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Back in 1987, the playwright August Wilson won nearly every award in theater for his drama "Fences." This play was part of a 10-story cycle covering African-American life in each decade of the 20th century.

Next week, a highly anticipated revival of the play opens on Broadway. This version features Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, a presence in both Hollywood and on Broadway.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: Denzel Washington says producer Scott Rudin approached him last year about starring in a film version of "Fences."

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): Scott Rudin came to me with the screenplay and I read it. And I said, well, let me read the play again. And I read the play and Im like, Denzel, are you crazy? You got to do the play. You know, now is the time, you know, whether I do a movie or not.

LUNDEN: Washington, at 55, is the right age to play Troy Maxson, the titanic central character of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It's a role James Earl Jones originated, winning the Tony Award in 1987.

Maxson has led a hardscrabble life, escaping an abusive father, spending time in the penitentiary for manslaughter, and finding his calling on the baseball diamond as a Negro League star.

Mr. WASHINGTON: And he was a bit too old to move up to the major leagues by the time they started having Negro players, black players, and he's bitter about it. And when we meet him, he's a garbage man who has been stuck in the same spot for 18 years. And, you know, he's a bitter man.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door, with your hands stretched out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs in that room at night. I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) I get up Monday morning, find my lunch on the table. Go out. Make my way. Find my strength to get me through to next Friday. Thats all I got, Rose. Thats all I got to give, can't give nothing else.

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's got to be, if not the greatest part I've played, definitely one of the most complex. And the great thing about theater is you get to go deeper, in a way. There are no previews in film; you shot it. What you shot yesterday is gone.

LUNDEN: Director Kenny Leon is guiding Denzel Washington with his shot at this multi-layered character who tries to do the right thing, even as he hurts the people closest to him - his wife and his sons.

Mr. KENNY LEON (Director): I understand Troy Maxson. I love him as a human being, but he's flawed. And that's the point of the play - that we're all imperfect, we're all flawed human beings. And, Troy, you know, he's honest to a fault. But at least he can look in the mirror and say this is who I am.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) You eat every day?

Mr. CHRIS CHALK (Actor): (As Cory) Yes, sir.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) Got a roof over your head.

Mr. CHALK: (As Cory) Yes, sir.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) Got clothes on your back.

Mr. CHALK: (As Cory) Yes, sir.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) Why you think that is?

Mr. CHALK: (As Cory) Cause of you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) Hell, I know it's cause of me. But why you think that is?

Mr. CHALK: (As Cory) Cause you like me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) Like, I go out of here every morning, bust my butt putting up with them crackers every day cause I like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) You about the biggest fool I ever saw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) It's my job. It's my responsibility. Do you understand that? A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, sleep your behind on my bedclothes, fill your belly with my food, because you my son. You my flesh and blood, not cause I like you.

LUNDEN: Kenny Leon has directed all 10 of August Wilson's works, which looks at the African-American experience, decade by decade, through the 20th century. And he worked with the playwright on his last two plays. "Fences" is set in 1957.

Mr. LEON: This is a great American play, well-structured. It has the poetry of August Wilson. It has those monologues August Wilson is known for. But it's in the same line of a "Death of a Salesman" or "A Moon for the Misbegotten," all those great American plays.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) I want him to get as far away from my life as he possibly can. You're the only decent thing ever happen to me, Rose. And I wish him that, but I dont wish him nothing else from my life. Decided 17 years ago that boy wasnt going to get involved in no sports, not after what they did to me in sports.

Ms. VIOLA DAVIS (Actress): (As Rose) Why dont you admit you were too old for the major leagues? For once, why dont you admit that?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) What you mean too old? Dont come telling me I was too old. I just wasnt the right color. Hell, Im 53 years old, can better than Selkirk's 269 right now.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Rose) How was you going to play ball when you're over 40? Sometimes I can't get no sense out of you.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Maxson) I got good sense, woman.

LUNDEN: Viola Davis plays Rose, Troy Maxson's wife, who deals with disappointment and hardship herself. Davis worked with August Wilson on the original productions of two of his plays.

Ms. DAVIS: Somehow, he had an ear and heart, and a talent to take in people in a very specific world. African-Americans, too, who are usually passed by - the maids, the domestics, the garbage men, the everyday man. It's so great that he found the poetry in the - what is the seeming ordinary.

LUNDEN: Denzel Washington actually was a garbage collector for a short while during his college years.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Twenty-two square-blocks; that was our route. I remember the smells, literally.

LUNDEN: But this role, with all its anger and poetry and humanity, hits home for a deeper reason.

Mr. WASHINGTON: For the first time for me, as an African-American, it's my voice. Yet the themes are universal - the father-son relation, the husband-wife relations. You know, the themes are universal.

LUNDEN: "Fences" opens next Tuesday at The Court Theater on Broadway for a limited run through July 11th.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.

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