Head over to the Pasadena Playhouse during its month-long run of “Fences” and you won’t just be seeing a play. You’ll be experiencing what could almost be described as the Super Bowl of theater.
That’s because the Playhouse has landed not one but two giant Hollywood names in Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as the leads, with a supporting cast of TV/movie stars Orlando Jones (“MAD TV,” “Drumline”) and Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne Wayne of NBC’s long-running former sitcom “A Different World”) and Broadway veteran Wendell Pierce to boot.
Add the fact that this production of “Fences” celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama and serves as a tribute to the great works of recently deceased playwright August Wilson, and the month ahead offers an artistic event that comes along once in a lifetime.
The play also marks the most dynamic opportunity Fishburne and Bassett have had together since they each were nominated for Oscars playing against each other as Ike and Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Having also teamed up in 1991’s classic “Boyz N The Hood” and this year’s feature “Akeelah and the Bee,” the pair have established a chemistry that crackled throughout a recent roundtable interview at the Playhouse.
“There’s nothing better than working with Angela, and we’ll do anything to make it happen,” says Fishburne, whose giant frame easily brings to mind his authoritative turns as Morpheus in the “Matrix” films, but whose easy laugh still recalls the pleasant nature he displayed in his early career role as Cowboy Curtis on TV’s “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
“It’s a great play, and it gives us an opportunity to play a wonderful couple. I don’t know very many roles where African-American people have a wife and family and all the things that are contained in the structure of ‘Fences.’ The stakes are pretty high.”
Indeed, as it follows the turbulent dynamics of an African-American family in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, “Fences” provides a powerful window into the human condition beyond race. Its significance came as the centerpiece of Wilson’s ambitious cycle of 10 plays that formed the great body of his life’s work by viewing the African-American experience in America one decade at a time.
Amazingly, Wilson accomplished that task even though he died at the relatively young age of 65 last year after a long battle with liver cancer. And in a fitting tribute to the impact he had on American theater, on Oct. 16 — just two weeks after his untimely death — the Virginia Theatre in New York’s Broadway theater district was renamed the August Wilson Theatre, making it the first Broadway theater named after an African American.
“This is the 20th anniversary of ‘Fences’ being on Broadway, and our feet weren’t big enough to fill those shoes when it started,” explains Bassett, who exudes confident energy as she speaks.
“Now we’ve earned the rights to play these parts,” adds Fishburne, who won a Tony in 1992 for his role in Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”
Indeed, Fishburne has established himself as an actor with gravitas, but he’s stepping into the imposing shoes of James Earl Jones, who originated the role on Broadway. Yet Bassett underscored why she and Fishburne are so willing to take on the challenge.
“If there isn’t apprehension, humility, fear and trepidation, we wouldn’t want to do it,” she says, punching a finger in the air to emphasize each word. “We know we’ll stretch and be challenged and grow. We didn’t get into this profession because it’s easy.”
For “Fences” director Sheldon Epps, who also serves as the Playhouse’s artistic director, bringing together Fishburne and Bassett was surprisingly easy. He had already long been in talks with Bassett about working at the Playhouse, since she was eager to spread her wings after experiencing a few smaller roles in films over the past couple of years. In fact, he had even tried to team up with her during his previous tenure as head of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.
At first it looked like the timing wouldn’t work out for the pair to team up in “Fences,” since Fishburne was coming off another heavy-duty theater role in “Without Walls” at downtown LA’s Mark Taper Forum, and Bassett and Epps assumed he wouldn’t want to perform two stage productions in a row and risk missing more lucrative film work. But a month-long gap existed in the Playhouse’s season schedule with a glaring “TBA” leaving audiences wondering what they would bring to the stage.
Ultimately, it was the death of Wilson and the sheer joy the actors find in working together that produced the winning solution.
“The theater gods worked hard to make it come together the way it did. We approached Laurence really subtly for a long time, but then we both went to his opening night [of ‘Without Walls’] and ganged up on him,” laughs Epps. “This is also a theater where people can work here and go home and sleep in their own beds at night. I don’t have to ask them to pack up their lives for months at a time. And we’ve built back up the Playhouse’s renown so that people want to work here rather than us having to beg and plead for them to come.”
For Fishburne, the opportunity to do two great plays back to back has proven to be so rewarding that he hasn’t missed the kinds of film work that earned him $15 million (plus percentages of the gross) for each “Matrix” sequel. He noted that he has never had formal acting training, but relies on the rehearsal process to get inside a character’s mind and imagine him as a fully three-dimensional person with his own ways of walking, talking and thinking.
In fact, he freely admitted that he was still trying to get a handle on his “Fences” role as family patriarch Troy Maxson on the day of the interview, which was two weeks into rehearsals. But he also noted that truly great actors strive to leave their performances open to the point that they are learning something about their craft right up until the last moment of a show’s run.
“There’s no way to describe what a live audience does to you,” he explains.
But according to Bassett, the reason for the mysterious connection between a live audience and actors in a play is clear.
“When you as an audience member come in and pay your money, you’ll say, ‘I’ve come to believe,’” she says. “And we say, ‘This is the world, either we touch you or we won’t, but we’ll touch you, provoke you and make you feel.’ I guess you in the audience get to experience that at the cinema, but here we experience that with you. We get to know each other. You respond. Then I respond. And we respond together.”
“Fences” plays through Oct. 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Previews are Friday through Aug. 31. Tickets are $38, $43 and $48 for shows at 9 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with tickets at $50, $55 and $60 for weekend matinee performances at 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call (626) 356-PLAY.