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The Beauty of Interpretation: James Earl Jones + Denzel Washington as 'Troy Maxson'

James Earl Jones + Denzel Washington as 'Troy Maxson' in August Wilson’s classic, ‘Fences' Collage

As an actor, one of the most divine things I can take away from the constant performing of classics is the actors interpretation. We can see countless re-envisioning's of classics, and the same remains: every actor will bring their own flavor to the role.

I saw the "all Black" version of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' on Broadway starring Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker last summer. Beautiful show! Nicole was stellar! Her interpretation of 'Blanche DuBois' was different than Vivian Leigh's, different than Jessica Tandy's, and different than Jessica Lange's. That is the beauty of acting!

In 1987, August Wilson's now-classic play 'Fences' hit the Broadway stage, starring James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, Courtney B. Vance, Ray Aranha, and Frankie Faison. Directed by Lloyd Richards.

 23 years later in 2010, a revival of 'Fences' hit Broadway, starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Stephen Henderson, and Russell Hornsby. Directed by Kenny Leon.

Fences is a 1983 play by American playwright August Wilson. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle. Like all of the Pittsburgh plays, Fences explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.

Today, I want to explore one scene from the show in particular, as it is interpreted by two different sets of actors.  

First up, from 1987, James Earl Jones (as Troy) and Courtney B. Vance (as Cory), in this performance from Act I/Scene III.

Next up, from 2010, Denzel Washington (as Troy) and Chris Chalk (as Cory), in this performance from Act I/Scene III.

Ah, the beauty of interpretation!

Both James and Denzel delivered some great work during their performances, though the difference here, I think, lies with the conditioning of audiences in 1987 and audiences in 2010.

The performance James offered up in 1987 had the audience on the edge of their seats. Afraid to laugh...afraid to move, it seemed. His booming voice filled the theater and commanded the attention of everyone within earshot. Courtney's nuanced and slightly frightened performance added to the level of tension in the scene. I feared for 'Cory.' This added to some later moments in the show when 'Troy' and 'Cory' have altercations, ESPECIALLY the "strike two" moment. It added to the tension (and maybe even fear?) embedded in the relationship of 'Troy' and 'Rose.' (I could go on and on about the brilliance that is Mary Alice, but I'll spare you!)

The performance Denzel offered up in 2010 was quite powerful as well. I believed that Denzel's 'Troy' loved his son, wholeheartedly, but was disconnected from the "new generation," and the idea that following ones dreams WAS possible. Denzel's 'Troy' was scared of change. Chris' 'Cory' was bold, yet respectful and naive.

It's my opinion, though, that the audience was the downfall of said performance. The laughter, the snickering, the clapping during intricate monologue work...it made it tough for me, as an audience member, to fully invest in what was happening on stage. My focus was constantly snatched away from the stage and put onto someone in the audience. Thankfully, though, Denzel (and Chris) were masterful enough to trudge through it, and deliver a beautiful scene.

Growing up in theatre, I was ALWAYS taught that more times than not it is not my duty to communicate verbally with the actors on stage. Cat calling, shouting, hollering, all of that, was frowned upon by my teachers. So when I see shows, I'm almost always quiet as a church mouse. This is partly because of my training, but mostly because I love to soak up the performance in full. I want to catch ever nuanced and subtle performance an actor offers. I want to see ever batted eye-lash. I want to hear every bated breath. I want to float in the tension of a scene.

As an actor, I know how tough it can be to perform in front of an audience that feels it necessary to communicate with you, verbally. I've been there. But I get it. Sometimes a performance/show is just SO GOOD that you have to have a visceral reaction. When I saw 'The Color Purple: The Musical' here in Los Angeles, there were many times where I hollered! But that was a musical, and my hollers were "hidden" in the beautiful music wafting from the orchestra pit. When watching straight plays though, I try my damnedest to silently participate.

Denzel Washington tells a story about a play he did early in his career in which he played an abusive spouse. During a heightened scene, FULL of tension, his co-star (playing his spouse) aims a gun at him. Denzel recalls being in the moment, yet still hearing (and almost breaking character to laugh) an audience member mutter under her breath, "Shoot him...shoot that muthafucka..." So yes, I get it. Sometimes we become so invested in a character, characters, or a storyline that we have these reactions. I would just dig it if folks were more aware of the fact that we aren't watching a film or a TV show, and that the actors on stage CAN hear you, and that what you do in the audience may very well distract them and cause their performance to suffer.

Both sets of 'Troy's' and 'Rose's' won Tony Awards for their performances. James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in '87, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in '10.

Both shows were beautiful interpretations of August's classic work. I am thankful anytime an artist offers up their view of a piece of work. Thankful, indeed.

I've flapped my gums long enough. What do YOU think about the above performances? Which is your favorite? Why? Do you think audience behavior has changed over the years? Let's start a conversation! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

- D.