There’s a major Minnesota connection at this year’s Academy Awards.
The cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, featuring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, might win Oscar recognition this weekend.
The Pulitzer-winning play was written by August Wilson in the ’80s while he was living in St. Paul. It’s one of two Pulitzers awarded to the playwright, who penned 10 pieces before his death in 2005.
Wilson moved to St. Paul in 1978, the same year Husker Du formed in St. Paul, Prince dropped his first album, and the Replacements got together in Minneapolis. It was a Twin Cities renaissance.
Encouraged by local theater director and friend Claude Purdy, Wilson settled into a place on Grand Avenue. Lou Bellamy was director of the nearby Penumbra Theater.
“The cool thing about being an artistic director is you meet writers who are absolutely geniuses,” says Bellamy. “I was in a position to hear many of the stories that turned out to be plays while August was just thinking.”
They would hang out on Grand. Esteban's (now Dixie's) was a favorite spot, as was the Penumbra lobby. Wilson would bounce ideas off of people and share stories that were often intensely personal.
Sometimes, these moments would spark an idea that wound up immortalized in a play. One day in the Penumbra lobby, Wilson began talking about blackness and hope. He then hopped on a bench and acted out a scene for a potential character, a desperate man calling to God.
"I told him, ‘You can’t talk like that,’" says Bellamy, concerned that the intensity of race mixed with the sight of a character screaming at God would be too much onstage.
“I’m going to do it,” he told Bellamy calmly, with confidence. Wilson made it into a monologue in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It wasn’t the only time that Bellamy found himself part of an August Wilson moment.
"I'll never forget sitting at the premiere of Radio Golf at Yale and hearing a conversation onstage that August and I had had a few months earlier," says Bellamy. "I wish I had known we were doing something when we were doing it."
Wilson's works are about the intricacies and intimacies of casual black life. His work is also about debunking the minstrel, about black identity, blacks making art, and blacks seeing ourselves as we are.
Bellamy says that Wilson was quiet and polite -- but he would also get wound up and confront any subject matter. Race has always been a pressure-packed subject. If there has been any alleviation, some debt is owed Wilson.
Fences is the first time a work of Wilson’s has been adapted for the big screen. Washington, who stars and directs, was given the keys, and he's driven Wilson's words to the Oscars. Maybe Fences will win best picture. Maybe Washington or Davis will pick up personal trophies. What’s certain is Fences is a locally penned masterpiece.
The Academy Awards air Sunday, February 26 at 6 p.m. on ABC.
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