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Denzel Washington's Definitive Turn in Fences

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.

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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.

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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.)

But in the current version, when Washington's Troy copped to messing around with another woman, his wife, Viola Davis, grounded him with a powerful response made all the more effective because of the vulnerable way Washington sets up his character.

"We're not talking about baseball," Rose countered as her husband soared through one of his sports metaphors, "we're talking about life."

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It is precisely upon this greater canvas that the playwright paints his masterpiece. Fences is not baseball interpreting life, as it seemed in Jones' hands. Rather, it's art — and, God, what universal art it is — interpreting life through Wilson's magnificent dialogue.

Set in the 1950s, Fences is a highly intelligent exploration of father-son relations as twisted by society, racism and circumstance. As worked out against the broader interplay of wife-mother, brother and cut-buddy, Washington brings out more of what Wilson intended than Jones' acting range would allow.

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Never much of a romantic actor, Jones lacked Denzel's range of witty tenderness, which is necessary to sell the ex-con's conversion to solid citizen anchored by a job and a passionate commitment to his wife and their son. Thus, when Troy Maxson relapses to form and fathers a child outside his marriage, his fall from grace is much steeper and more dramatic when he breaks the news to his wife.

"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."

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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.

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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.

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Now that's how that goes!

Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

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