Stephen McKinley Henderson is a legendary actor. He takes a character and delivers it with truth, compassion, humor and a whole lot of spicy talk and feisty profanity. Every time I hear he is in a play, I get excited because I know it has to be a worthy piece and he is going to deliver his character with great skill and make it look so easy while charming the audience. When you go to the theater, you should go to see someone who is a master at their craft, is brilliant at delivering a storyline and beautifully acting with his fellow cast members, and that is who Henderson is.
I was thrilled the other evening to experience him in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” a play in which he originated the role of Pops—Walter Washington—off-Broadway and is now doing it on Broadway at the Hayes Theatre on W. 44th Street. Henderson delivers Pops with a great deal of humor, profanity and compassion, and is quick to give those around him a quick dose of reality about themselves and their situations.
Pops is living in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive and his landlord is trying to get him out. He is also a veteran police officer of 30 years who was shot six times by a rookie white police officer, and has been suing the city for eight years and is not willing to settle out of court.
This play, poignantly written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, shows how complex people’s lives can be. Here you have Pops living in this apartment, disabled because of the shooting and angry—not only because of that incident, but also because of his life: He was a man who never knew his father; who had a lot of anger in him and became a police officer, only to realize that Black police officers have to not only deal with being hated by the public, but also by other police officers.
Guirgis truly captures some of the struggles that Black police officers experience. It’s also interesting that Pops’s son Junior, played by Common in his Broadway debut, is a criminal and an ex-con, operating out of his father’s home, who has a drug-addict ex-con, Oswaldo, staying with them, along with Junior’s girlfriend Lulu, who is also from the wrong side of the tracks.
The city wants Pops to settle and sign an NDA, and his former partner Detective O’Connor tries to convince him to do this along with her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro. They try to make him see that this is the best thing to do, but he fights them tooth and nail.
This is a story that does not run from the unpleasant sides of human nature, but instead calls them out. This play is about a lot of things: strained relationships between a man and his absentee father, and how that repeats when he has his own son and, even as a police officer, is not available for him. It is a play that looks at the racist atmosphere that Black cops can face from their brothers in blue. It looks at the irony of a former cop having a son who has been in and out of jail and is still involved in criminal activity. But at the end of the play, there is that glimmer of hope that although things seem to be unfavorable for Pops, he can still hope for something different if he goes for it.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” features a cast that will have you riveted. Victor Almanzar is memorable as Oswaldo, a drug-addicted ex-con staying at Pops’s house and sharing his problems over breakfast. Common delivers a satisfactory performance as Junior, Pops’s son, who harbors a great deal of anger and resentment toward his father and is always interacting with him combatively. Rosal Colon is very funny as Lulu, Junior’s girlfriend. Elizabeth Canavan is powerful as Pops’s former partner, O’Connor, who is trying to look out for his interests and help her fiancé to get Pops to drop the lawsuit against the city. Michael Rispoli is spirited as Caro. He brings the fire to this role. Maria-Christina Oliveras delivers a huge surprise as the Church Lady.
The production has a versatile set design by Walt Spangler, costumes by Alexis Forte, lighting by Keith Parham and sound by Ryan Rumery. There is a captivating element that this play maintains throughout and that is courtesy of the precise direction by Austin Pendleton. “Between Riverside and Crazy” is presented by 2ndStage. I loved that the theater had no empty seats at the performance I attended. I hope this continues through the remainder of the show’s run.
“Between Riverside and Crazy” is scheduled to run through Feb. 12. For more info, visit ww.2st.com/shows/between-riverside-and-crazy.