Fences is a play I've taught now for nearly every year of my career (one year back in the day I taught 10th graders instead of 9th graders, but hopefully I don't make that mistake again anytime soon, haha). Along with, perhaps, Frankenstein in 11th grade British Literature, I think Fences in the 9th grade at our school is about as entrenched as it gets. It was there when I arrived at the school in 2001, and remains today, uninterrupted. This year, our curriculum is Fences, Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, Poetry of Clifton and Poe, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Romeo and Juliet. Over the years, the other five units have changed at times (Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite, has been taught too much in middle schools, ruining it for high schools; The Catcher in the Rye and A Lesson Before Dying were both great teaches but we've gone with Steinbeck in recent years; Persepolis has survived for years now but, who knows, someday may be changed out; this year, we considered I Am Malala; we've done Romeo and Juliet as our Shakespeare for years, and I love it, but I've taken breaks with Othello -- a play I didn't like with 9th graders anymore -- but certainly could see myself doing King Lear, Julius Caesar, or Much Ado About Nothing someday with 9th graders), but Fences survives. And there are good reasons for Fences' survival: it's a great piece of literature, with much complexity, complicated characters and interesting metaphors; plus, kids generally love it, since it's built on high-interest subjects as sports, father-son conflicts, and marital affairs. Personally, I'm crazy about it, since it's about baseball, specifically Negro League Baseball, and uses allusions to Josh Gibson and Roberto Clemente as important symbols of racism and tragedy.
|Viola, the too-old Chris Chalk, and Denzel.|
With all the accolades that Washington and Davis got for their roles, I was hoping that they might make a film, too. August Wilson was famously prickly about his choices for direction and production of his plays into films, which is one reason why there has only ever been one of his ten plays made into movies: an adaptation of The Piano Lesson, directed by the late Black director Lloyd Richards. And, to be fair, my choice of the word "prickly" above might be wrong; I think Wilson's requests were fair, and I agree with him, at least most of the time when I think about it (at other times, I think to myself, does that mean that I shouldn't direct kids in a production of Fences, since I'm not Black? Is that fair to withhold the play from students who would love it and be exposed to his work?).
|Viola Davis as Rose and Denzel Washington as Troy.|
The Denzel Washington Fences film fills a lot of my hopes; Washington, in The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher, has proven to be a sensitive director who inspires great performances from his actors. Casting those two main roles should be set; these are two of the best living actors, playing complex parts they've already excelled with on Broadway. A mistake of the Broadway production seems to be the age of the actor playing Cory; Chris Chalk's age isn't available online anywhere I could find, but he graduated from college in 2001, so he's in his 30s, and certainly looks older that the 17-year old Cory in the clips made available. I'm sure there are great teen actors who could play Cory, such as the ones Washington found in The Great Debaters. If the producers need a suggestion, I would point them in the direction of the young man in my 3rd period who starred at Prospero in The Tempest last year, who all his classmates call "Denzel" when we do anything performance-based.
Unfortunately, there's nothing I can find online that updates that story beyond February 2013. Is this a Fences project, like one I heard about a decade attached to Morgan Freeman, that will wither and die on the vine? I sure hope not. Please, Hollywood, get this film made. Denzel and Viola both look good for their ages -- they've clearly lived less harsh lives than the characters they would portray -- but anything could happen; plus, I think this is the role that could win Denzel another Oscar and Viola her first (finally!).
More optimism should abound for the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, which seems to be in full swing in terms of casting. I'm teaching Americanah this year for the second time, and just love the book; for me, it's the first piece of great literature with a true 21st century voice. With the blogging and Facebook references, Adichie perhaps runs the risk of giving her literature an expiration date, but I don't think it does at all, and, while the bold novel has a few flaws, I think it's genuinely one of the best books I've read in a long time.
|Lupita will play Ifemelu.|
|David Oyelowo will play Obinze.|
I'm so intrigued by who else might be cast in the film. Who will play Curt, the played the rich, callow white guy that Ifemelu dates while living in Baltimore in her early 20s? What about Blaine, the Black American with whom Ifemelu has a serious 5-year (roughly) relationship that begins waning in 2008 but is rekindled by their shared love of Barack Obama? What about Aunty Uju, the young, vivacious aunt who temporarily loses herself in America? How about Justin Bieber, Michael B. Jordan, and Viola Davis? I'm kidding about the Bieber, but I bet he could do rich and callow justice (though, admittedly, I liked the basically well-meaning Curt a lot more than some of my students did, thinking both he and Ifemelu were young and ignorant, and thought the big scene with him in the inner harbor Barnes & Noble, where Ifemelu shows him all the magazines, was the weakest, most soapboxy scene of the book).
Also intriguing will be what is cut from a 600-page novel. Will it primarily focus on Ifemelu and Obinze, and maybe not spend so much time on the years that they are apart? Will Ifemelu's time in Baltimore be depicted at all, or her family's excitement at visiting the White Marsh J.C. Penny? How about working for the rich white family, or the creepy tennis coach, or all those vivid scenes of Ifemelu adjusting to college and the work force? Will Obinze's time in England be portrayed? And, of course, what about the hair salon?
I'm hoping Adichie writes the script; ever since watching Gillian Flynn's brilliant script for the film of her own novel Gone, Girl, I have been hoping Adichie was working on the script. But who will be the director? This is, of course, huge. Ana Duvernay, Steve McQueen, Amma Assante, and Ryan Coogler are four names I'd be excited about. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's Duvernay, and they're waiting for Selma to be released and a possible Oscar nomination to propel whatever she chooses next to the spotlight.
In either case, I'm so excited about the possibilities of both of these films, and will be first in line to see them.