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Desperately seeking Denzel

Lucky us: We saw Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences on Broadway. The play was magnificent and so was every actor in it, but then, I was hardly surprised; after all, I gave Mr. Washington his first review (self-satisfied chuckle), and it was a rave.

Our zero degrees of separation go back to Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus in the fall of 1975, where I spent one freshman semester. He and I were in the same acting class, taught by a wonderful coach named Ed Young. Denzel, a senior, was clearly destined for greater things, and while he was a modest and affable guy (the very opposite of the "big fish in a small pond"), I was far too intimidated by him to suggest doing a class scene study together (oh, say, Othello and Desdemona). (And yes, over 35 years, I have occasionally just smacked my head with a big old brick over that.)

I was supposedly going to be an English major, so I signed up as dance and drama critic for the college paper, the Fordham Review. Denzel, meanwhile, made his stage debut as the lead in The Emperor Jones, Eugene O'Neill's weird and daunting antique written in heavy dialect. He blew it out of the water; already, his confidence and instincts as an actor were astonishing. Here's the heart of my review; can I call them, or what?

Over the years, we watched Denzel's star rise with a sort of proprietary delight. (His co-star Paul now apparently owns a balloon business on Long Island.) I fancied the idea of getting the chance to say Hello-I-Knew-You-When; he wouldn't remember me, but he'd remember Ed's class and might get a kick out of it, and I'd get to bask in some delicious homage. Back in 1991 or so, when Spike Lee was shooting "Malcolm X" nearby in Ditmas Park, I dug out a copy of my review and hung around the set. I got as far as his trailer, but it was guarded by a man-mountain in bow tie and shades from the Fruit of Islam, and the idea of nattering about our college connection sort of withered on the spot.

So last Friday night, I set course for the Cort's stage door. We shot out to the street after the thunderous curtain call...where, perhaps thanks to Tweeting, several hundred fans had materialized across the street to await Denzel's exit, along with mobs from the audience. A staff of at least three handlers and a cop worked barricades, and by the time they were configured for the Big Moment, I was trapped in the armpit of an Amazonian tourist-like female with upraised cellphone camera, three bodies deep into the crowd. Denzel emerged to a cheer and a hail of flashes, convivially signed for about the first 10 folks pressed against the gate, and vanished into his limo as I waved my news clipping (which I had slipped into a folder with a note: "Denzel, I sure got it right"). Foiled again! (I must here observe that, back in the day, Broadway stage doors, even for big stars, were much looser affairs and a fan both lucky and creative could get a surprising amount of access, but no more.)

Hey, it was a great evening...and a wonderful reminder that dreams can come true. I only dabbled in theater, and never became a famous critic, but as we strolled through the neon-flooded canyons on a beautiful spring evening with our willowy daughter, all seemed right with the world.

But if anyone knows how I can get a package backstage at the Cort, would you let me know?

Photos top and bottom: New York Times

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Reader Comments (4)

Wow! What a fabulous story. My sister and I have been trying to get tickets to this show. And to think you went to school with Denzel.
You're right about the stage door access, too, I wonder if that's because we have more movie and TV stars doing Broadway. We wanted to catch a glimpse of Christopher Walken after we saw "A Behanding in Spokane" but he never left the theater (It was a matinee).
Great post--you deserve a balloon from Paul Christoforidis.
May 26, 2010 at 02:43PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Lenihan
Denzel Washington is one of my favorite Hollywood actor and I admired his award-winning performances in movies. It is good thing to know he took the time to return to theater which could be really be his first love.
May 31, 2010 at 09:24PM | Unregistered CommenterTomBlogger
The easiest way to get a package to stage door, especially at the Cort, is to mail it. Denzel's assistant will be the one to actually open the package but chances are good that he'll pass it to Denzel.
June 21, 2010 at 12:51PM | Unregistered Commenterxa60
I saw Denzel Washington in person once, when he was filming a scene from "The Siege" in Lower Manhattan. I stood right across the street from him, and my knees actually shook. Lucky you to have taken a class with him!

The suggestion about sending a package to him at the theater is good, but if you'd like your article back, be sure to enclose a SASE,
June 26, 2010 at 11:19AM | Unregistered CommenterAnne

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