In the fall of 2015, Denzel Washington revealed that, in addition to the film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” (which Viola Davis won an Oscar for this year), he also inked a deal with HBO that will see him bring to the screen, Wilson’s entire American Century Cycle series, which consists of 10 plays portraying the 20th century African American experience, from the early 1900s, just after slavery and the Civil War, to the 1990s.
At the time, Washington shared that the deal with HBO would see him executive produce film adaptations of all 9 of the 10 plays (since “Fences” was made for the big screen) for the premium cable TV network, at a pace of one per year, for the next 9 to 10 years. Of course, this is all being done with the full collaboration of the August Wilson Estate.
The list of 10 plays follows, in chronological order, are:
1. 1900s “Gem of the Ocean” – A young man from Alabama visits Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old renowned cleanser of souls for help in absolving the guilt he carries from a crime he’s committed.
2. 1910s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” – Set in Pittsburgh, the story of Seth and Bertha Holly and the migrants who pass through their boardinghouse during the Great Migration of the 1910s.
3. 1920s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Set in Chicago in 1927, the play explores issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
4. 1930s “The Piano Lesson” – Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, the story of a brother and sister who have different ideas on what to do with the piano they own – keep or sell it.
5. 1940s “Seven Guitars” – The story of a blues singer just released from prison and ready to right the past year’s wrongs.
6. 1950s “Fences” – Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the story of Troy Maxson, a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete struggling to provide for his family.
7. 1960s “Two Trains Running” – The story of a local diner owner who fights to stay open as a municipal project encroaches on his establishment.
8. 1970s “Jitney” – Set in a worn-down gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh, the story of men hustling to make a living as jitneys — unofficial and unlicensed taxi cabs.
9. 1980s “King Hedley II” – The story of an ex-convict trying to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators so that he can save enough money to buy a video store.
10. 1990s “Radio Golf” – A powerful African American politician runs for the highest office of his career, but as he steps into prominence, his plans collide with his past.
With “Fences” now in his rear view mirror, what Wilson play might Washington tackle next? I bring this up today in part because, if the original one-every-year schedule with HBO still stands, I would assume that work would’ve already begun on the next one, given that we’re mid-way through the spring, with just 8 months left in the year. The “Fences” production reportedly spent 146 days on location, including 54 days of shooting (according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette (the film was shot in Pittsburgh). So assuming a somewhat similar length of time (I realize each play would have different requirements and so the amount of time will vary, but just play along as I speculate), and taking into consideration post-production work, and the fact that Washington is currently filming a legal drama feature titled “Inner City” which will likely be released later this year (it’s on our 2018 Oscar predictions list), and he just might also be filming “The Equalizer 2” some time this year (it’s currently in pre-production for a 2018 release), a 2017 premiere for the next August Wilson play adaptation may not be likely, and we might be looking at a 2018 premiere, maybe during the first 5 months in order to meet the 2018 Emmy consideration deadline (which is typically at the end of May).
Although Washington also initially said that he’d like to premiere each HBO film in the fall of whatever year they’re released, suggesting that he maybe believes they are more fall-friendly, holiday season movies.
In addition, Washington has said that he’s not going to direct and star in all of them; “I may direct one or two of them,” he said last year, “But I’m not directing or acting in all nine. I’m executive-producing them.” So, essentially, he’s guaranteed to exec-produce all of them; and he might direct a couple of them, and maybe even act in a few, after all, he doesn’t say explicitly that he will not be acting in any of them, just that he won’t appear in “all nine” remaining adaptations.
So what could the next Wilson play be?
According to a report from UK theatre, entertainment and performing arts industry website The Stage, Mr. Washington will next take on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for HBO. The actor confirmed this during a “Fences” Q&A in London in December, adding that a screenplay for the adaptation was already complete and ready to be filmed.
No other details were shared about the production, specifically casting, and ETA; also whether Denzel planned to direct this one and/or appear in it, he didn’t say.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” tells a story of how racism affects the life and career of a blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey (1886-1939) – one of the first black singers to be signed to a white label – and her band. The drama concentrates on the interaction between her band members – their banter, conflicts and lamentations. The play opened at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in October 1984, directed by the late great Lloyd Richards, with Theresa Merritt in the title role. Nominated for a Tony Award, “Ma Rainey’s” won the 1984 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was revived in February 2003 starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton.
Coincidentally, a recent production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, closed (in October of last year) at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Tony-winner Lillias White played the title role. She was joined by Keith David, Glynn Turman and Damon Gupton. As Washington did with “Fences,” one can only wonder if he’ll simply transfer the cast of a recent *high profile* production of the play (like the one Rashad directed last fall), from the stage to the screen adaptation, which will save time, as there won’t be a need to cast every single role anew, and the actors would already be intimately familiar with their respective characters and lines, which would very likely cut down on any rehearsal time.
But unless I’ve just missed some news report, nothing about what comes next, who will star, and when it’ll be released – beyond the above revelation from Mr. Washington, courtesy of The Stage – has been made public; so this is mostly speculation on my part – again, except for the report from The Stage while Washington was doing press for “Fences” when he apparently revealed that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” would be next, and that a script is already done, ready to be filmed.
However, as I explained, at this stage, I wouldn’t expect a 2017 fall premiere for whatever does come next in the cycle. But I’m certainly willing to be pleasantly surprised.
In the meantime, check out a preview of the Phylicia Rashad-directed production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” below (by the way, “Fences” is available on various home video formats):