“If I only did Shakespeare and August Wilson for the rest of my life, I’d be happy,” Denzel Washington said at the red carpet before the Oscars broadcast this year
Of course, he was at the ceremony having been nominated for an Academy Award for the tenth time, for his role in a filmed version of Macbeth: Both esteemed playwrights get plenty of screen time. But Denzel was clearer about his commitment to theater in interviews during the last of the five times that he has performed on Broadway: “I started on the stage and I’ll finish on the stage. God willing, I’ll be back if my knees hold out. It’s where I learned how to act. You don’t learn it on film, you learn it on stage, when it’s live every night. Things happen. People talk back to you. You drop stuff. It’s professionally my first love and it’ll be my last.”
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President Biden last month deemed Denzel Washington “one of our greatest actors in American history” when he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Denzel started acting as an undergraduate at the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham, made his Off-Broadway debut at age 24 at the Shakespeare in the Park production of the Bard’s Coriolanus in 1979 (the first of his performances at the Delacorte theater in Central Park), and shared an Obie in 1982 for distinguished ensemble performance in “A Soldier’s Play”
By the time he made his Broadway debut, in 1988, he was a familiar face on both TV and the movies.
His Broadway debut was not an especially auspicious one. He co-starred in a comedy Written by Ron Milner about two couples who share a two-family home in Detroit, which critic Frank Rich eviscerated, finding it a mystery that it had lured “distinguished actors Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington and Paul Winfield in the cast… That both couples are black neither adds to nor subtracts from Mr. Milner’s inexhaustible supply of cliches…. it’s depressing to watch Mr. Washington, whose past parts include Malcolm X and Stephen Biko (in the film ”Cry Freedom”), get the evening’s biggest laughs by caricaturing homosexuals. ” The play ran for 172 performances.
When Denzel returned to Broadway 17 years later, in the role of Brutus in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, a two-time Academy Award winner.
Critic Ben Brantley was kinder than Frank Rich had been. “As the most important passenger on Daniel Sullivan’s fast, bumpy ride of a production, Mr. Washington does not embarrass himself, as leading citizens of Hollywood have been known to do on Broadway. But even brilliantined in the glow of his inescapable fame, he can’t help getting lost amid the wandering, mismatched crowd and the heavy topical artillery that have been assembled here.” That’s a knock more of the production than his performance, and Brantley goes on to say: “In several shining sequences, Mr. Washington more than justifies his presence in this production, although it’s telling that such moments usually occur during monologues…”
Another five years passed before Denzel returned to Broadway, in a must-see revival of August Wilson’s masterful drama. “Fences” was a resounding critical and popular success, winning for Denzel the 2010 Tony Award for best actor in a play.
In my review, I wrote: “Troy Maxson, the character played by Denzel Washington in the must-see revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” is greeted by foot-stamping cheers from the audience in the Cort Theater, surely the most ecstatic whoops of delight ever for a Pittsburgh garbage collector…. through the magic of his performance, Washington sometimes seems as big as a bear, whether giving a tremendous hug to his wife (the incomparable Viola Davis) or growling warning at his son. Other times, he seems both small and small-minded. Troy is a compulsive storyteller (“you got more stories than the devil got sinners”), an expansive charmer, and also an embittered, limited and illiterate black man; orderly, hard-working, dutiful; stubborn, unreasonable, irresponsible — a complex and believable human being, and Washington embraces this character in all his mercurial contradictions.”
I entitled my review “Denzel Washington bats it in.”
See for yourself:
Six years later, he starred in the film adaptation of the play, which he also produced and directed – and for which he was nominated for two Oscars.
“A Raisin in the Sun”
In 2015, Denzel portrayed Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece. Some criticized him for playing a character who was written as a quarter century younger. I did not. My review: “if a movie star like Denzel Washington wants to play Younger, I say: Bravo. Washington’s the reason this great play is back for its second-ever Broadway revival…Denzel Washington offers a different interpretation than we might be used to– more beaten-down than explosive. When an unknown white man shows up at their door, Walter quickly brushes down his hair as if he feels the need to present his best self. When his mother speaks to him, he paws nervously with his foot, like a horse stuck in a stable …When he must admit a terrible mistake he has made to his mother, he seems to grow smaller; his reaction is heartrending. The scene of his self-humiliating minstrel act shortly before the monologue about being plain and proud, is horrifying, believable, masterful. There is no mistaking, in other words, what a fine actor Denzel Washington is, whatever his age.”
(Both of the following videos are exasperating, the first more than the second, since they only glance at Denzel’s performance without letting us linger) — but in the second one, he also explains why he kept away from Broadway for so long. (Of course
“The Iceman Cometh”
Denzel portrays Hickey, the leading character in Eugene O’Neill’s long play about a group of barflies. He was nominated for another Tony
In my review, I wrote:
“Hickey has been portrayed by actors as various as James Earl Jones, Jason Robards, Kevin Spacey, and Nathan Lane, who starred in a Goodman Theater production that came to BAM three years ago. Among those I’ve seen, Washington didn’t strike me as the most effective in nailing Hickey’s fake bonhomie, for all his movie charisma. This may be more my fault than his; how could the star of Fences and The Great Debaters and Glory and Malcolm X and Philadelphia be anything but a man of sincerity and honest conviction? But that final monologue [in which Hickey finally reveals his long-kept secret] fit more cleanly with his talents (or my expectations), and it was chilling.”
(There’s no more than 30 seconds of excerpts from the production in the following 8 ½ minute segment on CBS Sunday Morning about Denzel on the occasion of this production, but it’s an interesting summary of his career)
Denzel’s oldest child, John David Washington, is scheduled to make his Broadway debut this fall portraying Boy Willie in a revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, for which Wilson won one of his two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama. The other was for “Fences.”
I’ll close with a clip from, yes, a movie, but perhaps offering a glimpse of what we can expect from Denzel Washington on stage.