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Constanza Romero Wilson on how Denzel Washington brought her husband's play Fences to life

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences David Lee / Paramount Pictures
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson wrote Fences in 1983, and the play itself is set two and half decades earlier, in 1957. But when its movie adaptation arrived in December of 2016, it felt eerily timely.

Directed by and starring Denzel Washington alongside Viola Davis, Fences — now one of nine Best Picture nominees for 2017 is an unflinching depiction of how race and privilege play out in the lives of a poor black family in an unofficially segregated Pittsburgh. Wrote Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson when it debuted in December, “Its story feels fresh, as if it were written to slot itself into the concerns of 2016.”

The film’s source material is part of Wilson’s American Century Cycle (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle), a series of 10 plays about African Americans in Pittsburgh, with each one representing a different decade in the 20th century. Fences, the most famous of the 10, tells the story of Troy Maxson (Washington in the film), who as a young man was a promising baseball player and now works as a garbage collector.

Wilson was one of the first African American playwrights to achieve national recognition and to tell the stories of ordinary black Americans onstage. He told the Paris Review:

Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same thingslove, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.

Both Washington and Davis have spoken about how important Fences is to them as a way of telling the untold stories of black America. In January, after Davis won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Troy’s wife Rose, she used her acceptance speech to dedicate her award to her father, “the original Troy,” saying, “He had a story, and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it.”

Wilson passed away in 2005, and now his widow Constanza Romero Wilson — a Tony-nominated theater designer in her own right — has a producer credit on the movie adaptation of Fences and is in talks with Washington and HBO to adapt more of Wilson’s plays for the screen. I spoke with Romero Wilson over the phone about Fences’ journey to Hollywood and about what makes August Wilson’s work feel so suited for our present moment.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

Fences first went onstage in 1983, starring James Earl Jones and Mary Alice. Your husband August Wilson adapted it into a screenplay I believe in 1987. It finally found its way to the screen in 2016. How did that process take place? What was the story?

Constanza Romero Wilson

It’s such a long and complex story, and it really is a story of about 30 years.

August had such a huge success with Fences on Broadway, and then he sold the screenplay to Paramount for a good sum of money. He went on to write the screenplay. He was hoping, and he was very public about his hopes, for a black director to bring this first film to life, because it really speaks so much about the black community and black culture.

At the time, that made the waters a little bumpy, and it was very hard for the studio to find the correct — not that there weren’t any black directors working at that time, although there are more now, but it was hard to find the right one. Studios have so many projects going on.

Scott Rudin, who’s a wonderful producer, came on board in the mid ’90s to see if he could try to revive the script and make it happen. August rewrote the script all through the ’90s, and it stalled again in somebody’s drawer.

August passed away in 2005. In 2010, or 2009, Denzel Washington got a phone call from Scott Rudin saying, “Hey, I’ve got Fences.” Since Denzel Washington is an actor from the stage, first and foremost, he made the wonderful decision to first do the play in a Broadway revival.

I don’t know that he had in mind to do the film when he was first producing the play on Broadway, but about two years ago, he called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve finally cleared my schedule for Fences the movie, and I promise that I’ll make August proud.”

And it’s amazing how quickly things move when someone like Denzel Washington is on board. Denzel made it happen! I’m just so grateful and so proud that I got to be involved.

Constance Grady

You’re a theater designer, and you earned a Tony nomination for designing the costumes for the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences that starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. What was your process in working on that production? Did you know exactly how you wanted the costumes to look?

Constanza Romero Wilson

It was a wonderful process. I of course had seen the original production in 1983. But even though this play takes place in 1957, you update the perspective from the point of view of 2010. And the actors dictate so much. Viola plays a Rose that is very different from Mary Alice. She had so much life and laughter and love and sensuality in the beginning with Troy, and I wanted to really cash in on that with a lot of color and patterns and things.

I kind of entered the play from that perspective. Working with the actors, everybody’s a little bit different. Stephen McKinley Henderson in particular, who plays Bono [Troy’s best friend], is such a what I call Wilsonian actor and he has such a particular look.

Constance Grady

Were you involved at all in translating the costumes for the film?

Constanza Romero Wilson

No, that was the great Sharon Davis. When I went to the set, she’s the first person I met. She was coming out of the trailer and said hello, and it was like a lightning bolt: “Oh! You’re Sharon Davis!”

But you know, being a costume designer, it was hard for to keep my hands to myself, when I saw the actors walking around on set. I kept wanting to fiddle with their hair and their collars. [Laughs]

Constance Grady

Can you tell me about the project you’re working on with HBO and Denzel Washington to adapt more of the Pittsburgh Cycle?

Constanza Romero Wilson

We have made a deal with HBO to make more films of August Wilson’s plays. There is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom happening next, which I’m looking forward to working with Denzel on so much. We will see how we go about making the rest for HBO, either for the larger screen or the smaller screen.

The way I see it is, I’ve got a box full of beautiful gemstones, and each one is distinct, and each will require its own specific treatment and its own specific setting.

Constance Grady

Is there a particular play you’re especially looking forward to seeing onscreen?

Constanza Romero Wilson

I think that the real true larger, epic plays are going to be exciting. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Gem of the Ocean, The Piano Lesson, King Hedley II — those are all so big and so epic that I think they’ll work beautifully on screen.

The thing about August’s words that I think is so exciting is that he always speaks to any time we’re living. To be the curator, the gatekeeper, the executor of his estate is a huge challenge, and it never ceases to amaze me.

Constance Grady

Why do you think these projects are finally coming to fruition now? What is it about the current moment that makes these plays so appealing to us?

Constanza Romero Wilson

I think you’ll get a lot of answers to that question, but for me it’s the worth of human life, the potential and the challenge, and the promise to each individual that is part of our society and our community. Troy in Fences was born with so much promise, and he could have been a tremendous athlete, had he had the right circumstances and the right possibilities available.

What it says to me is, let’s look at the potential, and the great ability to contribute that is within so many young people, of all kinds of backgrounds from all kinds of cultural places. Let us see how they can contribute to our world. There’s a line in Fences that says, “There ought not ever have been no time called too early!” This time should not be too early for them.