Building "Fences": Director Derrick Sanders on August Wilson
Friday, April 18, 2014
Director Derrick Sanders might be young, making his Bay Area debut with Marin Theatre Company's production of August Wilson's Fences, but he's already a veteran interpreter of the playwright, with productions of Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, King Hedley II, Seven Guitars, Jitney, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and, yes, Fences under his belt. He worked on multiple shows with Wilson himself before the playwright's death in 2005, and has also worked with the previous generation of key Wilson interpreters. In honor of this week's opening of Fences at MTC, which stars Carl Lumbly, Margo Hall and Steven Anthony Jones, Sanders speaks about his place in the heritage of Wilson directors.
Interview by listings editor and feature writer Lily Janiak; photo courtesy of MTC.
LJ: In addition to working with August Wilson himself, you've worked with Marion McClinton and Kenny Leon, some of our most important Wilson interpreters. What special insight have they given you into his work?
DS: I guess it was more about the director-playwright relationship. I served as assistant to both of them, and I learned a lot about process in terms of working with a new play and taking it to Broadway and the different challenges that come up with a new play, especially with somebody who’s cranking them out at that level. Most of insight from them was advice about working with a playwright and new work. They both became mentors and great friends.
What are some of those challenges, in working on new plays in particular?
One of the major challenges of working on the new play is that you have a reverence for the text, that you treat it like it's a classic, that you investigate it, that you dig it into the piece like you know it will hold up, that it could withstand scrutiny. A lot of that is about your relationship with the playwright. That's what I learned foremost. To me, understanding their intent, understanding their ideals and how it all comes across on the page is of foremost importance when working with a playwright. You understand where they’re coming from; you understand how to help them do what they do better.
At the same time, you've been hailed as among the foremost of the next generation of Wilson interpreters. After you've worked with such distinguished artists, how do you go about making the work, the direction your own?
[McClinton and Leon] have a really different kind of style than I do. My style is more active, more visceral. I would say their style comes from an older perspective. Mine comes from a more contemporary, active exploration of what August meant, and exploring a lot of his subtext. Kenny is great at bringing a team together and allowing those in the room to be able to explore to a bigger space. Marion is good at taking abstract ideas and giving them small, significant highlights. I think I've stolen from each of them in one way or another. I think my style is built on rhythm and is actor-centered.
You have already directed Wilson many times in your career. What keeps drawing you back to his voice?
Because I knew him and because we were friends, I know a lot of the stories that are in the plays. It's like speaking to an old friend, like hearing a friend that's gone and having a conversation. To me that's what makes it really special. It's a deeply personal experience. In his words, I'm reminded of the stories of where he was during that time, or I'm reminded of the stories of the characters and how he got to that character. It feels good to have a conversation with August, even though he's been gone almost nine years now.
Are there any particular moments in Fences that recall August for you in those ways?
It's all throughout the play. All the speeches have personal memories to me, a deep connection to stories that he's told, stories I've understood. I think that's what’s made me a prolific [director of his work]. I understood the intent of the man. Then I can filter it through my own lens and where I am and what I hear. There's a lot of stuff he was doing that, at the time, playwrights hadn't done before, or that African Americans hadn't achieved in the way that he was doing. He's playing a lot with form. He's playing a lot with nontraditional and contemporary forms of storytelling.
Fences is part of an extraordinary 10-play cycle that, except for one play, chronicles a single neighborhood—Pittsburgh's Hill District—over the course of the 20th century. How does the rest of that cycle inform your interpretation of Fences?
I've talked to the cast about this—you're able to look at the other elements. You have to look at the other plays and say, "What is the world?" I use examples all the time; it's like, "This part in the play is like this part in Seven Guitars is like this part in Jitney is like this part of Gem of the Ocean." That gives you a stronger leg to stand on in terms of defining the rules of the Hill District, the laws as August sees them and how they apply.
What else separates your direction from that of previous generations?
I have my own unique perspective on the world. I come to it with a contemporary view: How does it speak to the world today? How does it apply to the world today? A lot of Wilson interpreters like Marion and Kenny come from a certain time period. They're older. They don't bring a fresh, new sensibility to the work, a deepening, contemporary dramaturgy to it. The major thing is I combine old and new. I feel like the bridge. That's what I've been given. August mentored me for a new generation, to understand his work from a new perspective. Sometimes I take things to a higher level than is just written on the page. Sometimes I expand the idea. As long as I’m going in the direction August intended, then I think I'm in a good world.
Troy Maxson is widely recognized as one of the most important characters in American theatre history, and Fences is the most celebrated piece in Wilson's 10-play cycle. What in particular do you think draws us to him and this play?
This play has universal things that go through all economic classes, all cultural perspectives. Everybody understands a generational gap between father and son. Everybody understands a husband-and-wife-and-family drama. It’s not a perfect family, but it's still a family drama. I think people understand that. They'll find a relationship that they identify with somewhere in the play. They'll understand that the relationships speak to their own lives, even if they didn't live in the Hill District in 1957.
And what about Troy?
Troy is a titan. He's a giant. He's a charming, flawed storyteller. It's interesting seeing these giants wrestle with life.
One of the play's most famous lines is "Fences are built either to keep folks out or keep them in." Since 1957, societal fences have been moved, but not removed. To which of today's fences do you feel this play speaks?
Metaphorically, this play is speaking to fences in your life. There are fences, of course, in Troy's dealing with racism. But there are fences that we build to separate people out of our lives because of our own pain, and to try to keep people protected the best way we know how. The play speaks to these deeper fences; they keep us from truly understanding who we are, how they separate us from the good parts of our lives. Building a fence can often be selfish. That selfishness—that idea of the fences that we build around ourselves—will make this play viable 100 years from now.