By Tom Stoelker, Senior Writer, Fordham University Office of Communications
This semester, Fordham University welcomed actor Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theater. It is a fortuitous time to have Henderson on campus teaching, as this December he will appear opposite Fordham alumnus Denzel Washington, ’77, in the film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s play, Fences.
Together with Viola Davis, the three starred in the 2010 Broadway production, which won three Tonys—for best revival of a play, best actor for Washington, best actress for Davis—and a nomination of best supporting actor for Henderson. Much of the Broadway cast has been retained for the move to the screen.
Henderson recently retired as a theater professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a position he has held since 1987. He knew August Wilson personally and has acted in his plays on and off Broadway. He holds distinct views on how to teach Wilson’s works, but he noted that he’s not the first Wilson expert to have held the Washington Chair. Two former chairs, actress Phylicia Rashad and director Kenny Leon, have both directed plays by Wilson.
“Kenny Leon likes to call us the Wilsonian soldiers,” says Henderson.
While the move to the big screen will finally bring Wilson to the attention of a much larger audience, it comes after years of championing the plays by director Lloyd Richards, who Henderson has worked with as well. He says, “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. A lot of us who worked with Lloyd take on the teaching of Wilson as a duty.”
Wilson is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Century Cycle, which consists of 10 plays, each set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a different decade. Nine of the plays are set in the city’s Hill District, a working class African-American neighborhood. Fences takes place in the 1950s. In the movie, Washington plays Troy, a 53-year-old garbage collector struggling to take care of his family.
The play delves into issues of race using the everyday language of African Americans, albeit shaped by “Wilson’s poetic gift,” says Henderson.
Matthew Maguire, Fordham’s theatre program director, says that Henderson’s influence has been critical in getting students to play across ethnic lines in the University’s acting classes.
“The actors of color have always played in Shakespeare and Chekhov, but the white student actors almost never play in Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson [plays]. Now, thanks to Stephen, they do,” says Maguire.
Still, Henderson says that asking students to cross ethnic lines by playing roles of other races makes some students uncomfortable—particularly with Wilson’s liberal use of the N-word.
He says, “It would just be impossible to try to work on an art form outside of the context of the issues in the society you're living in." So the solution, he says, is “to make the classrooms the safe space.” And that’s what he tries to do. “Students have got to be able to trust that we can say things here and we can grow and come to understand how these issues exist.”
Henderson says that while Wilson’s plays come from a specific culture, the themes are about the universal human condition.
“We’re earthlings,” he explains. “We may come from this city or that state, and from unique human experiences, but the only thing foreign is the language. Everything else is mother, father, sister, brother, being a parent, or being a good husband.”
Henderson teaches students to first find empathy with their character; only after that is accomplished do students work on technical aspects like dialect. He says, “I tell my students: ‘Don’t get it right; get it true!’”
For the film version of Fences, the actors spent three weeks rehearsing and getting re-acquainted with the characters they played onstage. Henderson says that Washington’s “Hollywood clout” enabled an extended rehearsal period—a rarity in film.
Henderson calls the production the “most magical experience” of his career. He says, “It took Lloyd Richards’ career in the theater to bring August [Wilson] to theater audiences, and it took Denzel’s journey and his brilliant career to introduce Wilson to this larger audience. Now, more people can see what a contribution Wilson has made.”