August Wilson’s wife: ‘I think he would be ecstatic’

Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times

Seattle — A Seattleite will be at the Academy Award ceremony Sunday night in the latest chapter of a nearly 30-year story.

Constanza Romero Wilson, wife of the late playwright August Wilson, will be on hand representing her husband, who received a posthumous nomination for his screenplay to “Fences.” Based on his Tony Award-winning play, the “Fences” screenplay was written by Wilson in the late 1980s and finally came to the screen, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, more than 10 years after Wilson’s death in Seattle in 2005.

“I think that he would be ecstatic to have the movie out, for his work to have that kind of representation in Hollywood,” Romero Wilson said last week by phone from Los Angeles, where she’s visiting for a round of award ceremonies and events leading up to the Oscars.

“I think that he wasn’t really that caught up with stardom or any of that stuff. He had a razor-sharp focus on his own work. But he would have been excited about the fact that millions of people now have seen ‘Fences’ — more people in America have seen ‘Fences’ than ever came to all those shows on Broadway. He would also have loved the fact that this story has touched so many people.”

Romero Wilson described the “Fences” film, which received three additional Oscar nominations, as uncompromising in its celebration of Wilson’s poetic dialogue. “The language is front and center. Denzel started from a point of view of paying homage to August, and of making him proud. And (Washington) spoke about just having and feeling love, throughout the process of ‘Fences’ — for each other, for the characters, for August, and for paying him respect. I think he would have loved (the film), no question about it.”

She recalled the origin of Washington’s involvement, at a long-ago meeting at the Wilsons’ Capitol Hill home. (Funny, she noted, how when Denzel Washington comes to visit, “suddenly it was very popular” for the neighbors to sit out on their porches). Now the actor/director is shepherding a massive project: bringing the remaining nine of Wilson’s American Century Cycle of plays to the screen, as part of a contract with HBO.

“I just felt that, with his understanding and his deep conviction to tell these stories, the type of artist that he is — he’s at the highest level, in my estimation. I felt that he had the right sensibility,” Romero Wilson said. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be adapted next; she envisions that each play may have a different approach.

“I would never want to have all these plays on a conveyor belt. Some are more suited for the big screen, some are more suited for the small screen. We’ll take each one as it comes.”

As another long-term project, Romero Wilson is working on publishing a collection of her husband’s poetry, and hopes to see more productions of Wilson’s one-man autobiographical play “How I Learned What I Learned.” (The play, performed by Wilson himself at Seattle Rep in 2003, has been adapted so that other actors can play the role.)

But in the immediate short term, she’s gearing up for Oscar night — “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to wear!” — and thinking about what she might say if an acceptance speech might be called for. Representing someone who “was very outspoken and literate,” she knows that her words matter, and she won’t be unprepared.

“What I want to convey is that August was one of the greatest writers we have ever had in this country — black, white, any color — and how universal his stories are. And how all that people have to do to access those stories is read the plays. I’m just so proud of him.”