The real-life friendship that led to 'Between Riverside and Crazy'

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and actor Stephen McKinley Henderson have been close friends for years, which they discuss in our Road to the Tonys interview.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

When playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis told his friend, actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, he had written a play for him, Guirgis actually hadn't yet. Saying so was just the only way to get Henderson, in his 60s at the time, not to retire.

"[Henderson] had a cane and he was depressed," Guirgis recalled. "So I just lied. I was like, 'I'm writing a play for you. In fact, I'm writing two plays for you: one where you're the lead, and one where you're going to be supporting.'"

"And then I got back on the train, and I was like, 'What am I going to do?'"

"He always comes up with something," Henderson assured, "but he really came up with something."

That something was [Between Riverside and Crazy](, Guirgis's 2014 play about a ragtag group of New Yorkers, with ex-policeman Walter "Pops" Washington as their de facto patriarch, fighting to keep a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment that's become their sanctuary. The show premiered off Broadway that year, earned the Pulitzer Prize and had a second Off-Broadway run in 2015, debuted on Broadway with its full original cast in 2022, and earned two Tony Award nominations in 2023: Best Play and Best Actor in a Play, for Henderson in his bespoke role.

Playing Pops requires a wizened worldliness; he's also pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer while fighting eviction, so he knows the world's harshness all too well. Of why Henderson was perfect for the job, Guirgis said, "This is a man who paid the cost of being a boss. And I observe him and I see how he handles situations and people, and that's part of a lifetime of experience, too, that he brings to the stage."

He's made those observations over many years — Guirgis and Henderson aren't just collaborators, but "really close friends," Guirgis said, with Henderson nodding in agreement. "He's family."

The two met when Guirgis was holding auditions for a different play of his, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Ron Cephas Jones, who was originally set to play Pontius Pilate, booked a Broadway show, leaving the role unexpectedly open. "This gentleman walks in, and it was over," Guirgis said of Henderson.

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That was back in 2005, giving plenty of time for the men to deepen their friendship until that Buffalo visit. Soon, Guirgis had Between Riverside and Crazy ready, and he was bringing Henderson down his Manhattan apartment (yes, the same one that inspired the play) for readings.

"I said, I can't do it without you," Guirgis said.

Bringing the show to Broadway nearly 10 years after that marked another full-circle moment in the men's journey with Between Riverside and Crazy. When Guirgis first approached Henderson about a Broadway opening, Henderson found himself, as he did all those years ago, thinking about bowing out.

"There were times I was a little trepidatious doing it again because every time was such a wonderful experience, from the very first one and then the second," Henderson said. "So I'm saying, do I want to mar something that was so complete? But then I thought about how special this friendship is to be entrusted with something like that."

Henderson's Tony nomination proved his return was meant to be. He found out he was nominated while alone in a Toronto hotel room, and his first thought was "that I wasn't able to find [Guirgis] and hug him to say thank you for letting me get this." (This interview gave them the opportunity to finally reunite — as true friends do, they planned to "have lunch, then take some separate naps," then regroup and hang out some more once it was over.)

"It's a mutual admiration society," Henderson said. "I love the play. I love this man. And I love having been a part of this wonderful theatrical experience.

"And it's really hard to say," Henderson said, with a gleeful grin slowly spreading across his face, "but I really like having a Tony nomination!"

Read more Road to the Tonys interviews with 2023 Tony Award nominees.

Top image credit: Stephen Adly Guirgis and Stephen McKinley Henderson. (Henderson photo by Joan Marcus)
In-line image credit: Between Riverside and Crazy on Broadway. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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