Without a doubt, the hottest ticket on Broadway these days is “Fences,” the revival of the August Wilson play that once starred James Earl Jones. This past weekend, I was one among many ticket holders that crowded into New York's small Cort Theater to see Denzel Washington step into the role of Troy Maxson. I rarely go to the theater - ticket prices are far too expensive when you are raising a family – and there are few celebrities I would spend the money to see. Let it be known, however, that I broke the bank and purchased prime seats in the second row to see Denzel Washington make theater history.
And that he did! Mr. Washington has never turned in anything less than a stellar performance, and his appearance in “Fences” did not disappoint. The play was a masterpiece, but this column is not intended to be a theater review (if you are interested in a review of the August Wilson play, please refer to the New York Times April 27th critique by Ben Brantley). Rather, this column is meant merely as musings from the theater.
As I entered the very crowded theater, I came face-to-face with Stevie Wonder, who was waiting beside me to be led to his seat. Word of his presence spread quickly. When a woman seated in front of me shouted “Stevie! I love you!” I wondered how Stevie Wonder must have felt. Did he welcome the greeting? Was he uncomfortable knowing he was being stared at? During the intermission, Mr. Wonder left the theater to sit in his SUV parked out front. After the performance ended, the vehicle was surrounded by fans. I felt sorry for him. Perhaps he wanted to be just another theater-goer enjoying Denzel Washington's performance, just another guy out for a Saturday afternoon, but the crowd made that pretty much impossible. I suppose Stevie Wonder is used to such things, but I doubt that I could – or would want to – become accustomed to life in a fish bowl.
Several times during the performance of “Fences,” some members of the audience laughed inappropriately. At first, I thought I had missed a joke, but quickly realized no pun had been intended. I don't know why the audience laughed at certain points, such as when Troy's mentally challenged brother emotionally broke down, but Denzel Washington and his fellow consummate performers did not flinch, and proceeded with their expert performance. But I couldn't help wondering how they felt. Surely, it must have bothered them on some level to hear laughter in the audience when there shouldn't have been any.
Ditto for cell phones ringing. Despite the pre-performance request for all cell phones to be turned off, during the climax of the play and Denzel's finest moment, an audience member's cell phone rang...and rang. If I heard it only two rows away from the stage, then Denzel Washington definitely heard it, too. A part of me wanted to apologize to Mr. Washington for the ignorance of the unknown owner of the cell phone. Watching a play is not like watching television at home. One should not talk aloud during the performance or leave a cell phone on. Theater-goers should be mindful that the actors on the stage are people doing their jobs; the audience should behave with consideration and deference.
That being said, “Fences” is more than a play. It is food for thought. It examines complicated relationships between family members, and the impact of the relationship between races. The fact that I acknowledge this is proof that Denzel Washington's performance was absolutely successful. I have no doubt that he will win a well deserved Tony award this season.
And I have no doubt that if Denzel Washington appears on Broadway ever again in another production, I will most definitely break open my piggy bank, and once more sit as close to the stage as possible to see the finest actor of our day.