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The Guideposts executive editor shares his thoughts on Denzel Washington in Fences.

Last week, before the Tony Awards, I was at a performance of August Wilson’s play Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. 

Denzel plays one of those larger-than-life characters, Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and cracker-barrel philosopher with long monologues meant to rivet an audience. Sometimes when you see screen actors on stage, stars like Washington, they can disappoint because they’re used to making an impression for a camera, not a big house with hundreds of rapt theatergoers. 

There was nothing disappointing about Denzel’s performances (or Viola Davis’s for that matter). He filled the stage, his voice bouncing off the back of the Cort Theater. You watched and had to think, “What an actor.” 

Then I recalled something a friend of mine said to me years ago, “A lot of actors can talk a blue streak, but it’s how they listen that shows you how great they are.” That’s easier to see on stage than in movies or on TV where the camera goes where it will. In a theater you can watch the actor who isn’t doing the talking all you want. In the second act I started watching Denzel listening, really listening.  

I wanted to send him an email, “Hey, man, good listening.” (Later I discovered an interview where he admits what a challenge it is to listen on stage.)

It got me thinking about how crucial it is off stage as well. Good listening is what we count on from our best friends. It’s what I work harder at than I care to admit (“Did I ask the right questions?” I wonder. “Did I hear what he was trying to say?”) And in my prayer life, how often am I yammering on? When do I listen?

A big congrats to Denzel for winning the best actor award, especially for those times when his silence could be heard.

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