Mixed Media

Stepping into the Spotlight

Stephen McKinley Henderson’s first lead role on the New York stage

(L-R) Stephen McKinley Henderson, Rosal Colón and Victor Almanzar in the world premiere of “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: © Kevin Thomas Garcia

“At the age of 64, to be in a show that has a sexy scene? Well, that’s fun. The whole experience—it was magical.”
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Department of Theatre and Dance

By Jennifer Kitses

During a particularly busy period this past spring, Stephen McKinley Henderson was spending his afternoons rehearsing for his first starring role in a New York play—“Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis—then hurrying off to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at night to perform his second-act cameo in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“It was hectic but a joy,” he says. “I was very mindful of being part of a revival of this wonderful play in the theater where it had premiered in 1959. At the same time, I was preparing for this major role in which I’m onstage in every scene. It was incredible.”

His effort paid off. Henderson got a rave review from The New York Times for his role in Guirgis’ story of Pops, a widowed ex-cop who hangs on to the rent-controlled apartment he shares with his son, his son’s girlfriend and one of his son’s friends. Although Henderson, who is a professor in UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance, has had supporting parts in dozens of productions—and the lead in many shows at Buffalo’s former Studio Arena Theatre—starring in an off-Broadway play was a new experience for him. He finished the show with barely a moment to spare, returning to Buffalo for the fall semester the day after his last performance.

Much has been made of his first lead appearance in a high-profile play, but Henderson also has earned wide acclaim for his supporting roles, including a Tony nomination in 2010 for his part in August Wilson’s “Fences.” “Every time you do a role, you do it all,” he says. “Even characters that are onstage for only three or four scenes—they all think of themselves as the stars of their own lives.”

Yet “Riverside” gave him a chance to explore avenues he hadn’t before, including performing what the Times described as “what may be the sexiest scene on a New York stage” last summer. “I never stop laughing about that, because it’s not the kind of thing I’ve done over the years,” Henderson says. “At the age of 64, to be in a show that has a sexy scene? Well, that’s fun. The whole experience—it was magical.”