About the author:
It’s hard to imagine any actor who knows the plays of August Wilson better than 2010 Tony nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson. Consider the roles Henderson has played in the past two decades on and off Broadway and in regional productions: Bynum Walker in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Slow Drag in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wining Boy in The Piano Lesson, Red Carter in Seven Guitars, Jim Bono in Fences (first at the Denver Center and now in his Tony-nominated Broadway performance), Holloway in Two Trains Running, Turnbo in Jitney and Elmore in King Hedley 11. Through Wilson’s words, Henderson has spanned the 20th century onstage—and he kindly agreed to share his insights into the great playwright with Broadway.com readers.
I’ve had the great privilege of performing in eight of the 10 plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle—all except Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. I’m very humbled by that. Whenever someone compliments me on my work in one of the plays, I say, “It’s August.” His writing just speaks to me. I think he and I listened to our elders in the same way when we were children. We heard the eloquence in these simple but complex people, who didn’t go to college and yet had great intelligence. August captured that combination of rural wisdom and urban savvy in the people who migrated from the south, that blend of jazz and the blues. It’s there in the rhythm of his writing, and you just have to let it flow through you.
The first Wilson play I did was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo in 1991. Before the production, I drove through Pittsburgh to do a little research on the Hill District, the neighborhood in which most of the plays are set, and I was able to meet August. At first, he tested me. August always said that he was fired in the kiln of the black arts movement, and he asked me if I knew the poems of Amiri Baraka. So I started reciting one, and he said, “That’s a good one. Do you know this other one?” I recited that, too, and he said, “Yeah, man, you’re all right.” We bonded through Amiri Baraka’s poetry.
I played Jim Bono, the role I’m doing now in Fences, for the first time in 1992 at the Denver Center opposite a wonderful actor, the late John Hancock. Then I played the uncle in The Piano Lesson at Rutgers, followed by a six-year journey in Jitney, which is set in the 1970s. People from all cultures recognize themselves in that play and its characters, who hustle to make a living at a gypsy cab company. The central plotline involves a son who returns from prison, and we heard about so many fathers and sons who reconciled after seeing the show. Jitney was meaningful to me personally because we got to work directly with August. It’s the only one of the 10 plays that didn’t go to Broadway, but if August had spent more time on it, he might not have finished the Cycle before he died. That would have been a far greater disappointment.
August was a man with a mission, who was at home with the challenge of writing this collection of plays and the scrutiny that came with it. He was definitely an iconoclast—a unique, original person in his ideas—and I cherish the time I spent with him. He continually pushed himself, and that made you want to give him your best. I so admired the fact that he got his education from the library and not from traditional college programs. It was true kismet in terms of the American theater that he and director Lloyd Richards came together. As far as playwriting goes, August was a genius of the craft. Although his cultural perspective was absolutely African-American, he wrote for the world.
My favorite of August’s plays is Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I think it speaks to the human spirit as well as any play in the English language. There’s real healing in its message of how we can help each other and learn to live together on this planet. It’s just a beautiful play. But when I say it’s the best, remember that we’re talking about a lot of wonderful plays. We’re in high cotton with August Wilson!
And now I’m on Broadway in Fences, the most popular of August’s plays. It touches on so many themes: father-son relationships, male-female relationships, friendship. You see this father, Troy, have an awkward relationship with his two sons, but it’s a better relationship than he had with his father. Troy and his wife, Rose, have a relationship of complete honesty and frankness, almost to the point of tragedy. It’s a portrait of two adults appreciating each other, warts and all. I love playing Bono because the play presents such a wonderful portrait of friendship. It’s a play that has room for a heroic performance, as James Earl Jones gave in his time and now Denzel Washington delivers magnificently in his time.
It’s such a joy to be part of this wonderful cast in the revival of Fences. The response we’ve received from audiences and the honor of 10 Tony nominations is just wonderful. I think Broadway should get an August Wilson revival every couple of years!