lifetime, at times a thorn in the side of the white establishment. Most prominently, he and the New Republic critic Robert Brustein sparred publicly in the late 1990s over such ideas as so-called colorblind casting — a development that added both ideological and controversial glosses to Wilson’s reputation. —whether black men and women should play white roles (Wilson felt no)—and funding specifically for African-American theaters(Wilson argued for more).

The  war of words led to a sold-out debate at New York’s Town Hall, at which matters were civil but tense. When Brustein at one point said he was reassured to learn Wilson was a “teddy bear,” the playwright waved it off: ''I may be personable, but I assure you I am a lion,'' he replied.

And while the trend can be to paper over the rough spots after the death of a literary great, those who knew Wilson describe contradictions: A man, say, known for his big personality and forthrightness who often stood off to the side at receptions for his own openings. Or a playwright who was so prolific but mystical, even at times scattered, about the process. “He didn’t really write a lot down. It was in his head,” Romero said. “We’d be sitting at breakfast and August would say, ‘the character is speaking to me, he’s begging to get in the play.’”

An artist who wrote often about loss and absence,—the disappearance of Loomis’ youth in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” the vanishing of the old neighborhood in the restaurant of “Two Trains Running”—  Wilson has in a way become more potent after his death. His sudden passing lends him a certain aura, a sense that a person who had meticulously chronicled every decade of the 20th century, as the mostly Pittsburgh-based cycle did, is now our best hope for understanding a bygone era (and, perhaps, how we reached this charged racial moment).‎

That gives “Fences” an added reason for being, and gave an A-list cast additional motivation to come aboard. “I don’t think August could foresee it would be done, let alone in the manner it was done,” McKinley Henderson said, pensively.

Washington said that when he spends time with Romero on the press circuit, “I can only imagine what she feels — the joy, the pride, the pain, the loneliness. She lived it; she’s living it.” 

Wilson’s widow acknowledges the what-could-have-been moments that have been flashing through her mind. “I think it’s not easy watching our daughter grow up without him. She was 8 when he died; she’s 19 now.”

She paused, emotional. “It was important for him to have the ‘Fences’ movie done. It didn’t happen in his lifetime. But it happened in mine.”

And then there’s this piece of vindication: On Jan. 19 a Wilson work will once again open on Broadway. The play this time? “Jitney.”

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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