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The Tony nominee talks about reprising his award-winning performance in the Broadway mounting of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play
Considering it's the holidays, it's fitting that Stephen McKinley Henderson calls his role as Pops in Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy one of the best presents he's ever received. "I'm very grateful to Stephen for writing a play that I could start out eating apple pie and drinking bourbon in a wheelchair, you know what I'm saying?" he says with a charming chuckle. "It's quite a gift."
It's also Henderson's first leading role on Broadway after a half century of being a sought-after character actor on stage. Guirgis actually began writing Between Riverside and Crazy with Henderson in mind back in 2011. "Stephen said, 'Man, I got this play for you,'" Henderson, now 73, recalls. "But I had just had one hip replaced. So I said, 'Man, you got to do this quick because I don't know how long I got on stage.' Since then, I've had the other hip replaced and done Broadway a couple of times!"
In 2014, Between Riverside and Crazy had its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company and received rapturous reviews. The next year the hilarious, profanity-laden and thought-provoking tale had an encore run at Second Stage Theater and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among other awards. Henderson was a marvel at the center of both productions as a curmudgeonly-cuddly ex-cop widower holding court in his palatial, rent-controlled, Riverside Drive apartment as his ex-con son Junior, Junior's ditzy girlfriend (Rosal Colón), a sultry church lady (Liza Colón-Zayas), his ex-partner (Elizabeth Canavan) and other eclectic characters angle to get what they need from Pops, whether that's love, money, a place to crash or a lawsuit dropped.
Now Between Riverside and Crazy is having its belated Broadway debut at the Hayes Theater courtesy of Second Stage Theater, and the whole cast is back together again under Austin Pendleton's meticulous direction, save for the new addition of rapper-actor Common as Junior. According to Henderson, Common fit right in to this makeshift family. "He's just such a beautiful person," he says. "It was easy to open our arms to him. One prayer circle and we knew he was home."
Henderson did not originally intend to become an actor. He started out studying math and political science at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri before winning a spot in The Juilliard School's inaugural drama group, which included Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline. Ultimately, he finished his BFA in acting at North Carolina School of the Arts. "At first, I was glad to be in the math thing, X equals a number, you know? It was really wonderful to have that kind of purity," he says. "In the arts, things are far more subjective than that. Art, like life, is a lot messier."
While he has performed on stages all over the country and spent 30 years teaching acting at SUNY Buffalo and other institutions, Henderson is best known to theatre lovers as a a superb interpreter of August Wilson's poetic work, appearing in three of his plays on Broadway (King Hedley II, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and his Tony-nominated turn in Fences) and more beyond. Over the past decade, he's become increasingly busy on screen, too, with notable roles such as human computer Thufir Hawat in Dune, an empathetic priest/drama teacher in Lady Bird and Jim Bono in the movie adaptation of Fences opposite his Broadway costars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
Because of his schedule, Henderson admits he was initially hesitant about returning to Between Riverside and Crazy. "I've got three grandchildren and you have to miss a lot of things being an actor on Broadway," he says. "Also, the play was such a wonderful experience Off Broadway and I didn't want to diminish the memory of it. But both my son and my wife said, 'Nah, nah, you go on and do that.' And I'm glad I did because Stephen wrote such a wonderful play."
It's also a play that has deepened in resonance since its debut, examining issues of racism, police brutality, income inequality, incarceration and addiction in entertaining and enlightening ways. There are even jokes about Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani that land completely differently today, which is why Guirgis expressly sets it in 2014, the year it premiered.
"Stephen didn't update the script in any way except to say it's 2014," says Henderson. "But we all walk around with the knowledge of what we've lived through." Yet, less has changed than we think; unspoken truths have just bubbled to the surface. "You know, that thing in Ferguson, Missouri happened during the first run of the show," notes Henderson, referring to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, by a white police officer, an incident that helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. "We've always been aware of the profundity of the issues that Stephen has in the play."
As the characters reveal their ulterior motives, you can feel the audience's allegiance shifting. "Stephen massively threads the needle and lets you see the complications involved in the personal stories that we're telling," Henderson says. "Some audiences really want to laugh, but other people really love the drama and conflict. It's masterful."
As of now, Henderson doesn't have any other stage performances planned after Between Riverside and Crazy, though he'll be seen in three movies in 2023, including Dune: Part Two and Beau Is Afraid opposite his Juilliard classmate Patti PuPone. He's also mulling over writing a memoir. "My son tells me, 'Stop talking so much in interviews, Dad! Save some for the book," he says, laughing. "I do want to sit down and go through the boxes in the basement of the things that I've saved. I'll pick up a piece of paper and it reminds me of something, and I'll pick up a program from a regional theatre and remember back in the day, working throughout the country. There're so many people who helped me get to this place"—top billing on Broadway, at long last.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Between Riverside and Crazy. Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Between Riverside and Crazy is also frequently available at the TKTS Booths. It will also be live-streamed from Broadway January 31 to February 12, 2023.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.