Professor Denzel and the 30 Second Stare.

Via TNC, Denzel says of the ladies who come to watch August Wilson’s Fences:

“There are all these women coming to see me, to see this actor they like, and I appreciate that,” he said. “But at some shows, women are carrying on and snickering too much. Like at our Mother’s Day performance. Some audience members wouldn’t stop talking during an Act II speech. So I walked down to the front of the stage and stared at them, silently, for 30 seconds. They stopped, and I went on.”

I dunno, something about Denzel-the-schoolteacher rubs me the wrong way. He acknowledges that these women are coming to the show to see him, but complains that they don’t know how to act. I think he’s missing the fact that as a hugely famous movie star, he’s kind of untouchable, but being on stage breaks that down a bit.

Then again, as I do sort of think he’s responsible for the behavior of the people who are clearly attending to see him, maybe he did all he could do in that situation.

Also, and I haven’t seen any of Wilson’s work, so I don’t know about the veracity of this, but a friend says that Wilson plays are like Shakespeare, in that you can’t just show up knowing your lines. Apparently, you have to be trained, and there are black theater companies around the country who do this, day in and day out. Washington has a rather limited history on stage, although being nominated for a Tony is a pretty good sign. Has anyone seen Fences, with or without him? Thoughts?

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  • Invisman52

    Mr. Washington’s comments were disgusting. How dare he call out the very women who made him “Denzel.” That is, without his black female fanbase, he wouldn’t be nearly as popular (and rich) as he is. This is all the more ironic given that he turned down a love scene with Julia Roberts so that he would not alienate black women. Yes, but now that they rush to see him and make too much noise–that is, overstep and do not ogle from afar–he has to castigate them–TO THE NEW YORK TIMES.

    I teach Wilson’s plays, study them closely, and they certainly require a certain skill set. I don’t know if they are like Shakespeare because I hate those kinds of comparisons. One has to be trained in Shakespeare because there are issues of scansion, pronunciation, and historical specificity to take care of. While Wilson has own rhythms, significations, and story-telling techniques to grapple with, they are not like Shakespeare. One does not need to train in Wilson to do Wilson effectively; one needs to be a good, highly intelligent, and full body actor to excel.

    Also, Tony nominations are very political. I haven’t seen this FENCES yet, so he might be stellar and deserve the nod. But I did see him five years ago in JULIUS CAESAR and he was horrible (we left at intermission).

  • slb

    i’ve seen a few Wilson plays, Fences being one of them (my dad played Troy Maxson in a local production). i’m with Invisiman52 in that i’ve never seen that Wilson’s plays require really exclusive and specific training to be done well. but i’m not a theatre person, so perhaps they do.

    i read once that Laurence Fishburne actually broke character in a stage production to berate an audience member for not having silenced his/her cell phone. so i didn’t find Denzel’s “stare” to be all that bad, by comparison. i’d be mortified if it were directed toward me, though. and there is something inherently pretentious about policing the behavior of an audience, as a performer onstage. i wonder exactly how disruptive their conversation was (i presume it must’ve been bad if he heard it clearly from stage).

    all that said, i read the Times piece and thought it was pretty fab. i also thought this was the more interesting pull-quote:

    He and Ms. Davis said they were not surprised by nervous laughter and murmurs, seeing it as an outlet for audience members who might feel as unsettled by the marital strife as Rose and Troy are. Both actors are happily married, and they said that their performances drew partly on the painful idea of what their lives would be like without their spouses. Maybe, they said, some audience members are audibly vocal simply to distract themselves from that pain.

  • One does not need to train in Wilson to do Wilson effectively; one needs to be a good, highly intelligent, and full body actor to excel.

    Great point Invisman52. I played the character “Avery” in a community theater production of The Piano Lesson and boy did I not fit that criteria. I was utterly confused. Even though I bombed it was a spectacular learning experience which may be what Denzel is going through right now…

    Notice how I used his first name instead of calling him Mr. Washington. There is a comfort level there. A comfort level these women he chastised no doubt feel. They must think that he is “their Denzel.” And undoubtedly he would not have gotten this opportunity without the fame…not to say he isn’t a talented actor but he headlines this show. If he did not carry the Movie Star tag the play would headline itself. Perhaps this NY Times story will be enough to dissuade other women from treating the show like an early 60s Beatles concert. Even if his remarks turn some off he will learn that a major part of stage acting is maintaining “it” on stage regardless of what’s happening in the audience.

  • Scipio Africanus

    I’ll bet money the people within ear shot of those women were overjoyed something was done to shut them up.

    To me it’s a question of how bad their noisemaking really was. Only people who were there can attest to that. I’m giving Denzel the benefit of the doubt and assuming it was past the threshold of “oh come the fuck on” and he felt he had to do something. I’m Team Denzel on this one.

  • Invisman52

    @Scipio: I am not giving Mr. Washington the benefit of the doubt. From the beginning of this process, he has been outlandish and crude in media outlets. Check out this video in which he and Ms. Davis are being interviewed by a woman from the NYTIMES. The interviewer makes a legitimate point about him no longer being in the theatre. She couldn’t even get to her question fully before he bites her head off. Yes, he did JC 5 years ago and slew of shows DECADES AGO, but by all accounts he is NOT in the theatre–he does theatre from time to time, as he sees fit. He is not in the grind of making theatre night in and night out. Watch how he attacks her–simply brutal.

    (I also find the way he is commanding that space, the way he is sitting and acting, to be deplorable and encroaching. But that is another matter.)

    • slb

      he has a history of being boorish with journalists. it’s one of the things that turns me off him as a “star.”

    • Scipio Africanus

      Okay cool. (not saying I necessarily agree with you, but I think it follows from your point well enough.) But all that wasn’t part of the consideration of this post, or the specific issue of wether or not he was right to do what he did regarding the women at his show. That’s additional stuff.

  • Janis

    My husband and I go to about 12 local plays a year, and we have experienced the hell of sitting within earshot of unshushables. I’d bet lots of money that those talking women got the stank eye from lots of people around them who wished that they’d just STFU. I can only guess that if I’d been in that audience, I would have thanked God for Denzel’s silent stare.

    That having been said, I think that most unshushables are clueless rather than malicious, so I doubt that the talkers knew that they were disrupting the performance or others’ enjoyment of it. I’m sure the talkers were mortified, and I feel for them. But only a little. I can’t lie.

    By the way, I’ve sat near unshushables of all races and ages, so I’m not willing to conclude that these women were black.

    • TMA

      I recently saw Denzel and Viola in Fences and the audience was loud. Annoying loud. There were times when people were laughing and/or talking over the dialogue. At points where there didn’t seem to be much that was funny going on (this also mirrored what happened when I saw Precious. I chalked it up to people being uncomfortable with what they were seeing in both instances. At least, I hope that’s what was going on.) I totally understand that theater is a “living” experience, however, I felt that folks were talking their living while in the audience a little too far. So, actually, I’m not mad at Denzel. And, yes, my friends and a few other folks in the audience gave the constant talkers side-yes, stank yes, death eyes, and “Sshh!-s” to no avail. Yup, not mad at all.

      • TMA

        *Annoyingly* loud.

  • brittlewood

    I think Denzel was well within his right to stop the play and address the women. I recently saw “Fences” and had a similar experience as well as “Race” several weeks later. If I dare say, folk need lessons on how to comport themselves at the theater. It’s not a fish market; these are artists practicing their craft for our enjoyment. I don’t think those woman would be amsued if someone showed up at their job and caused a ruckus while they were busily at work.

  • I think these ribald audiences are showing us something. There may be another outlet for these movie stars. Think neo-minstrelsy. And I am not being facetious at all. Minstrel shows were known for their raucous audiences. This is a genre of entertainment that rests right between the stage and screen and would likely generate quite a bit of revenue by virtue of its “novelty.” That’s really what drew people to minstrel shows. It’s the same force that drives us to watch those aggressively temporal novelties that dominate television schedules. The racism of minstrelsy was the “shock” that got people looking. At the time racism was used like we use sex in marketing today. Every producer promised an authentic experience. Of course this was ironic as the performers, who were sometimes black, had to “darken” their faces and act “blacker” than they actually were….hmmmm

    The same dynamic existed during Vaudeville’s run as well as exploitation cinema and now YouTube. Perhaps movie stars need to get together and define their own genre of theater. One that “exploits” the novelty of their “celebrity.” Celebrity which can be exaggerated, much like how the minstrel performers exploited the uneducated perception of their race. It was kind of postmodern in a way. They played a fabricated myth so well that it made it ridiculous and it was this ridiculousness that the masses found entertaining. It inspired them to act ridiculous in the theater…a place usually reserved for your best behavior.

    The over-the-top spectacle of these shows exposed an absurdity that later obliterated the aggressively racist elements because over time audiences realized how much playing these roles (over a sustained period of time) was hurting the performers. Denzel chose to lash out when remnants of his past literally started speaking to him. But sometimes you just gotta play the role. Question is: how long does one play this role? Well, let’s hope we give it up long before it starts to hurt. But if the role is merely fun, then no one gets hurt. There was a loving soul to minstrelsy and if you look around you can see that we’re starting to bring that out. It’s not so easy to paint with the racist broad brush. Things are getting a little complicated and that’s not exactly a bad thing. Just look at this blog. It is part of a beautifully confusing spectacle…it’s “Post” Bourgie.

  • isista

    I just saw “Fela!” for the second time on Sunday night and my friends and I had the misfortune of sitting next to a couple who talked, loudly, from the beginning of the play until intermission. It was awful. And mind you, we weren’t sitting down front. Rudeness knows no class either–this couple definitely looked like they should’ve known better (and I know I’m painting with a broad brush here about who knows what). They were just rude enough to think that no one else could hear their loud running commentary, or maybe they didn’t care.

    I’ve been going to theater performances since I was 9–and even then, sitting watching The Nutcracker ballet with my grandma, I knew I was supposed to STFU during a performance. Seriously, unless you’re at a show that encourages it, it’s unacceptable, period. I’m a black woman who has supported Denzel’s career by spending money on his movies and I’m sure if I had been at that show I would’ve put my fist up in solidarity. Talking during a show is inappropriate. Period. And usually people who think they’re being quiet are anything but.

  • Plenu

    I went to see Fences on April 27 and people do not shut up every time an actor interfered. In fact I missed half the dialogue.

  • Paula

    It’s a frakking play. Everyone from your bit-part player @ the local community theater to Denzel Washington need to concentrate on playing their parts and @ the very least they need the audience to not be tittering like a bunch of immature children. You’re supposed to have learned that in school. I was a 6th grader when they took us to see Madame Butterfly and it warranted an evil eye from a teacher to even whisper to the person next to you.

    Also, why the suggestion in this entry that “normal” people shouldn’t be expected to know how to behave themselves in the theater because they “only” come to see movie stars? They may be attracted to the headliner, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot or aren’t obligated to respect the work of all the other actors and the production as a whole.