Meet a Faculty Member: Lenneal Henderson
Lenneal Henderson, distinguished professor in UB’s College of Public Affairs, has said “there’s a whole lot of acting” involved in teaching: improvising, memorizing and engaging the audience. It’s no surprise, then, that Henderson has branched out to portray various characters on stage in addition to Thurgood Marshall. Here’s his take on how the professor became the actor.
“I do six other characters who are not as much fun as Thurgood. They’re just as important in their ways, but Thurgood also had a great sense of humor, was kind of a character, you know. The others are much more straight-laced. We do [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr.—very hard to do; both Du Bois and King are hard to do for different reasons. We’ve done Robert Weaver, first secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We’ve done Ralph Bunche, Parren Mitchell, and we’ve also done A. Philip Randolph—[he] brought the [Shakespearean Society] to Harlem; he was an actor.
“I have fun doing these things. In 2010, [Kimberley Lynne, UB theater events coordinator,] showed me this play that she wrote about Cab Calloway—brilliant, just brilliant. … I was very impressed; I recommended some people to do the play for her, and she said ‘No, you do it.’ I said, ‘You gotta be kidding. Me? I don’t have any hair.’ And she said ‘Well, people will have to use their imagination,’ and so I told my wife, and my wife started laughing hysterically, and she said, ‘You should do it.’ So we rehearsed this play, this one-man play of Cab Calloway. And the [Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, where the show was performed,] bought the white-tailed coat and the tie, and I had some white shoes, and I learned the dances and the songs—I sang and danced, thanks to Kim.
“And you know, who would have thunk it? Because I have no background in [acting]. It’s one of those happenstance blessings that occur once in a while in life, you know, where one thing leads to another and you end up doing something you would have never imagined yourself doing. ... This is what we try to tell the students: You never know. That’s why you have to grab everything. Never count anything out; anything can happen at any time for no particularly good reason. So whatever you fantasize about, don’t rule it out. Go for it!
“All of this experience began with the Maryland Humanities Council in 2004. I am on the board, and the council encouraged, supported and sponsored the Marshall portrayal. I really have to thank UB, too, because, since I’ve been here, UB has always allowed me creative space to do these kinds of things. I might not have been given [that space] elsewhere. They not only give you the creative space but they actually support you. They’ve become one of the audiences for it. I don’t think that would happen at every university.”