Stephen McKinley Henderson on “Fences”

Denzel Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson play Troy and Bono in the film “Fences”. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

A lead in both the stage and screen productions of “Fences”, he gives insight on the process and what he enjoys about it 

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

“Fences” is a movie about family. It’s a movie about what it means to support those in the family, and the pain that comes and goes in life. It’s also about baseball, and Pittsburgh.

Starring and directed by Denzel Washington, the popular play which had its start on Broadway in 1987 has been adapted into a film which has the edge of having its main Broadway cast, including Washington, reprise their roles on the screen. 

The film deals with the family of Troy Maxson (Washington) as he navigates 1950’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania amidst a brewing crisis in his household. His wife Rose is played by Viola Davis (also coming from the Broadway play), in a superb portrayal of a wife thrust into chaos. 

Troy is a sanitation worker, along with his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, another “Fences” alumnus). The two met and befriended each other in prison. 

“Fences” catches Troy at a critical point in he and his family’s life, with consequences that change the dynamic of all their lives.

Stephen McKinley Henderson’s experience in the movies and on stage is a long and storied career. His work with both the stage and screen adaptation of “Fences” gives him a lot of insight into the translation of the play into film and makes him a very great resource for the film’s themes and meaning.

Beginning as young as 16, the light-skinned african-american always sought spaces of acceptance, and the theater ended up being one that welcomed him to express his burgeoning talents. The following is a conversation with him about his history with theater, film, and the opportunity to be directed by Denzel Washington for the film version of “Fences”. 

How is it that you began a career in the arts? What was your motivation or influence? 

Poetry, I love poetry because I was in a neighborhood where I was different from a lot of people, you know I’m very fair-skinned, african-american and I wanted everyone to know that I was regular.  So I would choose every opportunity to belong to something, to be a part of something. And I didn’t grow up with my own parents I knew my parents and my brother and my sister but I lived with a foster family so that made me feel a little different. Also because in my neighborhood they’d say I ‘carried the curse’ being as light-skinned as a I was they called it carrying the curse so I felt the odd man out. I wanted to let everyone know that I was human. 

And my brother, who is deaf, he would go to movies and come and get me he was my older brother so he would take me to some of the movies I wasn’t supposed to go to. So I got to go because he could read the lips when he saw the actors on the screen but parts of the story, off camera, he would ask me what was going on and later on I would act out the stories for him. I got to see “The Misfits”, this great thing that Arthur Miller wrote that had Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. Because my brother was deaf I got a chance to go interpret it for him without signing. I acted it out for him. 

When he was trying to raise money, I had an aunt that was trying to raise money for him to go to a school for the deaf, because he was going to school and getting terrible grades and getting made fun of, so he learned the 23rd psalm of the lord’s prayer in sign language and I translated. I would say it , I had it memorized, he was 12 and I was 7 and I saw how inspired he was and the beauty that he was signing it with and I knew I had to do something more than just say it. ‘Our father who art in heaven hallowed will be thy name to kingdom come’..I had to do it more than do it by row. And that’s the first time I started doing verse. And I love poetry so all those things together. It’s never one thing. And then somebody needed me to be in a play and I played Helen Keller’s brother in “The Miracle Worker”. After, all that stuff churned together. People needed people to be in plays, and I went and got in plays. 

I have to admit too there was a girl named Rita, who I followed into a rehearsal or an audition one time cuz I was just trying to follow rita to see how it was going. I always thank Rita when I see her, I’m about to go to my 50 year high school reunion in Kansas City and I’m going to remember to thank her again. 

Can you describe what it’s like to transition from playing Jim Bono on stage to playing him for cameras
and the film?

In this particular instance, to relate it to “Fences”, to have been a part of it on the stage was a joy but you know you always have the responsibility that the people in the back row understand and hear you so you have a third eye operating where you are to the lights, to the seats and your voice has to carry all the way back . You’re free from all that when you get a chance to do a film in the actual location and in relationship to the other actor you just need that life level of truth that you see from their eyes so it’s really freeing but it’s great to have had the theatrical experience. This is like the best of all possibilities in terms of rehearsals and preparation and so to have lived with it for that long and then to come and sit with the same cast members in the main, and work together under the leadership of a great actor like Denzel Washington who as a director really knows how to help you as an actor and to allow you to do your work and to be in the space with he and Viola Davis, I feel just so blessed. And to have a great writer, because that’s where it really starts. So a great writer, a world class cast, and paramount pictures sparing no expense to make sure that it’s done right, and then to do it in Pittsburgh where all this lived and was inspired it’s just perfect world, it’s a perfect storm of creative atmosphere there. 

Tell us a bit about your character, Bono. 

He starts off as a follower of Troy, he met Troy in prison and I always believed that they made a vow that they would never come back because they knew people who did some time, was out for a while and came back to prison and they were saying never never gonna do that. And Troy started playing baseball then came out and played in the negro league and from my point of view Bono was a big fan and he had just a regular job but he had that because of Troy’s leadership. 

Then when Troy stopped playing ball they both got on the sanitation and then this wonderful opportunity comes up for Troy, to be the first colored driver of a sanitation truck, but it also causes a crisis in his life. Bono was a follower, he was a satellite of Troy and Troy was the center of the world. Then a time comes when he has an opportunity to do the same kind of guidance for Troy, to remind Troy of the principles that Bono always loved in him. 

When channeling the character of Bono where does the basis of that character come from? 

When you’re someone’s best friend you can’t be a ‘yes man’ you’re not being a best friend if all you do is allow them to do what they want to do. So it’s a joy to be anybody’s best friend, it’s great to play Denzel Washington’s best friend I can tell you that. 

You know you can only draw from things in your own life and I’ve had some wonderful friends but as a man I can tell you I’ve had some friends that would be a great friend to a man but would be a woman’s nightmare and I’ve had some that I’ve had to say, ‘hey man, I can’t tolerate that kind of behavior’. Any man knows that there are great qualities towards other men and maybe not be as understanding to a female so I’ve had that experience in my life, so that’s part of what I use for this, which is not the same circumstance at all, but similar. 

Why is it that audiences should watch “Fences”?

 People should watch Fences because it’s written by one of the greatest playwrights america has ever produced and it’s being directed and acted by one of the greatest actors america has produced. And Viola Davis is at a point in her career that is going to be one of the greatest, to the trajectory of where she goes from here is in the stratosphere, she’s one of the greatest artists you’ll ever work with and it’s a wonderful ensemble cast. It’s about family, it tells you that family can sustain you, no matter with all the warts and everything, your family, knowing your family, accepting that you belong can help you get through whatever is out there for us in the next years to come.