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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

Photo: courtesy of Studio Theatre

Unanswered Questions Remain Relevant in “Doubt: A Parable”

Where did society’s curiosity go? What happened to the doubts? These are some of the questions that playwright John Patrick Shanley asks in his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt: A Parable. Studio Theatre brings the thoughtful play to 14th Street from September 4 to October 6 with associate artistic director Matt Torney at the helm. The story centers on a 1964 Brooklyn Catholic school where a charismatic priest takes an interest in a young boy, leaving the school’s headmaster suspicious of foul play. As Studio prepares to ask the play’s many questions, we talked to Torney about this contemporary masterpiece and its jarring subject matter.

On Tap: Why did you decide this season was the right fit for Doubt?
Matt Torney: The first thing is that it’s one of the plays that seems to be many years ahead of its time. In the preface, the playwright talks about the year he’s living in [as] an age of certainty [where] everyone was very certain about what they believed and what they experienced. He wanted to know what happened to doubt, what happened to curiosity. We’re always looking for contemporary classics, and the political time we’re living in is fraught and certainty is rampant. We thought it was a great time for us to visit the play, and to see how it’s aged and how it can reengage.

OT: What specifically drew you to the play?
MT: I’m from Ireland [and] I went to a Catholic school, and the idea of what it means to be a Catholic and have that history is something personally relevant to me. This play made me feel uncomfortable and scared me a little bit, and that’s always a good sign. It got under my skin, and I had some questions I didn’t have answers to.

OT: What is your approach when directing a play with so much clout and acclaim? Does it make you want to bring your own vision more or less?
MT: My process always begins with the actors. We have to make it feel very alive. Even when you do contemporary classics, you don’t want to treat them as museum pieces. You have to make it feel vivid right now. The thing that drew me to it is that the questions felt very alive to me. The play hadn’t been answered or solved, and the questions it was built on were so relevant and poignant.

OT: One of my favorite aspects of Studio’s productions are the set pieces and the intimacy of the spaces. How are you approaching Doubt from those perspectives?
MT: Just the [set design] alone is perfect for an intimate space. You’re being invited into a private office and a private garden. It’s an enclosed world that’s opened up a crack [and] you’re able to peek into [it]. What happens behind closed doors? What are the conversations about power and faith?

OT: What would you say to people who are unfamiliar with the play? Why do you think it’s not to be missed?
MT: [At] the center of the play is an accusation against a priest. There’s not much evidence to prove it, but there’s a lot of circumstances that cause the accusers to be certain. That mystery of the play is interesting dramatically because who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t clear. There’s a huge gray area of challenging power dynamics and gender dynamics.

Doubt: A Parable runs from Wednesday, September 4 through Sunday, October 6. Times vary. Tickets $60-$80.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org