Stephen McKinley Henderson and Jovan Adepo on “Eternal” Fences—Fathers, Sons and Lost Dreams Haunt August Wilson’s Landmark American Drama
It’s a rarity in American film to observe some of the best actors working, delivering some of the most powerful dialogue of the last century—and in close-up, no less—but that is precisely what you get in Fences, Denzel Washington’s screen version of August Wilson’s landmark play about an African-American family struggling with demons of failure and regret circa 1957 Pittsburgh.
Denzel Washington is Wilson patriarch Cory Maxon, a could-have-been major-league ballplayer turned garbage collector whose personal failures manifest as a sort of command-control prison for his long-suffering wife, Rose (Davis) and teenaged son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), himself courting a football scholarship and road out of their working-class Hill District neighborhood.
In a reverential film treatment that respects dialogue and performance above all, longtime character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson is Bono, Troy’s coworker and best friend who cautions him against making an unavoidably devastating admission. And Adepo is the young son who will come into his own—and up against—his father, one of dramatic literature’s towering, tragic figures.
I recently caught up with Henderson and Adepo, who together project an appealing sort of old pro/new kid on the block symmetry, sharing their experience in Washington’s adaptation, one that found Adepo in awe of his seasoned co-stars and McKinley revising a character most important in his career canon.
Stephen, you have lived with Fences for quite a while given your history with the piece onstage. It would be great to hear from your perspective what the story is really about, and what this particular version was about for you versus others you have experienced.
Stephen McKinley Henderson: It is so much about family, extended family and how you get to know yourself and accept flaws in other family members who accept their own flaws. That fortifies you to survive whatever comes your way. So it is a timeless story because it is about the eternals—mother, father, sister, brother, love, envy, greed, remorse and regret. It’s what Sophocles wrote about. It is what Shakespeare wrote about. It is about what Chekov and Ibsen wrote about. August Wilson writes it from the context of the Hill District and from the African-American culture. Any playwright that writes a play about each decade of the 20th Century wants you to be mindful of legacy and history, as do all great playwrights. It is a joy to be a part of it because as I grow in my life—I have visited the play and others of his at different times of my life—I get a deeper understanding of it, because it was written from such a deep place that you cannot ever say that it means whatever one specific thing. At different times in your life it means different things. Whatever an audience brings to it they are going to walk away full. As long as they don’t come sitting on their heels to judge it and they open themselves to it, they are going to find something valuable.
And this version, with Denzel at the helm? He’s wearing both the acting and directing hats.
SMH: Well, you know to do it on film and know that you are probably going to be seen by more people that have seen the place since it was written is a great responsibility and it humbles you. It humbled all of us and we always spoke on that. We are not the only actors who can do this, we are simply the actors that were blessed to be able to do this. You want to make sure that you are bringing your A-game, and if you are playing with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, you’d better be bringing your A-game. The main concern is not to be the weak link in the chain! Don’t let me be the weak link baby! It really humbles you to do great dramatic literature, and this is one of the masterpieces of dramatic literature.
Denzel is as true to (August Wilson) as anybody has ever been to anything in terms of dialogue. And the other thing that was brilliant is about where he decided to take it when the scene setting takes place and the story changes. It really fit. For example, we would always have a drink of gin. Every Friday, we would buy a bottle and share the bottle. And then he chose to put the scene in the bar, where the one time we don’t drink together we had options of every kind of liquor that could possibly be there! But it wasn’t the same. There are times like that and metaphors for the place, and the fact that we were in Pittsburgh and Denzel’s insistence that we do it in the Hill District—Sugar Top on the hill—brought so much, because you knew you were on the streets where August used to walk and where he heard these voices. The people of Pittsburgh welcomed us and are in the background. Those are not Hollywood actors. They are Pittsburgh people! So it was just rich.
JA: To me, he was a teacher all the time. And I used this opportunity to approach it as an actor’s master class, and used the opportunity to be around him, Viola, Mr. Henderson and the rest of the talented cast. Every day when we were in scenes, even if he was in the scenes or not, he was always trying to see where my head was, what types of choices I was making and things like that. As far as him with the director’s hat versus the actor’s hat, I would like to say that it was seamless.
SMH: It was seamless. He was so prepared. I used to wonder when the dude slept! They would bring us there early and he had already been there for a couple hours, and then we would get to go home and he was still staying there. But he had a shorthand with his crew. Because Denzel has done a lot of movies, he had met a lot of those people along the way and when he started directing, he had people that had worked on Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters who were also a part of this. And we had all worked on a lot of movies together.
So they were a family themselves, and then we got our band back together. Some of us did it on Broadway, and then we brought in a couple of new hot players and we started working on those old tunes with a few new arrangements and the families sort of merged, you know? So it was really seamless. But what was amazing was to be in a scene with him and see that laser focus, and then he would look around at you, and then say, ‘No, man, move that over there a little bit.’ I never saw him take a peek, but he knew what was happening; 360° he knew what was going down.
Both of you share big scenes with Denzel and Viola. What was it like being in that crossfire?
SMH: First of all, I had the best seat in the house. I did onstage also. Nobody could have paid for my seat! I got to sit there and listen. But because it was always so fresh it keeps you fresh. And they are two of the greatest that ever did it, really. And then to have August Wilson in their hands? So it’s an embarrassment of riches, but it definitely humbles you. But once you start to play together it’s not just the notes, but it becomes the music. Everybody stars playing and it becomes music. That’s the joy. If you get a response from Denzel’s eyes or one from Viola, you were saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s on!’
Stephen, since you were a teenager in the later era of Martin Luther King, what did you experience in that era that taught you about the way America looks at Black culture and society? And how we have evolved since then?
SMH: When I was in junior high, I was a paperboy and I remember delivering them when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On the paper route, I saw our culture a bit then. Malcolm (X) used to talk about the ‘ballad of the bullet.’ I saw a time when they were using the bullet. There were people who saw change coming—America trying to live up to the Constitution that it had been hypocritical about—and they got nervous. They didn’t go to the ballot. They went to the bullet. They took down John Kennedy. They took down Martin. And they took down Bobby (Kennedy); Malcolm and then Fred Hampton right here. So when you see that, you understand that. So this recent thing where America was afraid, and was about to become America—for real—and having another America that they wanted to go back to, they at least used the ballot. Just as they were saying somebody was rigging it, they had their rig going.
Condoleezza Rice said, “You have to understand that racism is America’s birth defect.” It is not a cold. It is not the flu. It is not a little fever. It is a birth defect which started out with one of the greatest documents in the world and did not do any of it. Did something to the native people- we just hand Standing Rock; just went down.
Promises are made to be broken, many times. But even with all that, we still have these periods of absolute, incredible progress. I grew up in the Midwest and I knew that America would never not vote for the right person because of their color. So we had two terms of Barack Obama and unfortunately there are these people who are afraid, and they always try to roll as back. But they can never roll us back as far as we go forward.
Jovan, you knew that you wanted to be an actor from a very young age. I understand that your mother encouraged to you. She took you to plays and movies and things like that, and helped instill passion in you. Did you ever think that you would be at a point where you are playing with all these people at the top of their games, speaking these words by one of the greatest of American playwrights? I’d like to hear a bit on this very quick trajectory for you, because frankly, given the level of the content and your costars, you might not always have that high bar of talent surrounding you.
JA: Yeah. I had done some plays in middle school and for the church when I was in high school, but I had no intentions of being a professional actor until I moved to California in 2011 to pursue writing. A family friend suggested that I take acting classes so that I could do commercials to make money on the side so that I could write without having to get a traditional job. But it wasn’t until I had gone to a couple of those classes and each of the instructors told me that I should consider taking scene study classes and exploring it deeper. That was when I met Viola through her older sister. I met her in Maryland; we went to the same church. She was the one who put me on the right path in terms of studying different techniques, seeing plays whenever I could see them and reading as many as I could get my hands on. She was the one who got me in the right frame of mind to take it seriously. That was when I fell in love with it.
This entire experience, just being able to be around actors of this caliber and be involved in this type of rich material is something I have thought about with actors who are just starting out, who do not get a lot of opportunities to be around these types of projects.
Or even later.
JA: Right. Some people wait a long time to get that call and some never do. I have definitely been able to keep that in perspective and I am very appreciative of everything that has come as a byproduct of doing this job. So whatever happens in the future, as Denzel has expressed to me, ‘Just keep your head down and keep pushing forward and searching for interesting and complex characters to play. Get your butt on the stage and do something.’
Give me a sense of that big scene when you finally confront Troy, and what you must have been thinking in that moment, going up against Denzel.
JA: Absolutely. That was one of the things that we worked out during rehearsals. He had complete faith in what I was bringing to it in the audition. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself going to the set every day because I was working with a giant like Denzel. But he had pulled me aside a couple of times and said, ‘Just do the same thing that we did in the audition.’ It was like a game of tennis. I would hit the ball over, he would respond and I would hit it back. Action gives a reaction. Just keep it simple like that. Don’t search for an end result. We know Cory is angry, but you don’t need to come in angry. It is a journey. It was just being comfortable with the choices I was making early on and not being afraid to take risks. That was really all that we kept in mind while we were going to that scene.
As far as the intensity of it, that is just something related to life experience. I think all of us have had an experience disagreeing with our fathers before, and I don’t know if it was always a severe as it was with Cory and Troy, but you did not agree with everything your pop said. Sometimes you were just like, ‘Shut up, dad.’ And he would say, ‘What did you say?’ And you would say, ‘nothing’ and walk away. That was just intensified based on the circumstances of the story. It was easy to do with Denzel there. He brings that out of you and messes with you. Like taking the saw out of my hand and throwing it on the ground, which was just to piss me off. That is a testament to his ability to get it out of you. He is a brilliant man and it was a pleasure working with him.