By Howard Pousner / email@example.com
Kenny Leon has stood outside New York’s Cort Theatre on West 48th Street for the past week and a half as the nightly crowds have wrapped themselves around the block, queuing up to see previews of the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences.” Leon, director of the production starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, says he has been amazed and awed.
Several times, strangers from back home in Atlanta have jumped out of line to introduce themselves and express their support. “That’s just been very rewarding to me,” said Leon, directing for the fourth time on Broadway.
“Fences” previews have been a hot ticket, with strong advance ticket sales. “I’ve been in New York a lot, and to walk around, to go see other plays and to hear your play be the talk of the town, it’s just incredible,” he said in a Friday interview during which he set the stage for tonight’s opening.
Q: You’re about to give your cast your final director’s notes before critics see the play. What are you going to tell them?
A: It’s just going to be just how proud I am of what we set out to do, and that we’re accomplishing it every night. And that it’s a historic tribute to August Wilson and also all the people, the spirits, that have lived 1957 [the year the play is set] and on. It’s a special group; there’s not one weak person in the cast.
Q: How is Denzel Washington in the lead role of Troy Maxson, the former Negro League baseball player who winds up working on the back of a Pittsburgh garbage truck?
A: All I can say is that I think that he’s one of the most incredible stage actors ever. Notice that I didn’t say “film.”
He is very commanding, and it’s a very beautiful performance. People come and they expect to see some sort of star turn, and what they get is a full portrait of a man they don’t know. And they think, wow, Denzel is standing in front of me and he’s just transformed himself into this other person.
Our relationship has been great. It’s been a real, real true collaboration. To see the magic every night and to know that I had a hand in just a little bit of it is amazing.
Q: It sounds like you and the cast are ready for the reviewers.
A: The thing is, the people are already demanding all the seats, and on top of that they leave here every night saying, “Wow, I’ve got to tell my friends.” So the critics can’t really hurt it in that sense. But it’s like, I think I’m ready for them to talk about the work, because the work is incredible. We’re ready for them. I hope they’re ready for us.
Q: You had said before you left Atlanta that even Denzel and Viola were going to have to do push-ups in rehearsals, your punishment for ringing cellphones and other misdeeds. Have you done that?
A: We’re a true ensemble. We do push-ups together. We’ve also eaten our meals together. Many times, Denzel would order food and we’d all eat together.
We’ve also added to my push-ups thing, because we have two little girls playing the role of Raynell [Troy’s illegitimate child]. We made a vow if that if any of us use profanity in the presence of these young people, we’d have to do 10 push-ups as well. So we’ve been doing a lot of push-ups, because my mouth has gotten away from me a couple of times.
Q: Will you be feeling any pressure tonight?
A: I’m in a great place. I’m always positively nervous, because if I wasn’t nervous, I wouldn’t feel comfortable or right. I think the work is done, the work is on that stage every night. People are meeting it halfway and going away like they’ve received a tremendous gift.
Q: And when you get “Fences” open, it’s back to Atlanta to help your True Colors Theatre Company open Wilson’s “Jitney” on May 5. When do you get to take five?
A: I’ll be there on the fourth and fifth, and after we open “Jitney,” I’m going get some rest … somewhere.