Oscar-nominated ‘Fences’ has Yale roots

Lloyd Richards, the dean of Yale School of Drama, received a package in the mail in December 1984 containing a typed draft script of “Fences,” a play by August Wilson that would premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre the following spring.

James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson in the 1985 production of “Fences” at Yale Rep. (Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre)

In a cover letter dated Dec. 19, 1984, Wilson apologized to Richards for being slow in sending him the latest version of the script, which he had developed while at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in New London, Conn.

“I can’t believe the problems I had getting it typed,” he wrote, explaining that he had to type most of it himself. The latest version of the script was “considerably shorter” than the previous draft and “not without its problems, all of which should prove solvable,” he explained in the note, which is housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library among Richards’ archives.  

Wilson expressed the hope that they would have an opportunity to discuss the script after the holidays. “I have pages of notes on the play, and as you probably know, I am a fast worker, so I don’t anticipate any problems getting the script ready for rehearsal,” he wrote.

The problems Wilson cited, whatever they were, proved to be solvable. “Fences” premiered at Yale Rep in May 1985, under Richards’s direction and starring James Earl Jones as protagonist Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker and former Negro League ballplayer, described as a “Vesuvius of rage” in Frank Rich’s review of the Yale production in The New York Times.

Following a successful run in New Haven, Wilson and Richards continued to refine the play in a series of productions around the country before bringing “Fences” to Broadway, where it opened in March 1987 to widespread acclaim. The production, which ran for 525 performances, won four Tony Awards, including best play, best director for Richards, and best featured actor and best featured actress for Jones and Mary Alice, who played Troy’s wife, Rose. The play won Wilson the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. A 2010 Broadway revival garnered 10 Tony nominations and won the awards for best revival of a play, best actor and best actress, for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

The 2016 film adaptation of the play starring Washington and Davis earned four Academy Award nominations, including best picture and a best-adapted screenplay nod for Wilson, who died in 2005.

Pictured are (from left) Lloyd Richards, dean of Yale School of Drama; Benjamin Mordecai, the school’s associate dean; and playwright August Wilson. Six of Wilson’s plays premiered at the Yale Rep, including “Fences” in 1985. (Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Richards’ papers provide an extensive record of the play’s development from early scripts to its status as an American classic. They contain drafts of the play, casting notes, photographs, correspondence, financial records, programs, broadsides and other publicity materials, and legal documents, among other primary source materials.

The archive is a window into the unique collaboration between Wilson and Richards, who directed six of the playwright’s works. In addition to “Fences,” five other plays in Wilson’s epic American Century Cycle debuted at Yale Rep: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984), “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1986), “The Piano Lesson” (1987), “Two Trains Running” (1990), all directed by Richards, and “Radio Golf” (2005), directed by Timothy Douglas who recently returned to stage the first professional production of Wilson’s “Seven Guitars”in Connecticut. Records of those productions are contained within Richards’s archive as well as in the papers of Benjamin Mordecai, former associate dean of Yale School of Drama and managing director of the Yale Rep.

A folder of congratulatory notes that Richards received from friends and admirers after “Fences” opened at Yale Rep includes a handwritten letter from Wilson, who discusses the play’s personal meaning to him.

“Of all my work it probably comes the closest to my life — not in an autobiographical sense — but in its manners and its content and its environment,” he wrote. “I wish my mother could be here to see this. I think she would like to know that her life — its values and meanings — could be worthy of art and the attention to which Yale Rep has paid to it.”

He explained that “Fences” is a tribute to men of previous generations, fathers and uncles, “who tried to live clean, hard, useful lives and who wrestled the best they knew how with the cultural and economic confines of that life — always with the idea of expanding the parameters for their children and grandchildren.”

Wilson ends the letter, dated May 3, 1985, by thanking Richards (who died in 2006) for producing an “an honest and beautiful show” that captures the spirit of the script.

Wilson’s signature from his December 1984 letter to Richards presenting the latest version of the “Fences” script.

A recent NPR segment on the 50th anniversary of the Yale Rep, included the following quote from Wilson on the Yale’s influence on his career:

“One of the most valuable things, I think, that has contributed to my development is the fact of having a home here at Yale Rep, and knowing that I can write a play and that the theater would be willing to produce it. I constantly work to reward the faith that has been placed in me,” he said.

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548