From Math Major to Tony Award Nominee

On April 13, 2011

  • UB professor, Stephen McKinley Henderson, has been nominated for a coveted Tony award. Courtesy of Julie Dennis-Brothers/FOX

Actor, director, Tony Award nominee, and University at Buffalo professor.

For some, success can be measured by a list of achievements. For Stephen McKinley Henderson, it can all be read within the stretch of an inspiring smile.

"You love the fact that you're even able to do what you love to do," Henderson said.

 Henderson is a professor in the department of theatre and dance and a prime example for aspiring students that strong motivation and self-drive will award you with what you deserve.

Aside from offering acting courses in the fall semester, he is an actively involved member of the performing arts community. Whether he is performing for a sold-out theater or teaching in a small classroom, Henderson remains humble and never forgets all of those who inspired him throughout the years.

 The Tony Award nomination he received in 2010 for the Broadway revival of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences was awarded with meaningful and impeccable timing. In the same year, Henderson was a nominee for the "Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play" for his role as Jim Bono and his former teacher from The Juilliard School, Marian Seldes, received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her primary work as a Broadway actress.

"She's a major inspiration and influence because she is the one that showed me that you can have a career on the stage in an age [of] television and movies," Henderson said.

Since a scholarship to The Juilliard School for acting landed him into the newly established acting program in 1968, he and Seldes have remained in touch throughout the years.

"I was so proud to be nominated for a Tony the year they were acknowledging her lifetime achievement," Henderson said. "It was so personal. Every time I saw her it just did my heart so good."

Henderson's participation in the revival of Fences also struck a sentimental chord as his experiences working with the late Wilson were some of his most memorable. The two had shared a deep admiration for poet Amiri Baraka; their first encounter with one another began with reciting Baraka's poetic words back and forth.

"I really enjoyed doing Fences with Viola [Davis] and Denzel [Washington]; that was a thorough delight," Henderson said. "The only thing that could be better about doing Fences was that August was alive to see it."

Wilson, who passed away in 2005, was a playwright of whom Henderson had grown to highly respect. From 1996 to 2002, Henderson performed as Turnbo in the story Jitney and explained how the role was one of his favorites ever. He and three other actors remained on the tour for the entirety of six years, and the chemistry was impenetrable. Wilson would often refer to the men as North, South, East, and West.

"What I loved about [Jitney] was that [Wilson] so loved it. He loved the company and that group of actors," Henderson said.

Though Henderson has found happiness and success in the realms of theater, his early college years were leading him down a drastically different path.

In his first year attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., Henderson was enrolled as a math and political science major. Through the efforts of Gloria Terrell, an influential high school teacher, and her husband, Joseph, the two were able to encourage Henderson to exercise his acting talents and audition for The Juilliard School. From there, Henderson blossomed, continuing onto attend the North Carolina School of the Arts, graduate school at Purdue University College of Liberal Arts, and Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance of England.

These collective experiences, meeting significant mentors such as Lloyd Richards, and the birth of a son encouraged Henderson toward a career in teaching.

Today, he continues to juggle and achieve a delicate balance of teaching and performing. He is currently involved in the LAByrinth Theater Company and has recently filmed a movie called Tower Heist starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy anticipated to be released this winter. Henderson encourages the UB community to support their own performing arts and attend student productions such as the upcoming Side Man premiering on Wednesday.

"Acting is about serving the dramatic piece of literature. It's not about the acting, it's about the story," Henderson said.


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