As Denzel Washington stepped onto the red carpet on Thursday night for the San Francisco premiere of Fences, a night hosted by the city’s former mayor, Willie Brown, the star already had racked up a stellar week: Golden Globe and SAG Awards nominations for him and for the film, which he produced and directed, and sitting strong on Oscar prediction lists. But the event had Washington — arguably the most handsome man ever to play the Pittsburgh garbageman Troy Maxson — thinking back to nearly 40 years ago, when he was a MFA theater student working across this very San Francisco street at a cafeteria called Salmagundi’s.
“I was the soup guy!” he gleefully told reporters lined up in the tent in front of the Curran Theatre. “I never got to go into the theater: I couldn’t afford the show.” Washington continued the tale at the panel discussion after the screening to a packed crowd that included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Tom Waits. “I said one day, I’m gonna be in that theater,” he recalled. “It took me 39 years, but I’m here.”
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San Francisco — and the Curran specifically — also marks a homecoming for Fences. Playwright August Wilson’s work first was staged at the Curran in 1987 before moving to Broadway, and its later screenplay adaptation by Wilson was picked up by Paramount and producer Scott Rudin and Todd Black. The event also marked the grand reopening of the Curran itself, which has been under reconstruction for the duration of “two-and-a-half pregnancies,” as its owner, Broadway producer Carole Shorenstein Hays, put it on the red carpet. She was the sole backer of the play in its 1987 run at the theater before taking it to Broadway, and co-produced the Broadway revival with Rudin starring Washington in 2010 (she is not a producer on the film).
Washington told the crowd he decided to keep that Broadway cast intact, calling up Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Tony-award winning Viola Davis: “The band was tight,” Washington explained of keeping the crew together. The three male actors joined Jovan Adepo, a newcomer who plays Troy Maxson’s son, onstage after the film, alongside the late Wilson’s wife, Constanza Romero, who designed the Broadway version’s costumes. “This was his answer to criticism that said, ‘You wrote Ma Rainey, but can you write the great American play?’” Romero told THR. “He said yes, I can write a great American play and he wrote Fences. I’m sorry [the film] didn’t happen in his lifetime, but I’m glad it happened in my lifetime.”
Fences joins an Oscar contender lineup including Moonlight and Hidden Figures that has put several black stars in serious contention after two years of #OscarsSoWhite snubs, though the actors deferred questions about their chances Thursday. “The Oscar — who knows?” Williamson told THR. “That’s not why we do this … We do this for healing, to give people joy, to give them an escape to get away from their lives and the things they’re bombarded with on a daily basis. If it resonates with the people, that’s amazing, that’s what were after; if it resonates with the Academy, that’s just icing on the cake.”
But the film, released on Christmas Day and having started limited screenings in New York and Los Angeles Thursday, also comes at a fraught racial moment for the country, as the first black president is packing up to pass the White House to a white man whose platform was seen by many as a rebuke to racial progress and pluralism. In such Trumpy times, Henderson told THR, stories like Fences are important than ever: “This is one of those really wonderful plays that makes you realize family will sustain you: Knowing your heritage and legacy is gonna get you through whatever times. These things come and go,” he said, referring to politics. “You have to keep on steppin’. Great art prepares you for that.” He said he was proud of “the class act” Obama family: “They did the country proud. The work’s ahead of us.”
THR asked Washington what his character Troy Maxson — embittered from having his life’s opportunities limited by racism — would make of a President Obama. “You know what Troy would have said?” Washington answered, using his gruff Maxson voice: “Obama ain’t nobody! I could be president right now! Oh, there ain’t nothing to it! You know just get two or three cabinet members, and tell ’em what to do!”
THR also asked Washington about a story citing him as a Trump supporter on Facebook — one of the big fake news stories proliferating on the social network during election season, to which Washington quipped: “What’s that song back in the day? You heard it through the grapevine! Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. And a tenth of what you read.”
Washington stayed on the red carpet chumming with reporters long enough that Brown came back out to announce he was already done with his pre-screening introduction. At the film’s conclusion, the audience applauded and hooted through the credits (a highly unscientific study puts the loudest hoots for Viola Davis). Washington added one last sentimental gesture before exiting the stage. “I didn’t get the chance to do it when I worked across the street, but I’ll do it now.” He took a deep, arms-flaying-out-behind-him, showman’s bow.