Erika Rose + Craig Wallace in Fences // Scott Suchman

August Wilson’s “Fences” Tackles Issues of Race, Identity + Family

August Wilson’s Fences offers an enduring look at the everyday struggles of black Americans through the lens of ex-ball player Troy Maxson and his complicated relationship with his family. Though the groundbreaking Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh, the text has resonated with theatregoers since its run in the late 80s on Broadway and will continue to do so at Ford’s Theatre from September 27 to October 27. We spoke with director Timothy Douglas, one of the foremost Wilson interpreters, about why he’s drawn to the playwright’s work and how Fences continues to hold relevance with today’s audiences.

On Tap: Fences is a legendary production. Its Broadway runs featured both Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones as Troy, and Washington recently directed and starred in the Oscar-nominated film adaptation. Why do you think this material is so powerful 34 years after August Wilson penned it?
Timothy Douglas: August Wilson is one of the world’s great playwrights, and the play can speak and reflect [on] the ongoing relevance in and of itself and the world it exists in. It’s a milestone in inviting the intimacy of what it’s like to be black in America, so you can get a sense of that while August unfolds his own story.

OT: How difficult is the balancing act of honoring the source and adding your own personal twist to a story like this?
TD: Any well-written play, and specifically Fences, for me is like dough. I have to knead the dough and let it rest. When I come back, it expands. I can’t bring anything to Fences. I’m the conduit for which the play further expresses itself. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

OT: One of DC’s notable actors who you’ve directed before, Craig Wallace, is set to play Troy. How excited are you for him to be able to take on this role?
TD: One of the reasons Ford’s programmed this play is [because] Craig Wallace is at a point in his career where he’s ready for Troy and Troy is ready to be interpreted through him. I’m the one who holds the reigns of this great union, but I’m just there to make sure they’re speaking for each other.

OT: Throughout your career, you’ve been involved in a number of August Wilson plays. Why do you keep coming back to his works?
TD: These works will never be the definitive production because it’s impossible to encapsulate it all in one production. It’s my sixth time directing Fences, and I am just picking up where I left off and seeing how much deeper I can dig into the basement of it.

OT: This play obviously deals with race and issues around race in America. Does it mean more to you directing this play in the nation’s capital?
TD: It does. In my experience, the majority of audiences in DC are typically white and don’t know the realities of black people in America. For the first time in my life, there are more white people engaged in the curiosity of what it’s like to be black in America, so they can better perceive the material of this play.

August Wilson’s Fences runs from Friday, September 27 through Sunday, October 27. Times vary. Tickets $20-$70.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org