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.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Denzel Washington is so insightful in August Wilson’s bitingly authentic play about black life that it is downright surprising, though quite fitting, that the actor won a Tony for his performance.

Authenticity usually gets the black artist nowhere with top awards judges soaked in what passes for white culture. Such shameless self-absorption leaves little room for fair judgment, especially for those considered outsiders. Such actors, from Hattie McDaniel — Oscar winner for Gone With the Wind — to Halle Berry and Precious star Mo’Nique, the strong black actor is expected to play the demeaned character and then crawl into the judgment hall in hopes of getting rewarded.

Washington was skipped over for his authentic portrayal of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter in The Hurricane (1999), playing a twice-convicted boxer so convinced of his innocence that he bedazzled everyone who listened. But instead of rewarding Washington’s brilliant interpretation, Hollywood gave him the Oscar for Training Day, a film in which he plays the most corrupt cop in Los Angeles.

In the current Broadway run of Fences, which concludes on July 11, Washington returns to his “first love” in a role made famous by one of his stage heroes, the great James Earl Jones.

Nonetheless, Washington probes a rich vein of Wilson’s ’85 Pulitzer Prize-winning work that was explored incompletely by Jones in the original production. (Tip of the hat to the Tonys for also selecting Fences as this year’s best revival.)