Some of us have a very clear picture of what our future will look like at 19 years old; some take a little more time to figure it out. For Common, who is making his Broadway debut in Stephen Adly Guirgis' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, he began his career just wanting to make a rap album, just one rap album (he’s since made 14). As for Broadway, it never even entered his mind, says the three-time Grammy winner: “I never knew that it was within my grasp as a young kid who dreamed of doing something. I love art and theatre always affected me in a way where I felt it reached my spirit and my soul.” Attracted and moved by the plays he saw growing up, seeing theatre continues to be one of Common's favorite things to do.
In Between Riverside and Crazy, Common plays Junior, the formerly incarcerated son of a retired cop (played by Tony nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson), living in a rent stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City. The play runs until February 12, 2023.
And there’s no music in it. For the Emmy, Grammy and Oscar winner (one award away from becoming an EGOT), Common’s work not only reflects his passion for the arts, it is also a way to achieve a greater goal. “I choose my work by what my heart tells me,” he explains, adding that he has a particular passion for “social justice”: “I'm always going to do that work because I know what my purpose is: to enlighten and inspire, to improve lives in any way possible that I can—because I've been afforded the opportunity to pursue visions and dreams and see things. So I want to bring those visions and dreams to other people, bring opportunities to help heal and inspire people. That's part of why I'm on the planet.”
And it’s not just talk; Common was recently awarded the Harry Belafonte Voices for Social Justice Award for his dedication and engagement around social issues like mass incarceration, mental health, and voting. This honor is particularly special for the actor because “Harry Belafonte is truly one of my heroes,” he says. “Truly. He's a hero and an inspiration. And someone who I had the opportunity to meet and listen and talk to and joke with and just be inspired by.”
Between Riverside and Crazy arrives on Broadway after the theatre community and the world have gone through difficult times. The past two years have made Common look at the relationships in his life in new ways. In particular, the pandemic and the play has helped Common process his own difficult relationship with his mother. “I love my mother. She is the most important being on the planet to me," he says. "She birthed me and raised me and gave me so much. But everything in our relationship is not perfect. But we love each other, and we work through things that are not perfect and we communicate.”
READ: At 73 Years Old, Stephen McKinley Henderson Is Finally Playing the Lead on Broadway
In the play, Junior has a fraught relationship with his own father, and the play hinges on the forgiveness. So working on the production has also been a kind of therapy for Common: “What Between Riverside and Crazy does is it makes you really look at relationships that you have that may not have been all perfect, but you see the value in them and appreciate that,” he says, before adding, bluntly, “And also, you just work through your shit.”
For Common, the play doesn’t end at the edge of the stage or at the stage door. Consistent with his commitment to inspire and uplift, it is evident in his voice, as he passionately speaks about his Broadway debut, that he is excited to continue to find opportunities to inspire young people. Perhaps there will be another young Black kid out there who, like Common at 19, couldn’t imagine the potential within him.
“I want to be one of the examples for the kids who were like me, who didn't know that I could be on Broadway, like, 'I could actually do something,'” he says. “And I want them to know all the elements to what it takes to do a play because they might say, ‘I might not want to act, but I might want to do costume design, the sound—or I may want to do lighting.' I would love for young people—Black, brown people—who are not usually exposed to Broadway, whatever nationality they are … I just feel like the door should be open to everyone.”
Common has also been speaking with the producers in Between Riverside and Crazy about bringing in formerly incarcerated people to come see the play. In this new moment in his life, Common is embracing the opportunity to amplify the arts and make Broadway accessible to others—to show them how healing art can be and that they can be a part of art-making. “It’s an opportunity and a possibility to be there for everyone,” he says. “To enjoy and to feel like they can actually be a part of it. So I'm very inspired for that reason, too.”
Watch Common and the cast of Between Riverside and Crazy explain how the Pulitzer-winning play "feels like New York."