Denzel Washington's Definitive Turn in Fences

Yes, James Earl Jones deserved his Tony for his role in Fences. But 23 years later, Washington brings a nuance and a subtlety to the role of Troy Maxson that we've never seen before.

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"I fooled them, Rose," Washington said, uttering the same lines Jones directed at those wishing to see him fail. "I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job ... I was safe. Couldn't nothing touch me. I wasn't gonna strike out no more. I wasn't going back to the penitentiary. I wasn't gonna lay in the streets with a bottle of wine. I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn't gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home."

The confrontation leaves ample room for Rose's sharp response, and Davis earns her Tony, slashing away as if with a straight razor that barely leaves a scar.

Unlike Jones, who played the role with patented physicality, Washington's Hollywood celebrity doesn't suck all the air from the stage. Rose and the two sons are even allowed to shine through and more fully probe the complexity that Wilson had in mind with this extraordinary play.

None of this critique is aimed at knocking Jones' Tony-award performance (who dares knock The Great White Hope?) but merely to contrast the contemporary interpretation with the original. Just as the late Heath Ledger struck a tone as the Joker quite differently than that played by Jack Nicholson in the Batman series, Washington's Fences is a rewarding departure.

Still, we need not choose here anymore than we need pick the 10 American plays of August Wilson over the 38 Elizabethan works of Shakespeare. Let's celebrate both masters and  their creations as often as a stage on Broadway or anywhere else becomes available.

Now that's how that goes!

Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

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