August Wilson’s Widow Constanza Romero-Wilson Speaks about Oscar-Winner Fences
Adapted by writer August Wilson from his own play, the screenplay for Fences attracted key cast members from the Broadway revival, most notably star-director Denzel Washington and Best Supporting Actress winner at the 2017 Oscars, Viola Davis. In an emotional acceptance speech, Davis recounted her days with her siblings portraying various characters at her home, initiating a journey which has led to this latest Oscar. Her stirring performance in Fences is one of many memorable roles in the film.
“When I first saw it in the Paramount viewing room, it was for my daughter and myself,” said August Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero–Wilson, of the film. “I was so curious as to how August’s language would function in the medium of film. It took me away into the world of the film. When it was over, I thought, ‘August’s language and poetry and musicality work great on film.’ I felt that Denzel did such a good job honoring and respecting August’s work.”
Set in the working class Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson himself was reared, Fences concerns Washington’s leading character, Troy Maxon, a bitter sanitation worker who felt he never got a fair shot at professional baseball due to racism. Davis plays his devoted wife, struggling with her husband amidst their teenaged son’s emergence into manhood.
Wilson, who died in 2005, met Romero-Wilson in 1987. “He was living in Minnesota at the time,” she recalled. “I was living in New Haven — I was a third year student in the Yale Drama School. We were married in 1994 and moved [to Seattle] in 1991. I’ve been here since — I was with him to his death.”
Wilson, who Romero-Wilson described as ‘a very imaginative child, playing games with soldiers and reading Nancy Drew mysteries,’ incorporated aspects of his own life into the worlds of his work. During his life, Wilson wrote ten plays – often referred to as “The American Century” cycle. In each play, Wilson, who was born in 1945, presents a potent story of struggle and bearing through the indignities of African-Americans in the 20th century.
Of the creation of the main character, Troy Maxon, Romero-Wilson, a costume designer by trade, explained how the playwright was very conscious of the adult black men in his life while he was growing up in the 1950s. “He was looking at the black men around him to show him the way,” she said of her late husband. “Charley Burley was a fantastic boxer—no one wanted to box
against him. He never had the full success in his career [and] worked for the sanitation department. Another man had a similar story. August’s stepfather had a similar story. He watched those men – who is going to remember these men? He wrote this play for them so that when we visit their stories, we can see the dignity with which they lived their lives. It was a way for him to immortalize the lives of these men.”
Ultimately, Romero-Wilson feels as though her husband would have been very proud of the film version of Fences. “I think he’d be extremely grateful to Denzel to honoring him the way he did,” she said. “For some people, they probably didn’t know that he existed. There’s a huge part of the population who never goes to the theater. Hopefully, [they’ll] say, ‘a great American lived and left us all of these treasures, and I’m going to find out more about him.’ I hope that young African American boys and girls said, ‘If he can do this, having worked as hard as he did, maybe I can too tell my stories.’”