Interview: Jovan Adepo & Stephen McKinley Henderson of ‘Fences’

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CHICAGO – The film adaptation of a stage play by August Wilson, the late playwright known for his “Pittsburgh Cycle” of dramas, was aided by Denzel Washington, both portraying the lead role and directing “Fences.” Washington had done the play on Broadway, and recruited to the film his stage mate Stephen McKinley Henderson and newcomer Jovan Adepo.

“Fences” is set in 1950s Pittsburgh, and involves the life of a garbage man named Troy (Washington). Throughout the film he interacts with his wife and son (portrayed by Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo), and best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy has lived a harsh life to this point, and takes out the frustration of that life on his family and friends. August Wilson first staged “Fences” in 1983, part of a cycle of plays all set in Pittsburgh. He tells the story of African American experiences decade by decade, through the families that lived them, and a society that shunned them.

Jovan Adepo and Denzel Washington in ‘Fences’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson is a familiar character actor face, appearing in the films “Tower Heist” (2011) and “Lincoln” (2012), in addition to being a TV series regular in FOX network’s “New Amsterdam” (2008). He received a Tony nomination for his role of Bono in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” featuring Denzel Washington. Jovan Adepo, who portrays put-upon son Cory in the film version, is familiar to the audience of “The Leftovers,” the HBO series. “Fences” is his major film debut.

Henderson and Adepo held a short press conference with several Chicago film writers, which included

QUESTION: Stephen, in your point of view, what do you think this play is about, and how did the film version differ in any way from the stage version?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: It’s about family, and getting to know yourself by accepting your flaws. When other family member accept those flaws, it fortifies us to survive whatever comes your way. It’s a timeless story, and always relevant. It’s the human eternals – mother, father, sister, brother and love, and the human condition of greed, envy and regret. What Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekov wrote about, that’s what August writes about.

But of course August writes it from the context of the Pittsburgh Hill District and the African American culture, and in writing decade by decade, he wants us to be mindful of legacy and history – as all great playwrights do. It’s a joy to be part of it, because as I grow in my life, I get a deeper understanding of it. It was written in such a deep place, I can’t ever say it’s about this or that specifically, because in different times of my life it means different things. And whatever an audience brings to it, they’ll walk away with something, as long as they don’t sit back on their heels and judge it. If they open themselves to it, there is something valuable to be gained.

QUESTION: Jovan, how did you separate working with Denzel Washington the director, and Denzel the lead actor, since you did so many scenes with him?

Jovan Adepo: To me, he was a teacher the entire time. It was my opportunity to approach it like an actor’s master class, with him and Viola Davis, as well as the rest of the cast. Denzel was always making sure he knew where my head was at, and what choices I was making. As far as the director’s hat versus his actor’s hat, it was seamless.

Jovan Adepo & Stephen McKinley Henderson of ‘Fences’
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Henderson: I wondered when the dude slept. [laughs] We were all there early, but we got to go home at the end of the day, and Denzel was still there. He had a good relationship with his crew, that he brought in from other films he’d worked on. They were a family in itself, and since most of the Broadway cast came along, it was like getting the band back together, with some new hot players. We started working on those old tunes, with a few new arrangements, and the families merged. Stephen, you were a teenager in the later era of Dr. King, and his subsequent assassination. What did your experience in that era teach you about the way America looked at black culture and society?

Henderson: I was a paperboy when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I saw our society then…what Malcolm X used to call the ‘ballot or the bullet.’ The change in race relations was coming, as the country was finally owning up to a Constitution that they had been hypocritical about. In that nervousness, for awhile we weren’t doing it by the ballot, but by the bullet. They took down Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm and Dr. King…I saw that, and understood it.

This recent election, again there is fear that America is becoming ‘America’ for real. But at least we used the ballot. As Condoleezza Rice once said, ‘racism is America’s birth defect.’ We started out with one of the greatest documents in the world, the Constitution, but the promises were made to be broken. But even with all that, we still have periods of absolute incredible progress. I knew America would never not vote for someone if he were the right man, and we’ve had two terms of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, there is fear…and in that fear, a need to roll everything back. But you can never roll it back as far as we have moved forward.

”Fences” opens everywhere on December 25th. Featuring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Screenplay adapted by August Wilson, from his stage play. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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