Stephen McKinley Henderson, retire? Just show him the script
The Daily Beast
May 29, 2023
In a candid interview, Stephen McKinley Henderson talks his second Tony Awards nomination, post-pandemic Broadway, fighting racism, family—and being glad to still be “in the game.”
At home in Buffalo, New York, the actor Stephen McKinley Henderson said he was enjoying watching his grandchildren play. “I tell you, there was no way for me to see when I was 10 years old what I would see when I was 20, 40, 50, 60, or 70,” said Henderson, a Tony Awards nominee for his role as mercurial, mysterious paterfamilias Walter “Pops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ also Tony-nominated play, Between Riverside and Crazy.
“This is retirement right now, and I may do less,” Henderson said, before laughing heartily during a recent Zoom call. “But I don’t think there will ever be a day that somebody couldn’t get me to do something. I’m going to be very hard about what I do, and I may go away for a very long time. But there’s no way that I can’t be persuaded.” Henderson laughed, imagining receiving a juicy script. “Oh man, I’ve got to read that one! Yeah!”
Henderson, 73, won an Obie and Lucille Lortel Award for his performance as Pops when the show ran off-Broadway. Of the Tony nomination, Henderson told The Daily Beast, “I’m very pleased. This has been an incredible season with so many wonderful performances. I’m very glad to be in the number.” Is he competitive? This is his second Tony nomination, after one in 2010 for his role in August Wilson’s Fences. “I think I could tolerate getting the Tony,” Henderson said drily. “I think I might find it in my capacity to tolerate it. But I could also celebrate with any of the guys in my category if they won the award. I’m glad to be in the game.”
Alongside his acclaimed stage roles, Henderson enjoys a variety of screen work; most recently the science fiction thriller Devs, as it has meant he has worked with writer Alex Garland, and Dune as it brought him together with director Denis Villeneuve. He says he has also enjoyed working with stars like Greta Gerwig, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Joaquin Phoenix, and Patti LuPone, and other directors like Steven Spielberg and Ari Aster.
“I really do enjoy the craft and art of acting. I really do. I love it, man,” Henderson said. “At some point I am going to slow down, and start enjoying the grandkids, but I’m glad I went back to New York and did Between Riverside and Crazy. It was not easy to do that, but the joy to be part of this season and to be acknowledged at the Tonys—I am so grateful for it.”
We were speaking as confusion reigned over the Tony Awards, and whether the WGA strike would scupper their TV transmission. A few days later it was announced the telecast would go ahead. At the time of writing, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Tony-nominated members of the WGA have been urged to not attend the ceremony. Should any of those nominees win, the WGA has suggested they pre-record an acceptance speech, or have a non-member accept the award on their behalf.
“I really want people to see the play, and see more productions of it produced, and all plays man,” Henderson said. “It’s a sad thing if you have got to depend on television to keep Broadway going. I am also 100 percent with the writers and creators who are asking for what they are asking.”
Theater-minded visitors come to New York anyway, Henderson said, but the televising of the Tonys is especially vital this year, Henderson said, as Broadway and theater more generally continue to struggle post-pandemic.
Broadway needs the Tonys to be televised, said Henderson, “but what theaters really need is a great selection of productions,” and for the TV show to showcase that variety. “People who come to New York to see theater come to see New York to see theater. A TV audience for one night is great to have, but it is not the be all and end all of Broadway.”
“Broadway is in a difficult situation,” he added. “I know how much the shows that are running need the imprimatur of a Tony nomination. They say, ‘If you can make it here you can make it anywhere.’ It’s true, and a healthy mythology. It’s wonderful to have a city, which theater from all over the world aspires to come to. So many Americans play the West End and National Theatre (in London) and the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). I have played the National, which means a lot to me, and Dublin too. But wherever I go, people want to bring productions here.”
Henderson, who this year was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Lucille Lortel Awards, is especially proud to be part of this season as Broadway struggled to return from COVID—with shows and casts still affected by illness. “It has been amazing to watch productions survive and thrive,” Henderson said. “Theater will survive stronger and stronger, and thrive stronger and stronger, as time goes on. If the Tonys being televised can do anything, it sends a message to America to come see these shows. They’re tougher than ever.”
The Broadway audience reaction to Between Riverside and Crazy this past winter was voluble as the charged play about secrets, lies, and family love and loyalty continued—a testament to the actors making it seem so real.
Henderson laughed. “Those reactions are not new to me. I worked in regional theater and performed in high school. If I could play high school with what that audience would be saying, I can deal with a Broadway audience. I also did Fences (in 2010) with Denzel (Washington). There were groups of women who liked to talk back to Denzel when he was on stage. My character suspected him of something. ‘Leave him alone,’ they would say to me. The interesting thing with ‘Riverside’ is hearing the audience—which thinks it’s on the right side—discovering that side is not as reputable as they thought. It’s wonderful they are so engaged, and that the play (first performed in 2014) still speaks to audiences today.”
Henderson has found that his relationship to Pops has grown and deepened over time, particularly with scenes that make clear that the grief he feels over losing his wife has superseded the sense of responsibility he feels over raising his son.
Henderson’s own family is incredibly important to him. Married to wife Pamela Reed Henderson for 45 years, he has one son, Jamal, and three grandchildren. “My wife has been really, really supportive and a blessing to me. I’ve been able to work in the way I have because of the generosity of her and my son, who has been such a focus and on-point person himself. If he weren’t my son I’d want to be a friend of his. He’s a really nice guy. My three grandkids (a 10-year-old boy and 8-year-old twins) can do anything they want.” He laughed. “Each one is precious, but the little girl is great. She has got all of us wrapped around her little finger.”
There was such an intense relationship between Pops and his son in “Riverside,” did that strike home? “To do the work you have to have a vivid imagination, but you’ve got to have that imagination based in something,” Henderson said. “To have such a wonderful relationship with my son in reality, and then be able to say if that were in jeopardy what would I do? I would go to any lengths to rectify that circumstance. You have got to have a life to bring life to a dramatic work. I am not nearly as comfortable talking about my life detail as I am using it whenever appropriate for whatever project I am working on.”
“There’s just enough room inside the role of Pops to personalize and grow it beyond your personalization,” Henderson said of his “Riverside” character. “There are wonderful characters around him too, a family of characters, and I always think of the view of the Hudson River that I imagine flowing past outside the window. That’s the real apartment it was drawn from—Stephen’s (Adly Guirgis, the playwright) apartment. It’s a view which is peaceful, and also so dwarfing it can make you feel small.
“I’m very close to Stephen. Every time we are together our conversation is not just about work and plays, but other conversations and friendship. It’s all tied together, and so many people are tied to him. He’s a real center of the universe. The world comes in and out of his apartment—and the writers and students who work with him. It’s such a wonderful life that surrounds him. I’m glad to be welcome there, and glad to have had him take the deliberate action to give me one of the most challenging and fulfilling roles I can imagine.”
Pops has a lot of atoning to do for not being there for his son, said Henderson, even though he had no one there for him in the same way—and the play follows him from a “guilt-ridden, accusatory place” to get on with his life. Pops had been easy to get into every night, because Henderson had played him for so long, and—as the play ends with him “in his freest place”—at the end of the show Henderson was happy to be around other people.
“But at the end of some performances, I would feel something still pulsating, maybe in the way somebody said something,” Henderson recalled. “There are moments in the play that are very raw. When you act, you don’t just say some words that you act out. You’re trying to put things behind those words. I’m not a far-out method actor. (Theater practitioner Sanford) Meisner believed you had to have some skin in the game.”
Henderson is most acclaimed for his roles in many key productions of Wilson’s plays. He feels “very fortunate to have been in the company” of his friends and professional compadres, both Wilson—he has performed in all but two of the legendary Black playwright’s cycle of plays—and the influential director and theatrical figure Lloyd Richards, whose work and sphere of influence had an “incredible impact on theater, and particularly on the lives of African American artists.” Henderson met Wilson originally through his sister, and went on to star in Jitney from 1996 to 2002. “All the guys were seasoned. To be in one of August’s plays I got to work with one of the greatest ensembles put together.”
He would like to perform in the two outstanding Wilson pieces (the first and last of the 10-play Century Cycle, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf), “if there is a director for each who has a vision of the production that think I would help to enhance it, but I’m not looking for it. I am so fortunate to have worked with him. If it happens naturally that’s fine, but I’m good just like this.”
Henderson laughed that, discussing such things in depth, reminded him of something the actor Roscoe Lee Browne once said, “You can talk a thing to death, but you can’t talk it to life.”
“My brother and I were very tight. He was dear to me”
Henderson grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and—“across the bridge”—in Kansas City, Kansas. Just as Pops had “a real motley crew” around him in the play, so his mother Ruby ran a house where “everybody was welcome,” Henderson recalled. “People lived in the basement room or upstairs for a little while until they found their way. I admired that about my mother—to welcome those who were not welcomed somewhere else. She knew I had a place where I was welcome, so she made room for people who didn’t have a place.”
Henderson didn’t grow up with his mom, or his brother, Ronald Eugene Johnson, who was deaf, but was close to them—and saw them often. Henderson grew up with a couple called Benny and Irene Walton. “He worked in a packing house and the mother, while she worked in politics,” Henderson said. “We had a lot of family in Kansas City—a cousin next door, another cousin’s family a block away. They’d come up from Oklahoma to help each other, so I was around family. His mother, brother, and sister lived in Kansas City, Missouri, while he lived “across the bridge” in Kansas City, Kansas with the Waltons.
“I would go over from time to time, or they would pick me up. I did mind in the beginning I had been sent me to live somewhere else. I was the only kid in the house of this couple in their fifties—they were rural, wonderful, simple Black people who I loved. They knew my mother wasn’t able to take care of me given what she had on her plate at such a young age.”
Henderson’s brother liked movies, and in churches would sign the 23rd Psalm and Lord’s Prayer, while Henderson spoke both. “People at school thought Ronald would be dumb and slow, but he wasn’t far from it. Performing ignited him. He had the intent, commitment, and intensity I had to match vocally. At the movies, the screens were big and the actors’ heads so big on screen, so he could read the actors’ lips. He was a big fan of Sal Mineo and Woody Strode. We were very tight. He was dear to me, five years older than me, and a leader who helped me develop my own communication skills. He would read people’s lips to understand what they were saying. I remember him once going up to someone who was being rude about us to say, ‘You shouldn’t say that about us.’”
His grandfather would make sure Henderson and Ronald spent time together. In the summer his grandfather would take the boys to his two sisters in Oklahoma who had a farm, where there were chickens and hogs, and where Henderson rode a horse to attend summer classes at the local three-room schoolhouse. “That was a significant time in terms of me liking learning, really enjoying it.”
The racism of the era was “institutional,” Henderson said. He recalled his brother and him buying a soda, and the shopkeeper saying they would have to pay an extra nickel for the straw. “My brother wisely said, ‘Well, we don’t want the straw, we’ll just take the soda.’ They said, ‘If you put your mouth on that glass you’ll be eating it.’ We got the soda, and shared a straw. If my brother had been on his own, there may well have been a situation.”
Irene Walton’s father was in Black vaudeville. “She used to tell me stories about his life of being a performer,” Henderson said. “It made me think you could really do that. Poetry was the first thing that got me into acting, but what got me on stage jiving around was music.”
He was introduced to poetry via Sunday school easter poems. He had “such great teachers,” including a principal who introduced him and his classmates to Greek mythology. An English teacher, Ms. Bloodworth, cast him as the drunken porter in Act 2 Scene 3 of Macbeth. Henderson recalled saying his lines—“Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?”—and the look of “What the hell is he doing?” on the faces of his classmates.
“Ms. Bloodworth loved it,” he recalled. “She gave me more to read: (Shelley’s) ‘Ozymandias,’ (Yeats’) ‘The Second Coming,’ (Coleridge’s), ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ and the Beat Generation—Ginsberg and all those cats. For me, poetry is personal, not for display.” Another teacher, Gloria Terrell, asked him to play the only white character in a school production of A Raisin in the Sun, because he was one of the fair-skinned Black students in the all-Black high school he attended. Henderson told American Theatre, “She said, ‘Well, you can get away with this because you’re cool. You got a name on the street; the guys know you, and the other light-skinned kids in the school would take a lot of ribbing and they wouldn’t survive this.”
Poetry remains important to Henderson today, he writes some himself “to get something out,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s just a joy to read other people’s perspectives on whatever they were going through, or how they see the world. I love that expression, ‘I don’t have to have my way, but I’ve got to have my say.’ I’m a great believer in that.”
Henderson went to Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City, an historically Black college, as a math and political science major. “I knew I enjoyed working out the problem,” he said. “It was finite. There was an answer. When I was young, it was going to the blackboard, and working out problems—x equals this, y equals that. Getting it right, and showing how I got it right, was part of it.”
When he attended Juilliard, he knew that “theater was for me,” although he has said he later felt disillusioned. “It wasn’t so much Juilliard, I just wasn’t prepared. My life up to that point had just not prepared me for stark differences in America. It was two different worlds. Yes, it was racism but it was also a more general state of things. You think you can freely do what you want to do, but you find out none of it is freely done. You have to scramble for the apple just like it ever was. The world has taught others to operate callously and in a cutthroat way. It was a real awakening to me about just how vicious and problematic it was. Everybody seemed animalistic all around me. I wasn’t prepared for it.
“I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to everything in my past, and I was never going to be at home in this world I was about to attempt to not just be in but to master. Juilliard separated me from my own culture. What came in its place was a Eurocentric, Anglo way of dealing, operating, and being—and that classism was the height of civilization; the idea that you were fortunate to be at this altar.”
Henderson sought mental health support, and yet—while thinking he had ‘self-sabotaged” his position at Juilliard—he went to Purdue University graduate school where he was the director of the Black Theatre Workshop at the Black Culture Center. He went on to join what is now known as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, “which was the best thing that happened to me,” where he spent five years making theater and learning the craft from veteran actors.
“I’m not trying to stop, man”
Henderson “does not really” have a favorite Wilson play, though distinctive standouts include playing Turnbo in Jitney, and Stool Pigeon and Elmore in different productions of King Hedley II. “Playing Stool Pigeon was my first Broadway show, and Jitney was the show I got to be in the Wilson family,” he said. “I was also very grateful to play Bynum Walker in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I had to learn to play the drums when I played Red Carter in Seven Guitars, and would do again if I had to.
“That was very special for me because his name, ‘Red,’ was like ‘Redbone,’ the name light-skinned African Americans like me got called. I was nicknamed ‘Dirty Red’ when I was young because dirt showed up on me. I like that August wrote that role, and also that the character has a speech about his mother. Sometimes, as you get older into your seventies, you meet other guys who have mothers are in their nineties, who proudly tell you they’re off to see their mother.”
Henderson has played the characters of Slow Drag and Cutler in productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In Fences he has played Troy Maxson and Jim Bono. “It has been like being in this great repertory company, performing these great theater pieces at different ages,” Henderson said of performing Wilson’s work. “Through their lives actors grow into the opportunity to play characters like little Reuben Scott in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, then later maybe Ruby in Seven Guitars, then Sterling in Two Trains Running, then move into older roles.
“To have the chance to have that body of work, to really become a Wilsonian actor—that’s what I’m really grateful for. I feel the same way about Stephen’s work. Theater has all these great ‘families,’ which are really great to be in. As an actor I feel the same way about plays by Chekhov, (Athol) Fugard (Lorraine) Hansberry, (Arthur) Miller. When you look at the work of Lynn Nottage, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, all those cats, you see how amazing the work of these writers are.”
Years ago, he loved playing Alton Scales, the young Black male character in Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (a revival of which is playing on Broadway, also Tony-nominated), “because it related to my particular journey, and so many others—being judged by the color of our skin rather than the content of our characters.”
Of the need for change on Broadway, and theater more generally, when it comes to diverse programming and casting, Henderson said, “I know everyone is saying, ‘I see you, white theater.’ But it’s not their theaters we need to be focusing on. We need to be building theaters and audiences ourselves. If we make someone in charge of this work being produced, shown, and viewed, it’s almost giving them the power to take it back again. We can’t wait for someone else.
“Fat Ham (James Ijames’ Pulitzer-winning play) is not playing on Broadway because someone is trying to do right by a black playwright. Fat Ham is playing because it is a work of genius, and people are intrigued by it. We need to be supported and be seen in theaters in many places—locally and on Broadway. I was recently talking to Colman Domingo, a beautiful person and wonderful actor, who is a producer of ‘Fat Ham,’ about how these plays can lift and fill the coffers of small theaters where they begin, in Philadelphia, Detroit, or Toledo or wherever, and then the theaters where they move to. Then all theaters grow.”
Henderson wishes America subsidized theater as the art form is funded by other countries. “America needs to face the mental health problems people suffer in this country. We must use the arts to help people to not be as alone and polarized as they feel. It behooves us, our citizenry and our visitors, to have the arts so we get more than one perspective of one thing, and to get all kinds of people in one room together not because they’re for this team or that team, but because we should be making sure the human race is taking care that we all stay around for a while. I am all for unheard voices getting heard, but I don’t want there to be only one place where those groups get to do something.
“I heard a brilliant Black woman say, ‘You can’t fight and beg the same person. You can’t fight them with one hand and beg with another.’ Bloody good plays just need to get performed and produced. It doesn’t polarize anybody. If someone tries to convince you that Critical Race Theory is hurting children, it’s absolutely ludicrous. It’s just telling history. It’s not saying, ‘You did it.’ It’s saying, ‘This was done to people.’ We’ve got to make sure we are able to talk about this thing that happened at another time which still bothers us, and figure out how to fix things going forward.”
When asked how fulfilling he had found his screen and stage work to date, Henderson smiled widely. “To get to play Bobo in Raisin in the Sun on Broadway with Denzel (Washington) and LaTanya (Richardson Jackson) and the rest of that wonderful cast, and to have President Obama and his wife come backstage to meet everyone was special, and then going into the replacement cast of A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath’s incredible play, with Julie White, Jayne Houdyshell, and Erin Wilhelmi was just a joy.
“To get to play Pontius Pilate, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman (in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot for LAByrinth Theatre Company) was amazing, and to be Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula: The Musical was a kick. I’ve had some real fun, like with Dune: Part Two with Austin Butler and Stellan Skarsgård, and Causeway with Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry. These have been wonderful projects, as was Manchester by the Sea and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. To be part of that film and cast was wonderful. Watching the great work of Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn, who played the young kid, was precious. It reminds me that in August’s plays we see the oldest members of families holding and handing over to the youngest.”
Henderson doesn’t have dream roles he would love to play, or any totemic characters to check off. He prefers to play new characters, “though if someone said to me, ‘We think you should be a great ‘Doctor’ in Three Sisters,’ I’d have to consider it.”
“My career has been wonderfully fulfilling, I’m not trying to stop, man,” Henderson said, then laughed and smiled broadly. “There’s an old Blues song which goes, ‘I’ve had my fun, if I don’t get well no more.’ It’s true. I can say that I’ve definitely had my fun, if I don’t get well no more.”