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Denzel Washington to film August Wilson play in Pittsburgh

Jason Cato
| Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, 12:00 p.m.

Life in Pittsburgh's Hill District filled August Wilson's plays with stories of the everyman, experiences that transcended Pennsylvania and Wilson's home city.

In taking the award-winning playwright's works and turning them into film, two-time Oscar-winning actor, producer and director Denzel Washington is bringing Wilson's genius back where it began.

Paramount Pictures begins pre-production work next week on “Fences,” which Washington will direct and star in, for HBO. It is the first of Wilson's 10 plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle that Washington plans to make for the cable network. He will produce the other nine.

“We are beyond thrilled to welcome ‘Fences' to Pittsburgh, its rightful home,” said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. “We are so fortunate that August Wilson loved our area and look forward to an amazing project with local talented crew and vendors.”

Washington's production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment, could not be reached. A Paramount spokeswoman declined to comment.

Online records show the PA Film Office awarded Paramount nearly $7.6 million in film production tax credits from this year's budget to make “Fences.” More tax credits for the project will come from future budgets.

The significance of having “Fences” made into a film and having the work done in Pittsburgh isn't lost on those who knew the Hill native, or came to love his work.

“The prospect of Denzel Washington filming ‘Fences' here in Pittsburgh is very, very exciting,” said Sala Udin, a childhood friend of Wilson and former city councilman who has acted in local productions of Wilson's plays. “I don't see any reason why all 10 of the cycle cannot be filmed here in Pittsburgh.”

Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, also known as the Century Cycle, spans the 20th century with each play examining black life from the 1900s to 1990s.

In order, the cycle consists of: “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Two Trains Running,” “Jitney,” “King Hedley II” and “Radio Golf.” All but “Ma Rainey” are set in Pittsburgh.

Wilson, who died in 2005 at 60, won a Tony Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, among other honors, for his work.

Only “The Piano Lesson” has been made into a film, which CBS aired in 1995. Parts of that television movie were shot in Pittsburgh, said Mark Clayton Southers, founder and producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

Southers, who has directed seven and produced all 10 plays in Wilson's cycle, believes “Fences” and the other works will translate well from stage to film.

“I think they will be great,” said Southers, who is directing “Gem of the Ocean,” which opens Thursday as part of the August Wilson Festival in Columbus, Ohio. “The beauty of his language and words and the depth of his characters will carry.”

“Fences” depicts the life struggles of Troy Maxson in 1950s Pittsburgh after the former baseball player was passed over for a chance in the major leagues because he's black. James Earl Jones played Maxson when the play debuted on Broadway in 1987.

Washington, 61, played Maxson in a 2010 Broadway revival, winning a Tony Award for best actor. Best actress went to fellow “Fences” cast member Viola Davis, who plans to be part of the film.

Wilson's niece, Kim Ellis of the Hill District, attended the Broadway opening of “Fences” with Washington and Davis.

She said she couldn't be prouder that her uncle's work will be taken from the stage to the screen in his hometown.

“It's exciting to continue making connections between the Hill District, Pittsburgh and Hollywood, Calif.,” said Ellis, a digital strategist who is a playwright and performing artist. “Stage is very temporary. Film is immortal.”

Wilson demanded opportunities for blacks and other minorities in the productions of his plays — from actors and directors to producers and stagehands, said Udin, who has acted in six Wilson plays — including playing Maxson in a “Fences” production by Pittsburgh Playwrights.

“August was concerned about the plays going to film,” Udin said. “He wanted the films to have the same impact his plays did on Broadway and on American theater.”

It would be hard to imagine Washington approaching “Fences” and Wilson's other works without a certain reverence to the author's desires, Udin said.

Darryl Ford Williams of WQED said she agreed.

“Those who acted in Wilson's plays are known as ‘Wilsonian Warriors,' ” said Williams, the Pittsburgh public television station's vice president of content. “I think (Washington) is certainly counted among those Wilsonian Warriors.”

Williams in 2015 was executive producer of “August Wilson: The Ground On Which I Stand,” a documentary of the playwright's life created by WQED and New York-based PBS flagship station THIRTEEN, WNET.

It was important that WQED and Pittsburgh played a role in telling Wilson's life story, Williams said.

“We were able to reflect what it is about Pittsburgh that so resonated in his plays. I clearly feel the same way about ‘Fences' being done here,” she said. “There are some things that are so authentically Pittsburgh that you don't have to recreate them.”

Her husband, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams, is board chairman of AWC Renewal Inc., the group overseeing the operation and future of the Downtown-based August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow and co-producer of the HBO film series, recently donated her late husband's office — including his typewriter and desk — to the center, for display.

“We are really trying to marry August Wilson to the August Wilson Center in different ways,” the judge said. “For Denzel to come here to produce and create this, it just reaffirms the brand of Pittsburgh and the August Wilson Center as central to August.

“We think there will be derivative benefits.”

One of the benefits of making “Fences” and Wilson's other plays into films is that his work will reach a broader audience, Udin said.

“There are a lot of people who have not seen the productions,” he said. “Once they see one of his plays, they say, ‘Oh my, I've got to see the others.' They are so powerful.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or

Actors Denzel Washington (left) and Stephen McKinley Henderson in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Fences' at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.
Joan Marcus
Actors Denzel Washington (left) and Stephen McKinley Henderson in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 'Fences' at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.
Actor Denzel Washington (right), portrays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, now reduced to collecting trash in August Wilson's Pultizer Prize-winning play, 'Fences.'
Joan Marcus
Actor Denzel Washington (right), portrays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, now reduced to collecting trash in August Wilson's Pultizer Prize-winning play, 'Fences.'
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