This semester Stephen McKinley Henderson has been teaching as the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre. It is a fortuitous time to have Henderson on campus, as this December he will appear opposite Denzel Washington, FCLC ’77, in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Together with Viola Davis, Henderson and Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway production, which won the Tony for best revival of a play, a best actor Tony for Washington, best actress for Davis, and a best supporting actor nomination for Henderson. Much of the Broadway cast has been retained for the move to the screen.
A theater professor emeritus from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Henderson knew August Wilson and has acted in his plays on and off Broadway. He sat down for an interview with Fordham News to discuss Wilson, acting, and teaching.
How did you first meet August Wilson?
I closed in a play at The Totem Pole Playhouse near Gettysburg. While driving through Pittsburgh I learned that he was speaking in a neighborhood called Homewood. I heard August speak there, and it was something so genuine and true. It was clear he saw the beauty in people, and he wanted to make sure the rest of the world saw what he saw. I felt that I was on a journey to meet this guy, and I got to work with him from 1996 until his death in 2005.
You’ve worked with director Lloyd Richards. What was his role in Wilson’s legacy?
If there were to be a Mount Rushmore of acting teachers and theater contributors, Richards would be on that mountain with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Stanislavski. He was the first African-American Broadway director, doing Raisin in the Sun in 1959. It took Lloyd Richards’ career in the theater to bring August to his highest level onstage, and it took Denzel’s journey and his brilliant career to introduce Wilson to this larger audience. Now more people can see the contribution Wilson made.
What was it like to transition Fences from the play to the film?
In the play I had the best seat in the house: It’s just Viola, Denzel, and me for much of the first scene. So to have that happen on film and to be with these incredible artists is just wonderful. With Denzel’s stature [in Hollywood]we were able to get three weeks of rehearsal before filming. For actors, film really is this intimate experience, whereas in a play the audience can see everything. In film you have to make choices as to who the focus should be on. But we were in great hands because Denzel is the director.
Is something lost in the translation to film?
When Laurence Olivier said he would do Shakespeare on film, there were purists who said the public wouldn’t go to the plays. It was the exact opposite. It enhanced their love and appreciation of Shakespeare. In Fences, we were all quite aware that actors have been doing these roles for a few decades and nobody will be able to satisfy everyone. But now more people will know what a contribution August Wilson made to American theater.
This play was set in the 1950s and written in the 1980s, is it still relevant?
It’s a classic, and a classic is something that is never finished saying what it has to say. It could be written in Sophocles’ time, or Shakespeare’s time, or in the 60s, but it still has something to say. I think August was one of those writers who wrote about human nature. He knew that a playwright, especially a poetic playwright, has a cultural gift. They come from a specific culture but they write about what it is to be human—and very specifically from their own cultural point of view. And August came to us from the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and his stories and his characters still speak to people everywhere.
The play uses the everyday language of African Americans, with liberal use of the N-word. Given current concerns about safe spaces and cultural appropriation, how do you teach texts to students from a variety of backgrounds?
It would just be impossible to work on an art form outside of the context of the social issues at the time. In terms of safe spaces, we have to make the classrooms the safe space. The students have got to be able to trust that we can say things here and we can grow. If you’re fortunate enough to get to play roles, you needn’t be limited to the ones that were written only for your culture. Especially while you are in a training program, while you are developing your craft. You can indeed have a wonderful career later doing your own culturally specific roles if you choose —and many British actors have said that they’re Shakespearean actors and they proudly do his work almost exclusively. It’s perfectly alright if an African-American actor says ‘I’m going to work only in my culture.’ But most artists have worked on characters that are simply human. African-American students must often end up playing a “white role” in order to be cast at all in some programs. There’s also a proud tradition: James Earl Jones has played Lear, Andre Braugher played Iago, and Diana Sands has played Saint Joan. It goes on and on. So, how can I turn to a white student and say you can’t play this or that role? Of course they can, and if they are going to play it with distinction someday professionally, they must be allowed to work on it while they are training.
Videos of McKinley Henderson by Miguel Gallardo.