Meet a Faculty Member: Lenneal Henderson
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional in the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case. Thurgood Marshall, then-chief counsel of the NAACP and a Baltimore native, won the case. During the 50th anniversary of the landmark victory, the Maryland Humanities Council commemorated the case with board member Lenneal Henderson’s first-ever one-man show as Marshall, who also earned renown as the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Nine years later, Henderson, distinguished professor in the College of Public Affairs, still regularly performs his one-man show, which highlights key moments in Marshall’s personal and professional life. Henderson performed the show at UB during February’s African-American Arts Festival.
Q: What made you decide to explore Marshall’s life in performance?
A: [The Maryland Humanities Council sponsors an event in which] people perform as different historical characters from Maryland. So I questioned them: Why isn’t Thurgood Marshall on this list? I came back about six weeks later with a script, and we actually interviewed five or six professional actors to do the play. But … we’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have any money to pay anyone. At one of the meetings, [another board member] came up to me, and she says, “You know, Lenneal, when Thurgood was about your age, he was about your height, weight and complexion.” And so I said to her, “I’m not an actor,” and she says something like, “Neither was Thurgood.” So I said, “Well, I’ll try it until we get a real actor.” And that was nine years ago.
Q: Has being a performer affected your sensibilities as a professor?
A: I think part of the advantage of teaching for a long time is that there’s a whole lot of acting involved. There’s a whole lot of improvisation; you have to remember an enormous amount of material. You have to learn how to engage the audience—all the things that you do with acting.
Q: What intrigues you most about Marshall’s life?
A: He’s a fascinating character study because of all the contrast in his characteristics and personality: how young he was when he was doing all this, his absolute brilliance, his incredible courage—could you imagine in the 1930s and ’40s, going into southern courtrooms to try civil rights cases as a black man?—and his incredible humility. He would have been horrified and mortified to know that [an] airport was named after him. He hated flying.
Rachel Wooley is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program.