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Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson Headlines 'August Wilson Red Door Project'

Stephen McKinley Henderson will be teaching a master class at Portland Center Stage.

Stephen McKinley Henderson will be teaching a master class at Portland Center Stage.

Courtesy Stephen M. Henderson

Stage and screen actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is considered to be among the most renowned interpreters of playwright August Wilson’s work, will be in Portland this week to headline several events as part of the August Wilson Red Door Project’s  ongoing schedule of events. The current Festival celebrates Wilson’s work and legacy as chronicler of the African American experience in the 20th century.

The August Wilson Red Door Project received its name from the “red door” that serves as the entryway to the Pittsburgh home of Wilson’s mythical Aunt Ester, who is a character featured in four of his works and referenced in many others. Kevin Jones, one of the Project’s co-founders, adopted the theme of the red door at the suggestion of Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, during a visit to Seattle where Romero now lives. 

Constanza Romero (center front) with the cast of "Seven Guitars"

Constanza Romero (center front) with the cast of “Seven Guitars”

Courtesy Red Door Project

“Initially, the project wasn’t going to be called ‘Red Door;’ it was the ‘August Wilson Project,’ ” recalls Jones.

In order to use that name, Jones had to seek permission from Romero, who, after a productive dinner meeting, took Jones to August Wilson Way, a street in the Seattle City Center dedicated to the playwright in 2008.

“She took me down there and she showed me the big red door which represented the mythical Aunt Ester and it really represented what we wanted the project to do here in Portland,” says Jones. “I think the underlying goal of the August Wilson Red Door Project is to bring white people and black people, in addition to other people of color, together.”

The red door monument to August Wilson in Seattle

The red door monument to August Wilson in Seattle

Eden Politte/Flickr

In Wilson’s work, it is often considered that those who walk through Aunt Ester’s red door are taken on a journey of transformation and redemption and, according to Festival Cofounder Lesli Mones, “Our intention is to simulate this journey for Portlanders, and our hope is that that we can walk through this red door together.”

During this year’s Festival, and as part of the continued journey through the red door, actor Stephen McKinley Henderson will teach a master acting workshop and speak at a public forum.

Henderson has performed in a plethora of August Wilson’s plays, many of which were directed by Wilson himself. He received a Tony nomination for his work in the 2010 revival of Wilson’s Fences with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, as well as acted in movies including Tower Heist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s also appeared in television shows such as Law and Order and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.

When he isn’t on stage or in front of the camera, Henderson can be found performing for an audience of students as a tenured professor at the department of theater and dance at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

Go See Him!

When asked about balancing two careers, Henderson likened his life to that of a “migrant worker” following the “arts crop” wherever it goes, from early childhood church performances to being directed by August Wilson in the 1996-2001 run of Jitney. Recently I spoke with Henderson about his acting career and how his interactions with August Wilson influence his work.

IB: In that 1996-2001 production of Jitney, you were cast in the role of Turnbo?

SMH: Turnbo, yes.

IB: Was that your first time working with August Wilson?

SMH: Yes, that was the first time working with August. I had done Fences in Denver with the great Israel Hicks — he’s a wonderful director — and I had done Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, but that was the first time I’d worked with him.

IB: Did that previous work lead you to working with Wilson? Do you think that there was something in your performances that he saw?

SMH: Well, you know, he had not seen any of those productions, but I had met and worked with a dear friend of his, Claude Purdy, and that director, who had spoken highly of my work. But I went into New York and auditioned for that, and I had met August previous to that, and that’s a story that I won’t give you now because it’s going to be part of the workshop [at the Red Door Festival], but I met him because I was traveling through Pittsburgh doing a play called The Boys Next Door. But when I did finally audition for him and I finally got the role of Turnbo, when we were in rehearsal I reminded him of that meeting, and he didn’t remember it at all.


SMH: I said, ‘Remember that time we met? And so and so … ?’  And he said, ‘Nah, man, I don’t remember that …’

[More laughter]

IB: You auditioned and were accepted to the first cohort of the Juilliard School in 1968 — tell me how it felt to audition. Did that feel like a big moment for you?

SMH: Oh, yeah! That audition for Juilliard was a big moment and thank goodness I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was. I really just knew that I had this wonderful teacher, Gloria Terrell, who I would do anything for and she suggested that I audition. I was at school in Jefferson City, Missouri and I went up to Chicago to audition … that’s where the auditions were held. So that was a big thing in itself. I had been to Chicago only once before because I won a paperboy contest to be among the —

IB: the elite …

SMH: … the guys who got that honor — they got to go to Chicago for a weekend and that was a big thing. But this was me going to Chicago, by myself, to audition for something.

IB: When you were younger, did you want to be an actor?

SMH: Oh, yeah! I didn’t realize … how it would happen … My brother’s deaf, and he’s passed on now, but he was deaf and he lived with my mother, and I grew up with foster parents. But my grandfather would … get us together in the summer and take us to Oklahoma. I was in Kansas and my brother was in Missouri, but my grandfather would gather us together and go down home to our roots in Oklahoma. And my aunt realized then that my brother was going to a regular school … but when they found out he was deaf, he was getting very poor grades, so she devised this plan [to raise money] where [my brother and I would perform] the 2nd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer … He would learn to ‘sign’ it and I would speak it, and he was 12 and I was 7.

IB: So it was kind of like a performance?

SMH: Yes, and it was poetic text. You know, it was the Bible. And so doing that and raising money so that he could go to a school for the deaf … So we did that in a few places and it was a hot act, man… you know, we got booked!

IB: In churches?

SMH: Yeah, in churches people would say, ‘You gotta see these kids!’ So I got encouraged along those lines.

IB: So when did it all click? When did you say, “Ok, I enjoy doing this, I’m doing it for a good reason, can I make a living at this?” When did that all come together and you said, “I’m going to do this as a career?”

SMH: Well, you know, it seems to me it was after I got that scholarship to go to Juilliard … When my teacher sat me down and talked to me about auditioning for Juilliard, of course you have to start to be serious about it, even if you’re not!

But I think it was one summer when we raised some money to get bail for a brother in Kansas City during the Civil Rights movement … [Author and activist] Amiri Baraka came out for an evening of Jazz, Drama and Poetry, and we put together a production of Dutchmen … to raise money for this brother’s bail, because he knew he was going to try to get out of the country and leave. We knew that he wasn’t going to get a fair trial, so the best thing for him to do was make bail and then get outta there … 

That particular incident, because it was a consciousness-raising event, but because it was also on a bill with these professional jazz players and with the great Amiri Baraka. So I was mindful of the fact that, you know, ‘I’m doing this.’ And then I left Juilliard and went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, then studied a while in England on a summer program and met other artists there who were dancers and musicians and actors who knew we were living in a very interesting time.

IB: What was it like when you worked on Fences with Denzel Washington?

SMH: Yeah, and Viola Davis, don’t leave her out! Don’t leave her out!

IB: Oh, God, of course! I am a HUGE fan of Viola Davis!

SMH: I had worked with her before on King Hedley when she won her first Tony and then we worked together on Fences when she won her next Tony. Denzel, you know, is a, first, he’s just a great human being — a really great guy. Very family oriented, faith-based man and truly remarkable actor.

IB: Did you learn anything from him, did you guys share any techniques or —

SMH: Well, no. We were just out there to ‘play the music,’ man.  We didn’t talk about the ‘music;’ we were playing the music. We just went on and told the story. We had great appreciation for each other — we were playing two men who had known each other for a long time. You know — met in prison, got out of prison, made a vow to never go back, both had strange relationships with their fathers. Getting to know the characters, that took up all our time. But he had seen my work before and had been very supportive of me when I came in for the audition for that part. He made sure that everyone in the room knew. He said, “This is a ‘Wilson actor,’ here, everybody knows that, right?” You know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, but you still have to audition, so when I walked in to audition, it meant something to him as an actor, so it just shows the kind of generosity and practicality that is a part of him. But he has an empathy for the human experience — he’s a guy whose heart can be touched, so I can’t say enough about what a great human being he is. And a great guy to be on stage with. I’ve never been in a film with him. I’d like to think that one day I’d have that in my future.

IB: So fast forward to today. How did you connect with the Red Door Project?

SMH: Kevin [Jones], you know. He’s dear friends with a very close friend of mine, John Cothran. Kevin is a very genuine lover of August Wilson’s distinct contribution to American theater. Somehow we ended up talking about Aunt Ester and how important that seminal character is in August’s work. And they came up with what I think is just a brilliant thing, ‘just knock on that red door.’ And then I talked with Kevin and we talked and talked and talked, and we just clicked.

IB: It’s been a real honor talking with you today. I really appreciate it.

SHM: A pleasure for me, too.

The celebration of August Wilson and his legacy will continue throughout the rest of the year and will include appearances by other notable artists including Constanza Romero, musician Robert Glasper, choreographer Camille A. Brown and many others. Visit the August Wilson Red Door Project website for more information.

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