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Fences at Richmond Theatre - Q&A with Lenny Henry

What can people expect if they come to see Fences?

They can expect to see a family drama with a hint of melodrama which will move you, you’ll shed a few tears, you’re going to laugh but it will hopefully resonate to your core. It has universal themes about fathers and sons, about relationships, about long-term marriages and how they sometimes malfunction because of a lack of communication, about temptation in a long-term marriage and about American sport. I am doing a PhD in sports films and what’s very interesting is that Troy Maxon used to be a player in the Negro League of Baseball but when the time came for black players to migrate to the major leagues he was too old and he’d run out of steam. My PhD is about this - ethnic minority participation in mainstream Hollywood films and Troy is a victim of that. He’s been excluded because of his age and the colour of his skin, and just when it changes and his son has the chance to play football for a white college team Troy puts his foot down and that causes huge conflict by forbidding him to play. Come and enjoy it, it’s going to be fantastic!

You’ve forged a successful stage acting career with credits including, Othello and The Comedy of Errors. Do you feel at home on stage now or do you miss TV and stand-up?

I still do stand-up and I am hoping to do a sit-com soon which I’m writing with Kim Fuller and working with a few other people on a drama. The work continues but the main thing is that I love being on stage. I love exploring a text and I love the mountain of learning a text like this; this is immensely huge, articulate text which is as difficult to learn as Othello was, so I’ve thrown myself in at the deep end. I am working with a great cast and they are all incredibly supportive - I love it, I love being with a company. It’s nicer than being on your own, in your pants in the dressing room, eating cheesy wotsits and moaning about the drive to the venue that day and then going on stage on your own. I love doing stand up but I love being in a company more.

Why did you want to play one of the 20th century’s most unforgettable characters, Troy Maxson?

Well the answer to that question is in the question (laughing). I wanted to play the unforgettable and quite tragic character of Troy Maxson because he is unforgettable and tragic. I think he is on a par with King Lear; he’s a really important figure in the African-American dramatic landscape. I think he is as powerful as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. It’s incredibly well-written; August Wilson has a wonderful knack and grasp of the African-American  vernacular and its a bugger to learn but it will be a triumph when it is done. I’m just loving it.

How is Troy’s and the other characters’ story relevant to todays’ audiences?

Well the story is about fathers and sons, relationships, racism in sport and about prejudice. And I think all of these things are still going on in the world today. Open the papers and read about divorce and people not being able to handle a relationship and arguments and battles between fathers and sons. These are universals that never go away, so I think there is something in there for everybody. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was written and it will be relevant in 100 years time.

How does it feel to be following in the footsteps of the likes of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington who have played the central character?

(Laughing) Well these guys are all my heroes. I worked with James Earl Jones on True Identity and I co-presented Mandela Day with Denzel Washington - the first Mandela day. You can’t think about the people that have played the character before you, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed - I’d be literally hiding under the bed if I had to think about JEJ playing Troy M before me. I have to tell the story how I’m going to tell it, how are we going to tell it and that is how we are proceeding because if we were worried about those guys we’d all jump off a high building!