Fences, in theaters now, is the first August Wilson play to be adapted into a feature film backed by a major film studio (The Piano Lesson, which was first produced in 1987, was made for TV in 1995). The sixth entry in Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle”—which focuses on a former Negro League baseball star turned trash collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who takes his bitter frustrations out on his family—premiered on Broadway in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wilson died in 2005, but had already written a screenplay for the eventual cinematic version—Denzel Washington, who starred as Troy in the 2010 Broadway revival, both directed and produced it for the big screen.
Washington stars in the film as well, alongside Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Mykelti Williamson as his brother, Russell Hornsby as his older son, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as his best friend, Bono; all of these actors also reprise their roles from the revival. The new addition is Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers), who plays Troy’s sensitive and athletic younger son, Cory.
I sat down with Henderson and Adepo at a recent press stop in Chicago to talk to them about performing Wilson’s “blues iambic,” working with Washington and Davis, and why they decided to become actors.
Leah Pickett: Stephen, you’re a veteran performer of August Wilson’s plays. What do you like about performing his work?
Stephen McKinley Henderson: Well, I was trained to work on the classics and poetic playwrights, Shakespeare and so forth. So I rejoice in the fact that this great poet-playwright came along who wrote from my cultural perspective. I was challenged by Shakespeare and challenged by the Greeks, and I’m just as challenged doing August’s work. It’s not easier; it’s just as challenging and just as fulfilling.
It does have that musicality to it that Shakespeare and the classics also have. Like a song you have to get just right.
Henderson: I call it the blues iambic. That’s what it is for me. Because blues is the base, and then it has that lyricism. It’s just wonderful, wonderful to do his work.
Jovan, you’re new to the group, but I read that you workshopped the play while studying to be an actor.
Jovan Adepo: Yeah. I workshopped the scenes with Cory when I was in acting class, absolutely.
Did you draw from that experience, and also from watching the original Corys: Courtney B. Vance in the original Broadway cast, and Chris Chalk in the revival?
Adepo: I was very much aware of their performances, and I had seen them, but it wasn’t something that I looked back to once I got this part. It was like this was a singular experience. I wanted to show respect for the people who had done it before, but also bring my own fresh interpretation of the character. It was an opportunity that I knew would be nothing but a blessing to have, so I was really excited to get the chance to play the role of Cory in its entirety, for sure.
Stephen, how did you and the rest of the cast from the revival keep the rhythm fresh for the film?
Henderson: Well, it had been six years since we’d done it onstage, and Denzel gave a beautiful rehearsal period where we got any habitual behavior that might be in there—we got rid of that, because we were just sitting and talking to each other. We didn’t have the responsibility of the back row in a huge Broadway house; we had only each other’s eyes, to really take it to life level and truth level. And that’s at the core of every performance—the level of truth—and you raise it to whatever optics that back row demands. But to not have to do that frees you as an actor. It makes it so much more intimate to do. And consequently, we found all kinds of new things, so it wasn’t at all like replicating it. I always say it’s like getting a band back together that had some hits, and had to replace some members, and add one hotshot player, and we were able to rock it on out.
Jovan, you’ve talked in other interviews about what you’ve learned from Denzel and Viola. What have you learned from Stephen?
Adepo: Stephen was the one who taught me about the blues iambic: just listening to that beat, listening to that rhythm in August’s work. We had plenty of breakfasts where we just sat and we talked, and I would pick his brain whenever I could, because it’s something to just be in good company of talent.
Henderson: He picks up from everybody. And you know, it’s the ensemble, it’s all the guys: Mykelti, Russell, Denzel and I, and this young man. He really does give you faith in the future—when you run into young people like this, who really respect legacy and are humbled by their opportunities and are well up to the task, willing to do all the midnight hours, be willing to do whatever it takes to get it there. So it was a joy, really a joy, to meet this young man.
You’re also an educator. What drew you into acting, and after that, what made you want to teach acting?
Henderson: I was really fortunate. I went to a great high school in Kansas City, Kansas, and then I went to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and then I went to the Juilliard. So coming from Kansas and going through Missouri to get to New York! [laughs] And the teachers in my life. I was born in ’49, so I had a lot of teachers who taught during segregation—they were engineers who were teaching math, and writers who had plays and poems in their drawers who were teaching English. They had reached the ceiling, but they prepared us for when that ceiling would open, when we could go out into the world. So it’s payback, it’s pay forward, whatever you want to call it. It’s great to be there when certain people need to know that there’s somebody on their path who wants to help them along. I’m inspired by teachers to teach, and inspired by actors to act.
Jovan, you’ve said that you can relate to your character because you went to college and got a degree in political science, and then decided to pursue acting. And your dad was really surprised by that, because that wasn’t what he had in mind for you.
Adepo: Surprised to say the least [laughs]. Where I come from, it’s like, “You have a degree, son. What’s your angle here?” But it was kinda his fault too, because he’s a huge movie buff. My mom is English, and she was raised around the theater—that’s what her father enjoyed. But my dad is a huge movie fan. I feel like he has every movie that has ever come out in a huge library in his house. I was always watching movies as a kid. I was watching Denzel when I was a little guy. I was always around the arts, but I never felt that I was talented enough, or even had the courage, to be an actor, because I was an incredibly shy child.
So it was an interesting twist of fate that I got a suggestion from a friend to take an acting class, so that I could do commercials to help pay for my writing, because I wanted to be a screenwriter when I first moved to LA. But I think I fell in love with acting over time because I find it interesting to be able to explore life experiences that I don’t have. I haven’t traveled that much; I haven’t done a lot of daring or exceptional or impressive things in my life. So it’s interesting to look into the life experiences of different people and to find a sense of it for myself, relate to it, and create something out of nothing. I love people-watching, so getting to observe as a prerequisite and part of your career is really cool.
Has your dad seen Fences yet?
Adepo: He has. He went to the Smithsonian in DC and got to see it. Both my parents were there. He got emotional . . . I think he’s proud. It’s a great film.
There are two scenes with your character that stand out to me. The first is with Denzel, when you ask him, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” And the second is the scene at the end, between you and Viola. From what I understand, you knew her before doing the film.
Adepo: I did. Once I had decided to take acting seriously, I had met her through her older sister, because we went to the same church when I was in Maryland. Viola had brought me to her house, her and her husband sat me down. And I said, “OK, I want to be an actor. What do I need to do first? Headshots?” And she said, “No, no: class. There are little theater companies in LA. It’s not as big of a presence as it is in New York, but it can be done here. Get on stage and do something. Do anything.” She was the one that pointed me to the theater company to start at when I moved to LA. She really got me on my feet and told me not to worry about anything else but class. To look at techniques, look at all of them. She said, “Study as much as you can, read as many plays as you can. Read books, read everything. Just continue that type of regimen to train your brain and your body to be an instrument for the stage, and that’s what matters. Everything else that happens is a byproduct.” She was the driving force. She doesn’t mess around. And you can see that in her work.
Absolutely. And Stephen, I keep coming back to that scene between you and Denzel at the bar, when he says he can still beat you at dominoes, and you sort of casually say you’re better now. And the pause after that line, and how the meaning of it sinks in: that Bono may be a supporting character, but he also has a full life outside of Troy’s. He’s not just there to be Troy’s sounding board or voice of reason. He’s his own person.
Henderson: Oh, yeah. August never writes a character that isn’t absolutely essential to the story. But to be someone’s best friend, that’s really the thing. And to be Denzel Washington’s best friend. Between the time we first played these roles [on Broadway] and the time we did the film, I’d done another play with him. I had more shared history with him. So to bring that to the film . . . when he turns and looks at you, you’re his best friend. He gets to say to me, and I get to say to him, that I love him. And for men in the ’50s, that didn’t get uttered, but only because of what difficult times they came into. But there’s so many wonderful things about playing Bono, and any role written by August Wilson. So I’m glad to serve the play, and to get to be with all these other actors who are equally glad to serve the play. It’s a great feeling.
Fences is playing at Landmark Century Centre Cinema.