The star dressing room at Second Stage these days seats four — Stephen McKinley Henderson and three male actors supporting him in Between Riverside and Crazy.
And this, he calls, a light sentence. "When we did Jitney here, there was one woman in the cast. She had a dressing room all to herself, and all nine guys were in here."
As star perks go, this must be some kind of progress, but then he's new to that game. Stardom stubbornly eluded him for 64 of his 65 years. Then suddenly, last summer, it caught up with him Off-Broadway with the world premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy, and he found himself center-stage in a play written with him in mind by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Prior to that parting of the waves, he was perfectly content with his second-banana station in life, and he scrupulously became one of the best.
Walter "Pops" Washington doesn't appear to be heavy lifting the way Henderson artfully and effortlessly tosses him off. Short and stout, he has a teddy-bear exterior that camouflages a sleeping grizzly in danger of losing his cave (in this instance, one of the last great rent-stabilized apartments on Riverside Drive). As a hard-drinking ex-cop recently widowed and sidelined by friendly fire eight years earlier, he already has several strikes against him — not the least of which is his ex-con son who has come back home to roost, bringing with him a shady lady and a shadier friend. Ron Cephas Jones, as Henderson's son, is the only new addition to the original cast. He was on Broadway migrant-working in Of Mice and Men at the time the first version was done at the Atlantic Theater with Ray Anthony Thomas as the son.
"Both are wonderful actors. I'd never worked with either, but we'd always hoped to do a show together. I just didn't think it would be the same show and the same role."
Having a character actor in the central ring, letting subplots spin around him, gives the play a unique imbalance and got lots of high time high-fives from critics. His was one of the most praised performances of the summer, and it warranted a return.
"No matter how much you try, it's hard to stay away from reviews," Henderson admitted. "People are thrilled for you and have to tell you. They just do. And they do.
"My primary goal was to not mess it up for Stephen — to have it be something that wasn't in keeping with his incredible record. He had really entrusted me with quite a bit, so I was grateful that the play and the production were so well received."
What Henderson hoped would come out of a successful run of Riverside was that necessary shove to Broadway for Guirgis' next opus — a large-scale boxing drama.
And yes, as a matter of fact, it does have sidekick/trainer role perfect for Henderson. He tried it out with a couple of actors in a scene reading that capped a ceremony where Guirgis got The Mimi [Steinberg] Award, the largest monetary prize for theatre in the U.S. "The response to it was so wonderful. John Patrick Shanley said to me afterward, 'Wow! What a way to close the evening — with a teaser like that!'"
Sidekicking is an art form for Henderson. He got a Tony nomination for it, and Denzel Washington got the Tony, when they palled around in August Wilson's Fences — and they reprised their rapport in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
"Denzel is a terrific combination of a great star and a superb actor, a very faith-based man and a regular guy. I can't talk sports with him, but he talks to me about what we can talk about. He's that kind of princely guy. He won't make you aware of your shortcomings. It's great to act with him. He completely occupies the character so you can meet him in the world of the play. That's what he appreciates.
"The first time that I acted with him, I got to play his best friend — and that's the way he accepted me. We had met socially, but, when we started to do the work, he just turned and looked at me, and, man, this was somebody I had known all my life.
"That's happened to me only one other time. When I filmed 'Lincoln,' I played President's manservant, William Slade, and the first time that I met Daniel Day-Lewis, he came up to me, shook my hand and said, 'Oh, Mr. Slade, how are you?'"
There was no head-swelling after Henderson's single summer of stardom. Riverside closed on a Sunday, and by Tuesday he'd resumed teaching theatre at the University of SUNY Buffalo. He'll call it a career after next fall's semester, just short 30 years.
But it won't "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" for him. He'll probably go into training for that trainer role, and he has his grandchildren to play with (a new set of twins has been added to the mix). And maybe he'll have time to linger over those Riverside raves.
"They made me think, 'If now is the time to get my rocking chair and my house by the side of the road, I'd say, 'Whew! I had this journey in the American theatre.'"