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How ‘Fences’ built ‘Moonlight,’ now its rival for an Oscar

Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert star in "Moonlight."

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By CHRIS JONES | Chicago Tribune | Published: February 4, 2017

CHICAGO — In 2004, iconic American playwright August Wilson was awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Literary Prize at a fall ceremony, part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Halfway through the lunch that followed, he excused himself.

“I have to catch a plane,” he said, wearily.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

The answer was California. He was going out to schmooze with some rich person he barely knew. “Gem of the Ocean” was slated to open on Broadway a few weeks later and the financing, clearly, was not yet fully in place. I caught the eyes of a colleague who had overheard. Even at that point, even after all this success and acclaim, Wilson still had to go with cap in hand to get his play done. We shook our heads.

I thought of that November a dozen years ago when “Fences,” Wilson’s play about Troy Maxson, a stymied and thus embittered former Negro league baseball player who wreaks his hurt on his wife Rose and son Cory — was nominated for four Academy Awards, including nominations for the stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, along with a posthumous one for the Bard of Pittsburgh himself.

Wilson would not have liked much about this past American week or so — well, other than his play “Jitney” opening and doing well on Broadway — but he would have appreciated the nod for best adapted screenplay.

Mostly due to the Herculean efforts of Washington to get Hollywood to embrace Wilson and his canon of 10 depictions of the African-American experience, Wilson’s star has risen anew. He is in the media again. His influence is being pondered anew. And since it’s hard to imagine the film, which hews very closely to the play, leaving empty-handed Feb. 26, you can expect many tributes to Wilson at the podium.

Would Wilson have wanted “Fences” to win best picture?

Duh. It took decades of toil for “Fences” to make it to the screen, and I think that Wilson’s screenplay would have been better, and more cinematic, had he been able to be present during the final realization of the process. Wilson was an avowed populist — a former short-order cook in Minneapolis, not a playwright with an MFA from the Ivy League — who would instantly have appreciated the truth that most of the people now going to see the film “Fences” have not previously seen or read the play, or even realized that there were Negro league teams on which Jackie Robinson would have struggled to snag a spot.

But I think Wilson would have been just fine with “Moonlight” winning, too.

And I think further that he would have been infuriated by the completing blanking of “The Birth of a Nation” at the nominations.

Here’s why.

Without Wilson, it’s inconceivable that “Moonlight,” which, along with “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land” (its total antithesis), represents the strongest Oscar competition for “Fences,” ever would have been made.

Wilson arrived at a crucial moment for Tarell Alvin McCraney, who not only wrote the play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” upon which Barry Jenkins’ film is based, but whose life story of growing up gay and bullied in the Miami projects is the story of “Moonlight.”

McCraney had graduated from The Theatre School at DePaul University in 2003 (the Chicago school had recruited McCraney out of a performing arts school in Miami). At the time he thought himself a Chicago actor — he appeared, and made a big impression on me, at Northlight Theatre in 2004 and also in a Tina Landau Steppenwolf project called “Theatrical Essays” around that same time. But he also was a writer of stunning talent. He penned that which became “Moonlight” as part of his application process for the Yale School of Drama. It helped get him admitted.

It so happened that the year McCraney went to Yale, Wilson was working there as well, and McCraney ended up as his graduate assistant. In a recent interview in the New York Times, McCraney called that “a fluke.” That is one way to describe what happened to McCraney that year. Here is another: destiny.

In 2010, I found myself talking to McCraney (who was working in Chicago again at that time, this time as a writer) about that first year at Yale with Wilson. What, I wanted to know above all else, had he taught him?

McCraney laughed. He started talking about the way he wrote as a young playwright — more as a poet than a typical dramatic writer. He talked about how he liked to curve words around the page, as if the blank piece of paper was his canvas. He talked about how he eschewed all the usual niceties of script or screenplay writing, the things that they teach you to do before you send a script to agents. His words, he suggested, looked like a river coursing through snow — you could have hung the manuscript in a gallery more easily than you could have summarized its point. And he also talked about his youthful dislike and distrust of anything approaching standard dramatic form.

If you’ve seen “Moonlight,” you’d surely see that beautiful movie within the script for “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” for Jenkins shares so much with McCraney, but you’d also see the heart of the Oscar-nominated screenplay that Jenkins created (McCraney was otherwise engaged) in a chronologically scrambled order. In the play, the film’s central character is young and old at once, a sensorial understanding drawn from memory. The work of a genius, to my mind. A genius who now runs the playwriting program at Yale.

But before he had made his bones, who in New York or Hollywood was going to take the time to follow McCraney’s river of words? And that, McCraney said, was the main lesson according to Wilson. Put the poetry in the scenes. Never compromise your heart or your soul or your identity or your community or your own storytelling. Never sell out. But sell. Do what they want you to do, so they’ll do your show, and keep doing the next one, and pay for all their doing. Then you can reach people. Then you’re in business. Then you’re communicating as an artist. Play the game, but just enough to gain reach, import and an audience.

I think McCraney will have an easier time than Wilson — thanks to Wilson, a man who was still getting on that plane to California not so long before the end of his life, even though, by then, he should have had to worry only about his art. McCraney certainly has come more quickly to the attention of Hollywood — by the time Jenkins saw that play, written years before, McCraney was a known quantity. People have more time to follow the rivers of known quantities.

McCraney may have been the Cory of this story, but Wilson was no Troy.

Wilson knew all about mentorship. He often said he stood on the shoulders of the Greeks, of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. On ground made more fertile, he said in several speeches I heard, by the revolutionaries of the black power movement. He also wrote this: “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and woman who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.”

That is why I think he would have supported “Birth of a Nation,” a movie that, for all its problems, walks on that hallowed ground and tries, at such a cost to the artists involved, to explain to those of us who can never fully understand, its place at the beginning of the American story, and the extent to which it has informed all that follows.

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