It all started with a hip replacement surgery. Settling back in his chair, actor Stephen McKinley Henderson relays how in 2011, he was using a cane, which prompted a key conversation with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. Feeling his age at the time (Henderson is now 73), the actor said, “I don't have much longer to trod the boards.” Guirgis’ denied the sentiment, as Henderson recalls. “He said, ‘No, that can’t be. I've got this one play that I had you in mind for.’” Henderson’s reply? “Well, you better hurry up and write, man.” That was how the lead role of Pops in Between Riverside and Crazy came to be.
Henderson originated the role of Pops Off-Broadway eight years ago and is now playing it again on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Despite an initial hesitation to revisit Pops, Henderson was convinced to join the Broadway run when his son said, “Dad, it’s your first principal role on Broadway. Stephen wrote the role with you in mind.” Since the play’s Off-Broadway run at Second Stage in 2015, Henderson has changed—as has his approach to Pops. A widowed ex-cop with a son recently out of jail, Pops lives in a rent-stabilized apartment which increasingly looks like an abandoned palace. Facing pressures from the city, the landlord, and the NYPD, Pops has a lot for an actor to dig into.
Previously, Henderson focused on Pops being a widower. Since 2020, however, society has begun larger conversations about police brutality, which has influenced Henderson’s conception of his character. “You take a lot as an African American policeman. You take some flak from certain parts of your own family—there’s some people who don’t see policemen as there to protect and serve,” explains Henderson. “Now, policemen see themselves as there to protect and serve, almost to the extent that they’re blind to when they’re not [protecting and serving]. So more of it now for me is about having been duped, thinking that I was doing something very noble and right.”
Shifting his approach has changed how Henderson views Pops’ relationship with his son Junior, played by the Grammy-winning rapper Common in his Broadway debut. “Before, it was the death of [Junior's mother] that affected the relationship. Now I realize it is how tough it was on him to be the son of a policeman. He was running in the streets, [doing] stuff that wasn’t righteous,” Henderson shares. How are the two actors creating that fraught father-son relationship? “You don’t build a tense relationship,” Henderson explains, “you build love, then you throw a monkey wrench in it.”
Their journey ultimately hinges upon reconciliation, says Henderson, as Pops realizes that he bears some blame and was “complicit in” his son’s unfortunate life trajectory: “I think [the play] is saying there’s life, there’s hope, that it’s never too late, that forgiveness can come, and one of the most important forms of forgiveness is forgiving oneself.”
This focus on forgiveness and accountability captures something Henderson finds so compelling about Between Riverside and Crazy (and probably why it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama). “This is why Stephen is such a great playwright, it’s the human side of it,” he praises. “It’s not just a discussion about social justice or injustice, this or that. It’s discussing that through interpersonal relations.”
Henderson has had a long career—though he’s mostly played supporting roles and side characters who make a large impression (his face commonly inspires “Oh, that guy!” remarks of recognition). And even though now he’s finally getting a lead role on a big stage, Henderson remains humble and grateful. “I don’t mind doing a very small role in a play that says something that I really want to be a part of,” he says, with utter sincerity. “It's a joy to be in a director's vision, it’s a wonderful masterpiece they’re trying to paint. And there’s no part of the canvas that isn’t crucially important.”
It has been over 10 years since that conversation with Guirgis, and Henderson has performed in two Broadway shows and nearly 30 TV shows and films since (including as Jennifer Lawrence’s neurologist in Causeway, which was released in November). He recently graced the silver screen as Thufir Hawat, the mentor to Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, in Dune. When talking about Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic, Henderson coyly points out that his assumed death in Part One is not seen onscreen—“ I think what you saw was the whole planet attacked.” He then gave a hint about Part Two, “I've shot the stuff that I'm in, in space.”
Whether as Pops, Bobo in A Raisin in the Sun, Jim Bono in Fences (for which he was nominated for a Tony), Thufir Hawat, or another character he has played, Henderson has one insight that has guided him throughout his long career: “Characters don't always say what they want. But they always say what they think will get them what they want.” What does Pops want then? “I imagine that what he's searching for is the freedom to go. One thing I do know, I don't think New York City will see him again.”