Beyond Denzel and Fences: August Wilson’s Stars

August Wilson’s canon exhibits a siren’s call to actors and actresses, directors and set designers. The latest Broadway revival of Fences amps up the star wattage with Denzel Washington. Throughout the years, Wilson’s plays have allowed many fine black performers to leave fingerprints in theater. Here are just a few that breathed life into the playwright’s words.

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  • Denzel Washington

    Denzel Washington

    With the 2010 revival of Fences, the two-time Academy Award winner returns to Broadway. He was last seen in 2005 as Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar. At 55, Washington is at the height of his powers. He has been stepping behind the camera more (The Great Debaters in 2007) and continues to act in at least one major film a year. But can he banish memories of James Earl Jones’ Tony Award-winning original performance and make the role of Troy Maxson his own? 

    — Captions by Nick Charles

  • Charles S. Dutton

    Charles S. Dutton

    The closest thing Wilson had to a muse, since he never wrote a male character without Dutton in mind. For his part Dutton, 59, best known for his crusty television character and Fox series of the same name, Roc, never disappointed. He twice garnered Best Actor Tony nominations: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) and The Piano Lesson (1990).  

  • Theresa Merritt

    Theresa Merritt

    Merritt, a veteran of Broadway, TV and movies, originated the role of Ma Rainey on Broadway in 1984, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress. She was in the original cast of Carmen Jones and played Aunt Emma in The Wiz. Merritt, who died of cancer at 75 in 1998, once said, “I don’t regret never being a big star. That can all go in seconds. I’m 62, and I’ve had a taste of it all.” 

  • Joe Seneca

    Joe Seneca

    One of the four musicians in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Seneca was a distinguished character actor whose entertainment career began as a member of the R&B group, The Three Riffs. Seneca’s turn as Cutler, the blues trombonist in Ma Rainey, led to his most notable film role as a blues legend in the mold of real-life legend Robert Johnson in 1986’s Crossroads. He died in 1996 at the age of 77.

  • James Earl Jones

    James Earl Jones

    American acting royalty. Jones, 79, won his second Tony Award for his role of Troy Maxson in the original Fences in 1987. Younger audiences may know the Oscar nominee as the voice of Darth Vader and the voice that booms “This Is CNN.” Jones, who received a Kennedy Centers Honor in 2002, once said of Wilson’s work: “The simple beauty of August’s words struck me profoundly. The lines just seem to have a life of their own leading me along as I read it.”

  • Mary Alice

    Mary Alice

    In the 1987 Tony Awards sweep for Fences, Alice collected the Best Featured Actress in a play her role of Rose, Troy Maxson’s long-suffering wife. Alice, 68, has worked steadily in film, television and the stage since she made her debut in the 1974 film The Education of Sonny Carson. She replaced Gloria Foster, who died in 2001, in the film The Matrix Revolutions and as the Oracle in the video game, Enter The Matrix

  • Frankie Faison

    Frankie Faison

    Long-time character actor Faison, 61, played Gabriel, Troy’s brother in the original Fences. It was one of three times he would work with James Earl Jones, having started his career in the 1974 New York Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear, with Jones in the title role. They also worked together in the 1988 Eddie Murphy film vehicle, Coming to America. Faison has the distinction of being the only actor to appear in all four filmed versions of the Red Dragon/Hannibal Lector series.

  • Courtney B. Vance

    Courtney B. Vance

    The Harvard grad has twice received Tony Award nominations: first for Fences in 1987, and the second for the lead role in Six Degrees of Separation in 1991. Vance, 50, is best known as Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver on the television series, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, from 2001-2006, and as the husband of actress Angela Bassett. He also starred alongside Charles S. Dutton in the 1995 television version of The Piano Lesson

  • Angela Bassett

    Angela Bassett

    Superstar Bassett began performing in Wilson plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of long-time instructor Lloyd Richards, who was also Wilson’s staging and directing collaborator. She appeared in both Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986). Bassett, 51, made it to Broadway in 1988, but the run was brief. In 2006, she starred in Fences at the Pasadena Playhouse alongside Laurence Fishburne (her co-star in the seminal biopic What’s Love Gotta To Do With It

  • Delroy Lindo

    Delroy Lindo

    The British-born actor garnered a Tony Award nomination for his role of Herald Loomis in the 1988 production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Though he turned down a role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to star in the now cult sci-fi film Salute To The Jugger, Lee cast Lindo, 57, in both Malcolm X (1992) and Crooklyn (1994). In 2008, Lindo directed a version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in Berkeley, Calif. 

  • Rocky Carroll

    Rocky Carroll

    Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations came Carroll’s way for his performance as Lymon in the 1990 production of The Piano Lesson. Carroll, 46, shared the stage with Charles S. Dutton, who brought him along to his Fox situation comedy, Roc, as his slacker musician brother, Joey Emerson. Carroll has enjoyed a steady career in television with tenures on Chicago Hope, NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles

  • Lisa Gay Hamilton

    Lisa Gay Hamilton

    Hamilton appeared as Grace in The Piano Lesson (1990) and then as Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean (2004). In a letter to the Village Voice, Gay Hamilton, 46, challenged the way plays were cast when she was turned down for the role of Hester Prynne in a New York Shakespearean Festival production of The Scarlet Letter. She called it “legal racism.” The play’s playwright, Phyllis Nagy, responded by slamming the actress’ acting. Guess her talent was good enough for Wilson. 

  • S. Epatha Merkerson

    S. Epatha Merkerson

    Yes, Lt. Anita Van Buren moonlights as an award-winning actress. That may well be the sentiment any time anyone sees the Tony Award winner in anything other than Law & Order. Merkerson, whose first name is Sharon, appeared in The Piano Lesson in 1990. She won Golden Globe, Screen Actor Guild and Emmy Awards for her starring turn in the television movie, Lackawanna Blues (2006). Note to fans: Merkerson, 57, will be leaving Law & Order at the end of this season. 

  • Roscoe Lee Browne

    Roscoe Lee Browne

    By the time he made it to Broadway in Two Trains Running (1992), Browne had already won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his role of the “root worker” Bynum Walker in a 1989 West Coast production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Browne, who died in 2007 at the age of 81, had a storied career which saw him perform in television shows as varied as the seminal drama Eastside/Westside (1963) and the sitcom Will & Grace (2004).

  • Laurence Fishburne

    Laurence Fishburne

    An established film star, Fishburne has shone on stage, and more recently has taken up residence on the small screen in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In 1992, he won a Tony Award for his performance as Sterling in Two Trains Running. In 2006, Fishburne, 48, reunited with long-time collaborator Angela Bassett in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Fences. “An electrifying thing happens when the two of us work together,” Fishburne said. “I haven’t experienced it with anyone else.” 

  • Keith David

    Keith David

    A versatile character actor, David was tapped to play the lead, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, in Wilson’s 1995 Broadway production of Seven Guitars. He also has a solid voiceover career and has worked with filmmaker Ken Burns on four of his productions including Jazz, Mark Twain, The War and Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. He can currently be seen in the Chris Rock film, Death at a Funeral, now in theaters.

  • Viola Davis

    Viola Davis

    The Juilliard graduate, 44, appeared in Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. (The latter won her a Tony.) In 2008, she was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Doubt alongside Meryl Streep. In 2004, Davis said, “I don’t speak Ebonics. I’m too old to be a homegirl. I’m not funny like that–sitcom, WB-UPN funny. So if I’m not that, then sometimes to the acting community, you can be considered nothing, as opposed to being a wide range of things.” 

  • Ruben Santiago-Hudson

    Ruben Santiago-Hudson

    In 1996, Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award for his role as Canewell in Seven Guitars. He also appeared in the Gem of the Ocean in 2004. A playwright as well, the 53-year-old Santiago-Hudson wrote the autobiographical play Lackawanna Blues, which became a successful television drama starring fellow Wilson alum, S. Epatha Merkerson. Santiago-Hudson currently stars in the ABC series Castle

  • Roger Robinson

    Roger Robinson

    Robinson, 69, has appeared in six of Wilson’s 10 plays. Wilson’s “use of language is second to none,” says Robinson. “Except Eugene O’Neill and perhaps Tennessee Williams.” In 2009, he received the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for the 2009 revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. On what may seem like a parallel universe, given his brilliant stage work, Robinson starred in the 1974 blaxploitation era classic, Willie Dynamite. His over-the-top monologues are hilarious. 

  • Brian Stokes Mitchell

    Brian Stokes Mitchell

    One of Broadway’s leading men for the last two decades, Mitchell appeared in Wilson’s King Hedley II in 2001. He was nominated for a Tony Award, but did not win. But he did win Best Actor in a Musical in 2000 for his role in Kiss Me Kate. Before he became a King on Broadway, Mitchell, 52, started on television in Roots: The Next Generation and did seven years on Trapper John, MD, as Dr. Jackpot Jackson. 

  • Leslie Uggams

    Leslie Uggams

    A veteran of stage and screen, Uggams appeared in King Hedley II in 2001. In 1967, she won a Tony for Hallelujah Baby. If the talented and beautiful Uggams, 66, were born in a different era, her fortunes may have been even greater. She lost out to Elizabeth Taylor for the title role in Cleopatra. Her dynamic and versatile career began on television in the 1950s (she played Ethel Waters’ niece on the show Beulah). Last year, she performed in a stage production of Stormy Weather

  • Whoopi Goldberg

    Whoopi Goldberg

    In the brief (68 performances) 2003 revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the ubiquitous Goldberg, 54, starred alongside Charles S. Dutton. She was no stranger to the stage; her theater career kicked off with her one-woman show, The Spook Show (It became a self-titled show when it reached Broadway.) Goldberg is one of a few entertainers to win an Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy. (She has seven Emmys and two Golden Globes.) Catch her weekdays on ABC TV’s The View.

  • Harry Lennix

    Harry Lennix

    In 2007, Lennix appeared as Harmon Wilks in Radio Golf. Yes, he’s a ringer for President Barack Obama, and even hails from Chicago. But there’s no truth to the rumor that he is the presidential stand-in, although he has played the American leader in the sketch comedy show, Little Britain USA. Lennix, 45, starred in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, and both Matrix sequels. He had a recurring role in the sixth season of 24.

  • Phylicia Rashad

    Phylicia Rashad

    In 2004, Rashad appeared on Broadway in two plays: Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The latter brought her the first Tony Award for a black actress for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play category. In 2007, she made her directorial debut in the Seattle Repertory production of Gem of the Ocean Even with all the accolades and accomplishments, Rashad, 61, will always be remembered as everyone’s favorite mom, Clair Huxtable, in The Cosby Show.

  • Tonya Pinkins

    Tonya Pinkins

    A decorated Broadway veteran, Pinkins was in the 2007 production of Radio Golf. She won a Tony in 1992 for her role of Sweet Anita in Jelly’s Last Jam, based on the life of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. In 2004, Pinkins, 47, was again nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Caroline or Change. Pinkins is co-creator of Operation Z, an organization that stands for zero tolerance of violence against women and children.