Stephen McKinley Henderson has kept close bonds with Buffalo even with his successes on stage, screen and television. The University at Buffalo theater professor is currently appearing on Broadway in the landmark drama “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Henderson, a Tony-nominated actor, sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to talk about Western New York’s theater legacy and the acting profession. Here is a summary of some of the issues covered in an interview that is part of the “In Focus” series. Watch the full eight-minute interview above.
Brian Meyer: News Critic Colin Dabkowski once said that Western New York has been such a fertile ground for creative theater. What dynamics do you think contribute to that?
Stephen McKinley Henderson: I’m originally from the Kansas City area, and all the way out in the Midwest, I heard about Studio Arena Theatre, and I heard about Buffalo theater going back even further than that – the old Palace and that sort of thing. Because anybody in vaudeville, anybody in show business knew that you had to play Buffalo. It was a great tryout town. I always thought that because of the heyday of the Erie Canal, because of the great wealth that existed – you look at Delaware Avenue and you see the great buildings – that there were great patrons of the arts. Anybody who was anybody in the arts could be brought to Buffalo. Because the citizens were exposed to the best, they cultivated a love for the arts, and there are a lot of wonderful Buffalo artists.
Meyer: In looking at the live theater arena, if you were to pick one or two of the most influential people in Buffalo theater in the last half-century, who would it be?
Henderson: I’d just have to say Blossom Cohan (Studio Arena Theatre’s public relations director), because of how far-reaching her name was. When I say I’m from Buffalo, that’s the name that comes back. Also, I’d have to say Manny Fried as a playwright. I met Manny first in Chicago before I came to Buffalo.
Meyer: Let’s talk a little about your career ... nominated for a Tony in “Fences.” You were in the film “Lincoln,” and (currently on Broadway) in “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Henderson: Meeting and working with the playwright August Wilson activated my entire file all the way back to 1968 when I first left Kansas City and went to New York City. I had been doing it for quite a while. But when I started working with (Wilson) in ’96, everything that I had done up until that point suddenly had a microscope put on it, and they found that I had been doing some rather important work in regional theater across the country.
Meyer: Ten years ago, you said your greatest hope was to be able to continue to have this link with Western New York even with your forays into film and (Broadway). How has that balancing act panned out?
Henderson: Very good, primarily because of the administration at the University at Buffalo, where I’m on faculty, and my colleagues in the department. I’ve been able to teach one semester and then follow the crop like all migrant workers the next semester. And the pickin’s been good. I’ve been able to do that and maintain a connection here because of my wife and her business, and my son went to ([Nichols). It’s been easy to continue to keep my romance with Buffalo going.
Meyer: What do you tell students who are bent on making (acting) their career?
Henderson: I tell them that the career they seek may elude them, but the craft they seek is in their hands. They have to pursue their craft. And if you’re ever going to get anywhere with your career, it’s going to be because your craft was developed to a level that people want to hire you. You really can’t say what’s going to happen for you in this business. Many (students) think it’s supposed to happen next year. You graduate, and then you go get a TV series, and that’s how it goes. It doesn’t go that way. But if you really are fulfilled by getting a chance to work on great dramatic literature, then you get paid beyond your paycheck. You may have to come up with another way to make a buck.