Denzel Washington’s film version of the August Wilson play “Fences” opens around the country on Christmas Day, but it’s a story nearly 30 years in the making.
The celebrated playwright won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes in 1987 for this family drama, written while he lived in St. Paul, Minn. Wilson sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures that same year, and began working on a script. Eddie Murphy was primed to play the son of the main character, Troy Maxson, a proud former Negro Leagues baseball player who landed in prison and wound up working as a garbage collector in 1957 Pittsburgh.
But the project languished, partly because Wilson stipulated that the film, like his plays, had to be helmed by an African-American director — someone “who would approach my work with the same amount of passion and measure of respect with which I approach it, and who shared the cultural responsibilities of the characters,” as he wrote at the time.
Wilson died in 2005 without seeing his screenplay produced. In fact, “Fences” is the first of his works to be brought to the big screen. The film seems certain to be a favorite at the Academy Awards, with nominations likely for director/star Washington and Viola Davis, as Maxson’s wife.
“I wish so much that this had happened within August’s lifetime,” said his widow and producer Constanza Romero. “But things happen when they happen. And Denzel has been the most thoughtful, sincere, talented person to make that dream come true.”
Born and reared in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson lived in Minnesota from 1978 to 1990. He found his voice as a playwright while scribbling at places across the Twin Cities and got his first professional production at Penumbra Theatre.
A poet-turned-playwright, he is celebrated for his epic chronicle of 20th century African-American life. His plays include “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” about a 1920s blues singer trying to own her art and her soul; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” about a family trying to reunite after the privations of slavery, and “Jitney,” a 1970s-set work about urban renewal and legacy that recently closed at Penumbra.