NEAL CONAN, host:
The great playwright August Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his tragedy "Fences." It's the story of a former negro league baseball great turned garbage man, the flawed and haunted Troy Maxson, memorably played by James Earl Jones.
"Fences" is back on Broadway for the first time since. The revival is nominated for a raft of Tony Awards, including its stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and director Kenny Leon, a longtime friend and collaborator of August Wilson. And he joins us in just a moment.
If you'd like to talk with Kenny Leon about this show in particular or about August Wilson's legacy in general, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. And that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Kenny Leon is artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company, former Artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, and joins us today from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. KENNY LEON (Director, "Fences"): Hey, Neal. It's good to be here.
CONAN: And congratulations on your Tony nominations.
Mr. LEON: Thank you so much.
CONAN: It's been five years since August Wilson died. His plays are still among the most performed in America. You yourself have directed Broadway productions "Gem of the Ocean," "Radio Golf." This is the first time "Fences," though, has been back. Why this play? Why now?
Mr. LEON: Well, it's time. I mean, if you think about the young people in our country who are 25 and 30 years old, they have no idea about what happened in 1987 with the great production with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. So it's a play about our country. It's a play about family. There's a door for everyone to enter this play. If you have a father, a mother, a friend, a son, daughter - there's a door for everyone to enter this play. And it was August's most accessible play. And it's been almost 25 years.
It's amazing how time flies. And just to look at this cast on stage every night, it's a fascinating and humbling experience for me, because on the first day of rehearsal, what I told the cast, I said, you know, for those 25 and 30-year-olds I want this this is a world premiere for them. And for those people who saw it in 1987, I wanted to feel like a world premiere to them as well. And I think what's happening in that audience every night is it feels like a new play. And that's a sign of a great play. And August always wanted to be standing side by side with the great playwrights. You know, O'Neill, Shakespeare, Shaw. And I think "Fences" is a real modern classic.
CONAN: This is not the first time you've directed this particular play, not obviously with this cast. But what are you aiming for here that's set to depart from your earlier...?
Mr. LEON: It's so amazing. I didnt realize until yesterday. Someone asked me, how many times have you directed this play? And I said, I've directed "Fences" six times.
Mr. LEON: Which is the most I've directed any play. But, you know what, I can't every production has felt like a new production. And with this play, it is really based on the energy and the physicality of the two stars, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. And their approach is so raw and so physical. And, you know, Denzel will not let you get away with not being honest on stage. And Viola is she demands the truth. So this production is rawer, more visceral, real, honest. And I think what audience - and that we have the most diverse audiences on Broadway.
You stand outside of that theatre before the show every night, and it goes down 48th Street and around 6th Avenue, and it looks like America. It is the most diverse audience on Broadway. And to sit in there and watch them rub up against each other and laugh and cry, and talk out loud together is something special happening with this production, and with this cast and with Denzel. You know, he's at that place in his career. He's at that time in this life to play Troy Maxson. Troy Maxson is almost like playing Othello, except that it's an African-American presence that those in African-American community, we know these people. But August had a way of turning the ordinary man into art, ordinary language into art. And so there's a musicality to it. And you have people like Stephen McKinley Henderson who has been doing this for 40, 45 years - a major talent.
CONAN: He's great, by the way. Yeah.
Mr. LEON: Oh, he opens his mouth and the words come out like butter -and Russell Hornsby, Chris Chalk, Mykelti Williamson. So it's - I think it's one of the most tightly knit ensembles I've ever had the opportunity to work with.
CONAN: Let me ask you a little bit more about the audience. The words, in August Wilson, they're incredibly important. And you need to make sure, as a director, that - for example, the great speech that Viola Davis gives in - that we can hear all of that. The audience is so responsive to those stars, and they seem to interfere at times. They seemed to cover the - parts of the play with laughter and with applause, and it's just makes it hard to hear.
Mr. LEON: I disagree with, respectfully, because I think that -especially in these times of, you know, reality television, you're looking for - live theater excites like no other place. And they're -and when you invite all of the cultures to sit next to each other, then I invite whatever happens with that group of people. There's no specific way to behave. Sometimes, you know, you might have - you know, a couple of times that they might step on the words. But we have been working so hard on the rhythm and the musicality of this play that we sort of push it and we try not to let the audience in when they're not supposed to be in. But I would welcome audience response...
CONAN: What better, to get too much response than too little?
Mr. LEON: Absolutely. So there's no proper way to do it. So, you know, we have laughter. We have - you know, once and twice - once or twice, someone has yelled back at the stage, you know...
CONAN: More than once or twice in the production I was at.
Mr. LEON: But usually, it's timed. It's usually, you know, someone -Denzel says, I got nothing else to give. This is all I have to give. I have nothing else to give. And almost, on the beat, someone says, I'll take it. And that was not on the word. That was like in the beat, you know?
It's was like - and, you know, and some folks in the theater - some of -have - this is their first opportunity to come to a Broadway play. And some of them have been exposed to comedies and stand-up comedy. Then there are some other folks who have been to traditional theaters. But what I - what I've noticed, standing in the audience - and I think I've seen the play more than anybody.
CONAN: I suspect that's true. Yes.
Mr. LEON: And standing back there, I noticed that there are white folks. There are black folks. There are young folks. There are old folks, all responding. And there's not one specific, you know, culture or kind of person that's laughing or responding back to us. So I think that it's just cultures sitting up next to each other and then exploring something together that's really different and beautiful. And I think at the end of the night, it's a great experience for everybody that's there.
CONAN: But it's interesting to me, as a director, you say you try to keep the audience out of places they shouldn't be - for example, in her long speech. And if they do come in, at least in the performance I was -she continued on through it - Viola Davis, we're talking about. And she just continued on through it, which the rhythm of the speech, the anger of the character, the passion of the moment, that all dictated she do exactly what she was doing. But it must be difficult.
Mr. LEON: I don't know. It's just what comes with the territory. It's -most of the time, in any performance, you're going to try to - if you say something that's funny, you sort of leave a beat for the audience to respond, and then you come back and attack it strongly. And what we have been working on is just like keep attacking. And if you keep attacking, then folks will, you know, most of the time listen and realize that they're missing something, and they'll slow down, you know?
CONAN: All right. We're talking with Kenny Leon, the director of the revival of August Wilson's "Fences," which is at the Cort Theater on West 48th Street in New York. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
Patrick is on the line with us from Minneapolis.
PATRICK (Caller): Thanks, Neal. Say, Mr. Leon, what do you think Denzel brings new to the role of Troy that James Jones or some of the great actors at the Penumbra theater in Minneapolis have already shown off(ph)?
CONAN: Where many of these plays debuted.
Mr. LEON: Yes. What I've discovered is that in working with six different Troy Maxsons, that usually the play is built around the personality and the physicality and the approach to truth exhibited by that particular person who's playing Troy. And what Denzel brings to it is a youthful, energetic physicality to it. And it's not hard to imagine him hitting 45 homeruns or whatever, you know? He's closer to that athlete that he was.
And he also has a knack for understanding what the truth is. So he's not trying to overly theatricalize or overly emote. He's trying to find the honesty in it. And what that does, it forces Viola to be as honest as she can. So it really feels like folks are looking at a real slice of life, and it's almost - many people have said to me leaving the theater, like, I haven't experienced that on Broadway in five or six years. It just feels raw, and the actors are looking in each other eyes and they're just letting the words come and, you know, it's different, slightly different every night.
CONAN: It's interesting. His character played in - well, he was in prison for a long time, then played in the Negro leagues, and then has been lifting garbage cans for a long time. Denzel Washington walks, in that play, like a man whose knees hurt.
Mr. LEON: Absolutely. And, you know, the one thing about Denzel is that he was a garbage man for, like, a year.
CONAN: I didn't know that.
Mr. LEON: Yes. So he's actually experienced that life, and folks find that hard to believe. When he was younger, though, he worked for a little while as a garbage man.
CONAN: Hmm. Patrick, thanks very much for the phone call.
We're talking, again, with Kenny Leon, the director of the Broadway revival of "Fences." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
Let's go to Janice, Janice with us from Atlantic City, in New Jersey.
JANICE (Caller): Well, good afternoon. I'm so excited, I can hardly speak. I teach high school English at Atlantic City High School, and my juniors just finished reading "Fences." We do it out loud in class. We take parts. It's wonderful. And they are dying to know - because they've also read "The Piano Lesson," and I also teach "Joe Turner" - why there is only one film of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEON: Well, hopefully, we can do something about that. You'll be curious to know that when Denzel Washington was approached about doing the play - well, he wasn't approached about doing the play first. He was approached about doing the film. Scott Rudin, who is an amazing film producer - he is also producing the Broadway show - and he asked Denzel to do a film of "Fences." And because it was one of the last things that - August did a rewrite of "Fences," the screenplay, in those last two three months of his life.
So Denzel said he was interested in the film, but he wanted to do the play first. He had to get inside the skin of the character on stage, you know. And that's where you really discover characters. So I think that you will see, hopefully, all 10 of these - all 10 of his plays on film.
CONAN: Janice, I wanted to ask you, what do your students today make of this play, which is set in the '50s, the '60s and '70s?
JANICE: They absolutely love it. It ignites - Wilson ignites such a spark in the students because the issues are all still relevant. All of them have parental conflict, so they can get, you know, they can identify with Cory and his struggles with his father. Many of them have, you know - it's just - it touches on every level. And they just adore the play. I'm coming to see it July 10th.
CONAN: Oh, wow, the last weekend.
JANICE: I know. I know. But we had to try and find some affordable tickets. And by the time I went online to order them, of course, all the Tonys had been announced.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Janice, thanks very much for the call.
JANICE: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go next to January, January with us from St. Louis.
JANUARY (Caller): Hello. Thank you so much for having me on the show. I just want to say that the first time I was ever exposed to any type of African-American play, I was a sophomore in high school and I read "Fences," just as Janice did. My English teacher had us read it out loud. And then we had the privilege of going to the St. Louis Black Repertory to see it performed, and it was wonderful and awesome. And I have gone back to the theater every year, at least three, four times a year, just from that first experience.
Mr. LEON: That's great.
JANUARY: August Wilson has a way of drawing you in. I identified so closely with Cory. Watching Troy made me understand a lot about my own father and my father's relationship with my brother. It was almost like seeing your family, but seeing your family explained to you on the stage.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JANUARY: Yeah. And so, I'm really...
CONAN: I hope things worked out better for your family.
JANUARY: Say it again?
CONAN: I hope things worked out better for your family.
JANUARY: Oh, well, they did, but it still was great. You know, it made you say, oh, yeah. Oh, that's what the problem was?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JANUARY: And so it was wonderful. And then it also opened up this whole world of the black playwright, which I knew nothing about at the age of 15. So then, you know, from August Wilson to Chinua Achebe, you know, it was just awesome for me. I want to say thank you.
Mr. LEON: You're welcome.
CONAN: Thank you for the call, January. We appreciate it.
JANUARY: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Kenny Leon, you I was looking at your listing and who's who in the cast, and I think you've joined you've directed have you directed all of August Wilson's plays at one point or another? Or you have one to go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEON: I have one to go. I directed I oversaw all 10 plays at the Kennedy Center when we presented all 10 of them. But there's only one play - "King Hedley" is the only play that I have not personally directed at least once.
CONAN: And what's wrong with you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEON: You know, you were just talking about young folks just a minute ago, and one of the things that True Colors Theater Company, my company, is doing, along with Jujamcyn Theaters, we're doing what we call the August Wilson Monologue Competition. And we go to cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City, and we let high school students from ninth grade through 12th grade compete using any monologue from any of the 10 plays. And then we take the three finalists from all of the cities, fly them into New York, they compete on the August Wilson theater stage on Broadway.
We have mentors like - Denzel and Viola spend time with them, and folks like Scott Rudin and Phylicia Rashad spend time with them. And the kids compete. And we pick three winners. But we do it this is our fourth year doing it, and next year will be our fifth. And we're hoping to take it to every state in the union. And what you realize is when these young people recite August's lines because they haven't they're not stuck in acting styles. They're just reading it in as purest form, and you can hear the poetry, and you can hear the honesty, and so - an amazing program. So look out for that.
CONAN: Kenny Leon, thanks very much. That's an interesting program you're talking about. You'll get "King Hedley" yet. Thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. LEON: Thank you.
CONAN: Kenny Leon, artistic director of True Colors Theater Company. His production of "Fences" is playing a limited run at New York City's Cort Theater. He joined us today from our bureau in New York, and we wish him the best of luck with the Tony nominations.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, a look at your privacy online. Can you have a Facebook profile and protect your privacy? We'll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody.
It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.