Between Riverside and Crazy star Stephen McKinley Henderson is a Tony Award nominee this year for Best Actor in a Play. He’s already won an Obie for originating the role of Walter "Pops" Washington in the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic drama. But the extremely talented, and ever-so-humble actor credits his success, in part, to his fellow thespians. “My nomination is a recognition of our production,” he tells EBONY. “Without those fully committed actors looking back at me I couldn’t have discovered, sustained and grown.”

Known for his prolific body of stage work in numerous plays by August Wilson, Henderson shares the secrets to his nuanced performances, and why he hadn’t planned on writing an acceptance speech until EBONY intervened.

EBONY: How does it feel to be nominated for your incredible work in Between Riverside and Crazy, your second Tony nomination?

Stephen McKinley Henderson: It makes me proud. This season is a rich tapestry of distinguished plays and productions.  

You gave such a nuanced performance. How do you relate to Pops and his life experience?

There are several points of entry for me with Walter, though I must magnify and distort the similarities to reach his level of self-destruction. The lack of time with his father is one. The great remorse over his failure to return his wife’s devotion and faithfulness in kind. The awkwardness of conveying to his son how much he loves him. But perhaps more than anything, I relate to the fact that without grace and forgiveness, we might all be devoured by what we feel compelled to do to survive.  

You have a very racy scene with the Church Lady in the play. What was going through your mind every time you did that scene?

Well, every time was a moment-to-moment revelation actually.  But I was always aware of how beautifully it was written, so much so that the audience watched it progress in amazement. I always knew how blessed I was to have Liza Colon Zayas be the artist who built this with me through the years. And I was grateful to Maria Christina Oliveras for bringing her personal sparkle to the role.

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Victor Almanzar
in Between Riverside and Crazy. Image: Joan Marcus 2022.
Stephen McKinley Henderson and Victor Almanzar in Between Riverside and Crazy. Image: Joan Marcus 2022.

You actually originated this role back in 2015 when it was written for you. How has it changed or evolved since then?

I believe the play took on the changes and evolution of our world as perceived through the eyes of the beholders. The audience brought their insights into the circumstances. For me, I felt Pops move from being centered in denial and guilt to being centered on revenge and repair. But all of this shifted organically without premeditation. Time changed us.  

You're known for your work in many of August Wilson's plays, which truly capture the Black experience. Is there a character you haven't played from his work that you ever wanted to dive into?

Having done 8 of the 10 plays, three with August in rehearsals and two while the plays were being written, and having shared conversations, meals and laughter with him, it is well with my soul. I am eternally grateful to Kenny Leon and Denzel Washington for Fences.  I must admit I would welcome playing Holloway [from Two Trains Running], Stool Pigeon [from King Hedley II] or Turbo [from Jitney] in a film, but on stage my cup has runneth over.  Well, I would probably do Holloway on stage anywhere if a director felt inclined to cast me.

You're considered one of the greatest character actors of our time. What makes a great character actor tick?

A love for human complexity, wonderful writing and a willingness to serve.

You've already accepted an OBIE award for this role. What will you say in your acceptance speech this time around?

Ha ha! That’s a trick question. I appreciate your support, but I don’t have an answer for that because I don’t anticipate winning. Quite frankly, I sense that a show currently running can generate more excitement for the magic of live performance and might therefore be a better bet for Broadway’s highest honors. Maybe I shouldn’t think that way but I know a rising tide lifts all boats. A good economy is good for everyone individually. However, I owe it to you to answer your question, and upon reflection, my acceptance speech would include my gratitude for my entire journey: the teachers at Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, who believed in me as an actor.  The year I spent at the HBCU Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. The Juilliard School, The North Carolina School of the Arts, Purdue University’s Graduate Theatre and the Black Cultural Center. St. Louis Repertory, St. Louis Black Repertory, Crossroads Theatre and the entire theatre communities in Chicago, Denver, and Buffalo, New York. Because I would never have time to say that and thank the amazing artists, designers, production crews and stage managers I’ve worked with on Between Riverside and Crazy, I say it here: to the Atlantic Theatre, Second Stage Theatre and Carol Rothman for giving the play its third stage at the Helen Hayes. To director Austin Pendelton. To my dear friend playwright Stephen Adley Guirgis. And most importantly, to the cast members and audiences who showed up every night like I did.

What's the next project for you: writing, directing?

How wonderful that you asked about writing.  My son and my wife have convinced me to start compiling some of the stories they’re tired of hearing me tell.  I really plan to slow down and ease into that.  

The 76th Annual Tony Awards airs Sunday, June 11, 2023 on CBS.