ADG Perspective

January-February 2017

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 123 of 139

FENCES by David Gropman, Production Designer In the spring of 1987, I saw the original Broadway production of Fences. It was my first introduction to August Wilson's beautiful and powerful words, and the fabled Pittsburgh neighborhood that helped shape them—and him. The story of a man's struggle to hold onto his dreams in hopes of a better life for himself and his family unfolded in the simple setting of protagonist Troy Maxson's Hill District backyard. At that time, I was still designing for the theater and just beginning my career as a Production Designer. After more than a decade of work on and off-Broadway, it was my great honor to go on to design film versions of some of the great plays of the American theater: Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Key Exchange (1985), Life Under Water (1989), Of Mice and Men (1992), Marvin's Room (1996), Hairspray (2007), Doubt (2008) and August: Osage County (2013). In late 2015, Denzel Washington added to this list by asking me to design his film version of the Pulitzer and Tony-winning Fences. I was thrilled. I met with Denzel in New York before Christmas of that year and received an offer the next day. We spent a brief period evaluating practically and financially the best shooting locations for the film. The obvious setting for the production was Pittsburgh's Hill District, the birthplace of August Wilson and the setting for nine of the ten plays in his American Century Cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. The District plays a crucial role in many of Wilson's works, symbolizing community and more specifically, the ways in which the individual good is frequently subverted to the good of the community. Denzel's vision was to shoot practical locations that reflected the everyday aspect of Wilson's plays. He wanted to capture Troy Maxson in a single take walking down his neighborhood street, up the steps of his house, through its various rooms, and into the backyard. My research into the thriving Hill District circa 1957 sadly revealed that the neighborhood today is a shadow of its bustling former self. In 1945, when Wilson was born, the area was known as Little Harlem, a self- contained universe with its own businesses, nightclubs and performers. Lena Horne, Erroll Garner and George Benson all launched their careers in the area. Wylie Vintage cars cover Wabash Street in the West End of Pittsburgh, standing in for Wylie Avenue in the Hill District. Mr. Gropman writes, "It was uncanny how, by using a street across the river from the Hill District, we were able to so closely re-create Wylie Avenue in 1957." © Paramount Pictures Photograph from WESA 90.5 Pittsburgh

Articles in this issue

view archives of ADG Perspective - January-February 2017