Monday, January 2, 2017

SIX QUESTIONS FOR STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON ABOUT FENCES



SIX QUESTIONS ABOUT FENCES FOR STEPHEN MCKINLEY HENDERSON

I saw the film Fences and most appreciated Stephen McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of Jim Bono in it because I think Bono represents in August Wilson’s screenplay the common Black worker who is trying to make a living honestly in a de-industrialized economy.  Troy is making a living dishonestly by pretending to be a driver when he does not know how to drive. August Wilson shows through Troy that the way to climb the corporate ladder is to lie. This economy will allow Bono small technological advances like the refrigerator he buys, but not much more, and will soon, as this twenty first century will show us downsize him, and us, out of necessity. This message is important at a time when the U.S. economy under a Trump presidency is planning to downsize even more. For me, the message of this film encourages the forging of a life outside of the IMF-Wall Street based economy. I appreciated the work of Stephen McKinley Henderson since he played Bobo in the 1989 PBS American Playhouse of A Raisin in the Sun and was honored to have him answer a few questions about this 2016 film production of Fences.  

1.  What changes from August Wilson's screenplay did Denzel Washington and Tony Kushner make for this film version that you know of?

The only line spoken that's not in the play is "The commissioner will see you now," spoken to Troy when he's called to the commissioner's office.   

2.  ShadowAndAct.com run by Tambay Obenson, reported a year ago that Paramount Pictures was initially presented with a list of Black Directors to direct Fences by Wilson, his lawyer, and Warrington Hudlin two decades ago, but Paramount declined all of them. What do you think made Scott Rudin's effort this time around, to bring Denzel on as a director of this screenplay, so successful?

Denzel's storied career as a bankable actor, the fact that he's directed two other films, and along with the incomparable Viola Davis headed the Tony winning revival, made it a very wise decision.
3. While I found Denzel's direction impeccable, after reading Dr. Sandra Shannon's interview with August Wilson in 1991, I thought about August Wilson's wishes for a Black director "who had some sensibilities to the culture."  I wondered why Scott Rudin and Paramount could not secure a Black film director "who had some sensibilities to the culture" who was trained exclusively in film directing to direct this Fences film. Do you think Hollywood studios in general still have an aversion to Black directors who exclusively direct like Bill Duke and in what ways could this Fences film open the door to more Black directors who have "some sensibilities to the culture"?

Bill Duke is a wonderful director with whom I've worked on two PBS American Playhouse films in the 80's and 90's.  He is also a wonderful actor.  Spike Lee has made three remarkable films with Denzel and Spike himself was an actor in two of them.  He is also another possibility among many others.  But like all the synchronicity that has accompanied August's singular mission, Denzel was destined to be present and prepared when he was needed just as Lloyd Richards was perfectly positioned at the O'Neil Playwrights Center and Yale Repertory when he was needed.  The film speaks for itself.  And it is now a reality in a season with several other wonderful films by African American film directors and producers.  There has been good work for many years.  We arrive on giants shoulders.  They brought us to these opportunities.  Ossie Davis once said, "None of us could be mountain climbers were it not for the mountain movers who came before us."  This journey did not just begin nor does it depend on studios or awards ceremonies to justify it's worthiness.  It speaks well of those institutions when they honor good work but they don't make the work good.
4. My concern about excluding a Black film director for Fences speaks to what August Wilson said about "the Black Theater" in his 1998 essay "The Ground On Which I Stand," (http://www.yavanika.org/classes/reader/Wilson1.pdf) where he said that "we make a target for cultural imperialists who seek to empower and propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas and see the Blacks as woefully deficient." In what ways does this production of Fences, Stephen avoid being a target of cultural imperialists? 

In no way actually.  The focus in making art can never be to avoid something.  It must always be to cause something.  If the wrong people don't oppose you, you're not doing something right.  Even the artist has something to learn from the work they create.  The work is greater than us or any cause, that's why it outlives us and our issues. 

5. What does the success of this film Fences mean for you as an artist and given both you and Denzel's history of the Negro Ensemble Company, what do you think the success of this film says about the Negro Ensemble Company, the New Federal, and other companies producing Black theater?

I was never a member of NEC.  I am proud to have worked briefly for Woodie King Jr. of New Federal.  Your point I think is well founded.  Without these institutions there would be no starting place for performing artists.  These same institutions inspired me as a young man in far away Kansas and Missouri.  The St. Louis Black Repertory offers a starting place, as does Karamu in Cleveland and Playwrights Theatre in Pittsburgh.  This film has the potential to honor all the small Afrocentric institutions for keeping the mirrors clean that reflect our lives.
6.  In his talk with Karen Hunter about Fences, Denzel wanted to stress the universal appeal of Fences, not just being a Black story but a universal story. While this story is universal, it is also describing Black families in the postwar U.S. North. What messages do you think this play has for the Black family today in the twenty first century?

The message is finally, no matter what the politics of the moment may be, our legacy is that of triumph together.  Like all great dramatic literature Fences is timeless.  It speaks to whatever the Black family faces today, tomorrow and always.  Time is not the content, it is simply the context.

Thank you so much, Stephen McKinley Henderson, for your time.  –RF. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“DAY OF ABSENCE” BY DOUGLAS TURNER WARD AT THEATRE 80 SAINT MARK



I highly recommend seeing “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward at Theatre 80 Saint Marks on 80 Saint Marks Place in Manhattan before it closes this Sunday, December 11th, 2016.  It plays every night at This is an amazing play with a message that is incredibly timely and incredibly relevant to the incoming Trump administration.  This play is set in a town in the United States and the premise of this play is that all Black people are absent, and the remaining white people are in a state of disarray.   




This play is a satire but I think it is a remarkably relevant satire that shows how the U.S. economy is absolutely dependent on the labor and presence of Black people.  In Ward’s notes of this play, he writes: “the play is conceived for performance by a Black cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white face.”  When I was in the audience, I had a unique experience of laughing at more jokes than those of white audience members.  It was definitely a very interesting experience.  I walked in about fifteen minutes into the show to see the scene with Mary (China L. Colston) and John (Daniel Carlton) and a yelling baby.  They talked about their maid Lula however, like all Black individuals in this town, Lula is absent.  One gets the impression hearing the exchange between Mary and John that their entire sense of comfort and livelihood depends on Lula.  This reminds me of the ways that president-elect Donald Trump will depend on the expertise of the staff of the previous administration in order to maintain some level of respect for the United States as a nation that is run on an economy based on a finite resource.  

 The mayor (Charles Weldon) is the pulse of the town and scrambles to respond to the tragedy of absent Black people.  He first calls the hospital then resolves to look in prison for the Nigras that have disappeared: “then Nigras in jail are the most important Nigras we got!”  This recalls Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow where she describes the mass incarceration industry that also depends on creating political prisoners that essentially threaten the status quo.  For Ward to write the Mayor’s line saying that Nigras in jail “are most important,” means that these are the Nigras who are influential and could potentially spread information to challenge the status quo.  Supporters of the Trump administration such as Charlie Kirk since Trump’s election has started ProfessorWatch, intended to monitor and list professors who are accused arbitrarily of “advancing leftist propaganda.”  The Mayor’s line here also recalls Blacks who were persecuted by McCarthyism including Ward himself who, along with Lorraine Hansberry, was a member of the Progressive Party.  “Day of Absence” is a low key critique of not only of Southern conservatism.  No character represents this Southern conservatism more than his Clubwoman character (played memorably by Cecelia Antoinette) who said: “it has always been pure, delicate, lily-white images of Dixie femininity which provided backbone, inspiration and ideology for our male warriors in their defense against the on-rushing Black horde.  If our gallant men are drained of this worship and idolatry—God knows! The cause won’t be worth a Confederate nickel!” 



                                                             (with Cecelia Antoinette)
 This is basically the beliefs of the alt-right movement and the Neo-Nazi voices that we are hearing more often since Trump’s election.  This play is not only a tacit critique of how U.S. society endorses Neo-Nazi beliefs; this play is also a critique of white liberal philanthropy.  No character seems to point out Ward’s obvious critique of philanthropy better than his Mrs. Aide character (Kim Weston-Moran).  She tells Ward’s reporter character that “disruptions of our pilot projects among Nigras saddles our white community with extreme hardship…We place them as maids, cooks, butlers, and breast-feeders, cesspool-diggers, wash-basin maintainters, shoe-shine boys, and so on—mostly on a volunteer self-work basis.”  The reporter then asks: “hired at prevailing salaried rates, of course?”  Mrs. Aide replies “God forbid!  Money is unimportant.  Would only make ‘em worse.  Our main goal is to improve their ethical behavior.”  Mrs. Aide is describing the function of the cyclical rise and crash pattern of the U.S. economy in funding programs for inner city youth then suddenly stopping that funding due to dramatic economic recessions.  Ward’s play shows how budget cuts that affect communities of color the hardest are deliberately created an arbitrary choice by those who, as James Baldwin, “believe that they are white.”  Most provocative to me however was the character of Pious (played INCREDIBLY UNFORGETTABLE by Count Stovall who performed work of my mentor Leslie Lee), who is the clergy representative of this white town who insisted that their absence is a work of Hoodoo meant to confound deliberately white people and disobey God.  



                                                            (with Count Stovall)
 I was amazed as to how Douglas Turner Ward wrote this character.  This character’s theology explains the difference between a theology of Pat Robertson and a Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Ward’s Pious would definitely side with a Pat Robertson.  

 The most dramatic part of this satire was when the Mayor pleads with the Blacks to return to their servant status to this U.S. town by showing the servant paraphernalia the Blacks used: “Look, George! I brought he rag you wax the car wit’…Don’t this bring back memories, George, of all the days you spent shining that automobile to shimmering perfection…And you, MANDY!...Here’s the waste basket you didn’t dump this morning, I saved it just for you!”   I laughed so hard at this line.  This is a phenomenal production that I highly highly recommend seeing.  I was honored to learn from veterans of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in a talkback immediately following the show that included NEC veterans like David Downing who played the Wizard in this play, whom Woodie King Jr. in the audience said he was a fan of; and Allie Woods who played the Mayor’s assistant in Jackson. 

NEC veteran Phylicia Rashad credited Allie Woods with inviting her to the NEC’s Monday Night Series which began her memorable stage and television career.   



                                                              (me and Allie Woods)
In the talkback, Allie Woods said that when the NEC production of “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” he was in toured in England, members of the audience saluted Hitler, and the cast did not feel particularly protected by the London police.I appreciated Theatre 80 Saint Marks hosting the NEC production’s 50th Anniversary Season and the director of this theater saying that Ward’s friendship with lawyer Arthur Kinoy who defended Bobby Seale and Huey Newton when they were arrested in 1968.  This production is a A MUST SEE IN NEW YORK CITY BEFORE IT CLOSES SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11TH.  –RF.