Lenny Henry has long been known as one of Britain’s best and brightest comedians, but the strapping 6’3” talent has been no less impressive in recent shifts to “straight” theater. He won a 2009 Evening Standard Award for playing Othello and followed up with a 2011 National Theatre debut in The Comedy of Errors. Henry, 55 next month, can now be found at the Duchess Theatre giving a seismic performance as the voluble yet flawed sanitation worker Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s much-lauded Fences. Broadway.com spoke to the funny and fiercely intelligent performer one recent afternoon about his burgeoning status as a theatrical titan.
The part of Troy in Fences is daunting for any performer, let alone one who did stand-up comedy until the past few years. How did this job come about?
Back in 1991, I was very lucky and got to hang out with James Earl Jones [Broadway’s original Troy] while I was making [the film] True Identity, which was supposed to be my big Hollywood break that didn’t really happen. I wasn’t really thinking about a theater career, but he said to me, “Someday, when you have whiskers on your chin, you might want to look at Othello and Fences.”
And here you are, with a full beard, having done both!
You got it! I got some hair on my chin, got divorced [from British actress/comedienne Dawn French] and discovered so much truth and insight in August Wilson’s writing that after two Shakespeares, I thought this had to be the next thing. Troy is like an Afro-Caribbean King Lear—he’s a huge man—and I just thought, “If I’m brave and jump off the cliff, maybe someone will catch me.”
James Earl Jones will be back at London’s Old Vic in September to open Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave, so maybe he can see one of your final performances.
I’d love him to come see this; that would have such resonance! I went to see him when he was [on the West End] in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and he was absolutely delightful. I remember him saying to me, “I’ve done many Othellos, and I’m sure you’ll do at least three.” And I said, “I’m not sure I will; I’m not like you!”
As you say, Fences is Shakespearean in its language and emotional and thematic sweep.
Just the sheer amount of breathing you have to do to get to the end of the sentences, not to mention the tonality during the performances! This certainly feels like the proper training for something: maybe Iron Man? [Laughs.]
There’s an Everyman quality to Troy, as well.
I admire him for being a black man with a purpose in America in 1957 who isn’t scared to speak his own mind. America needed that kind of man at that time. But the fact of the matter is that he is also a human being who chooses to cheat on his wife and lie to his friends. He’s a big man with big problems, you know? That’s Troy to a T.
Were you apprehensive that the milieu of the play, Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the pre-Civil Rights era, might seem too far removed from your experience?
What’s been very good is that [director] Paulette Randall worked with August on his plays in this country, and she has sort of a free pass to direct any of his work here. She’s been to Pittsburgh and the Hill District, she knows the well from which this springs, so she came with a foreknowledge of the play and we just followed her lead. It felt as if she had a strong sense of what was required of us.
At this point, American stuff hardly seems to pose much of an obstacle to British actors.
Not when you’ve got HBO, man [laughs]! Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, The Wire are our favorite shows, and it’s not like we’re learning Polish or come from Japan! We really are two nations divided by a common language, so it’s not such a big stretch.
Has August Wilson’s widow been to see this staging?
Constanza [Romero] came to rehearsals and watched a couple of shows in Bath [during the play’s pre-London tour] and loved it; she dubbed us all “Wilsonian warriors.”
Your ex-wife was doing Shakespeare long before you were. Did watching Dawn in, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream inspire you to make a similar leap?
Having seen that Dream six times, I did think, “Maybe that’s something I should be doing.” But it was all about conquering my fear of theater—having a fear-ectomy [laughs]. When you haven’t trained, as I haven’t, theater is this massively steep upward curve. These three plays felt like I was going to drama school and doing my exams live in front of the audience.
You mentioned James Earl Jones, who created the role of Troy. What about Denzel Washington, who won a Tony in the 2010 Broadway revival?
I’d love to think that I somehow have Denzel’s talent. Do you think there’s a spray I can apply before a performance—something like Denzel Right Guard [laughs]? I’d love to have seen him sparring with [co-star] Viola Davis, but I also love doing our interpretation. Paulette said to us early on that you can’t think about how anyone else has done August’s parts. Otherwise we’d be on the floor in the fetal position thinking about James and Denzel and Yaphet Kotto and Laurence Fishburne!
What’s next for you on stage? Is it going to be Lear?
Not for a while. I’d like to have a rest and wait and see. It might be a TV show, or maybe a movie. Basically, in this country we all want to make movies and be in Game of Thrones!