The double Oscar-winning star of the films "Glory," "Philadelphia," "Malcolm X," "The Hurricane," "Training Day," "Inside Man" and "American Gangster" returned to the New York stage this month when he began previews in the Broadway revival of the late August Wilson's drama "Fences" at the Cort Theatre. The production co-stars Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Stephen McKinley Henderson, and is scheduled to run through July 11.
"(Producer) Scott Rudin actually came to me with the screenplay (for a film adaptation of 'Fences'). I think it was the only screenplay August wrote of his own plays and Scott asked me: 'Whatever you want to do. Do you want to direct it? Act in it? Produce it?' So, I read it," Washington told UPI at Sardi's restaurant in Manhattan recently. "Then I went and read the play and cried and laughed, and thought this is just a great, great play. And I went back to Scott and I said, ''OK, but I want to do the play.' And he said, 'We'll do it on Broadway,' and I said, 'Yeah.' And here we are."
So, does that mean a "Fences" movie might follow the show's limited engagement?
"Maybe. Nothing's in stone at all. There's nothing at this point but a script," Washington said.
Despite his fame and success in Hollywood, the 55-year-old Mount Vernon, N.Y., native said he relishes getting back to the stage in the Big Apple because it allows him to exercise different acting muscles while being part of an ensemble.
"What I love about theater and what I love about it now, given the position I'm in, is that it gives me the chance to just be one of the guys. I'm another member of the cast," Washington said.
"I have a role to play," he added. "This is what I love; this is how I started as an actor, in the theater right up the block at Lincoln Center and when I left New York in 1982, I was doing a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. I had just done 'When the Chickens Came Home to Roost' and I followed that up with 'A Soldier's Play,' which won the Pulitzer Prize and I left to go to Los Angeles to do what I thought was a 13-week job called 'St. Elsewhere.' Four kids, 20-whatever years later, I started working my way back. I never really felt Los Angeles was my home; New York's my home. Now we have a home here. My children are getting to an age where I could come back. I couldn't do eight shows a week (when they were younger) because I couldn't get home to Los Angeles. ... The kids were raised there, their friends are there, so I didn't want to uproot them. So starting five years ago with 'Julius Caesar' and I'm here now and I plan to be here more and more, and do more and more plays."
Wilson died of cancer at age 60 in 2005. Cast members and Kenny Leon, the director of "Fences," said they feel the spirit of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Two Trains Running" and "King Hedley II" in the theater as they work.
"He is (present)," Washington acknowledged. "He lives on forever as long as there are actors or people to speak his words, he lives on forever."
For the actor, the opportunity to perform in a Wilson work is one to treasure.
"Very rarely do you get to interpret the work of a master, a grand master," Washington said. "And he is one. He is Eugene O'Neill, he is Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller. This is a masterpiece. I've been around. I've read a lot of plays and screenplays. He's as good as anybody I've ever read or seen. So to get that opportunity and knowing he's gone and, I, fortunately, got the chance to meet him (before he died). You can feel it. His plays are spiritual. They're specific about this African-American family, but the themes are universal -- the husband-wife relationship, the bitterness over not being successful in life, the dreams deferred, father-and-son relationships. All those themes -- black, white, blue, green, or yellow -- we all relate to them."