Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis begin the telling of the Tony-nominated play Between Riverside and Crazy origin story the same way. Henderson had just had hip surgery and was walking with a cane. Guirgis visited him at his home in Buffalo and Henderson divulged that he was slowing down. It was just a year after Henderson had received his first Tony nomination for the 2010 revival of Fences and he was just in his early 60s, but he wasn’t feeling great and thinking of retiring.
In Henderson’s version, which he told to Playbill last fall, Guirgis says, “No, that can’t be. I've got this one play that I had you in mind for.”
In Guirgis’ version, he says, “I'm writing two plays for you right now, Steve. One where you're the lead, and one where you're the supporting. So, come on man." But as he tells Playbill, “I straight up lied to him. I came back from Buffalo that day, and I was like, ‘Shit, now I gotta come up with something.’”
What he came up with is Tony-nominated for Best Play this season, and Henderson is nominated for his role as Pops in Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. The play premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 at Atlantic Theater Company and in 2015 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Second Stage produced the Broadway premiere this season at the Hayes Theater, where the play opened December 19, 2022. Austin Pendleton, who helmed the Off-Broadway production returned for Broadway, as did much of the Off-Broadway cast, save for Ron Cephas Jones as Junior. Grammy-winning rapper Common made his Broadway debut in that role.
In the play, Pops, a retired NYC police officer who is recently widowed, and his son Junior, who is recently paroled, share an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As they face eviction from the rent-controlled apartment, the pair also struggle with their relationship. Meanwhile, Pops is trying to get a payout from the NYPD because he was shot on the job in a racist attack.
Guirgis drew from his own history for the bones of the play. “I moved into my parents' house the night my mother died. I took care of my dad for four years. He was an Egyptian-American restaurant manager. He wasn't an African American cop, but a lot of the stuff in the play is based on real things,” says the playwright.
For the plot of Between Riverside and Crazy, he blended his personal relationship with his father with a story about a Black cop who’d been shot by a white officer in NYC in the ’90s. “That always stuck with me. In that story, the Black cop just really got screwed over by the system. I thought I wanted to write about it at some point. Then, I had my own experience with my father. So, I kind of put the two together.”
Guirgis admits that when he first started working on the play, he was wary, thinking maybe this story of a Black officer and racism within the force was not his to tell. He turned to his friend and early-supporter of his work, fellow Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. “She was like, ‘Stephen, just write the fucking play.’ She kind of gave me permission, you know, to just do what I do.”
There are other nods in the play to the time spent with his father. In Between Riverside and Crazy, Junior’s friend Oswaldo, a recovering drug addict, is also living in the apartment. He relapses, leading to a violent encounter with Pops. Guirgis similarly invited a friend to stay: “He got along with my dad. My dad got along with him. Everything was great. The first time I left my dad—I had to go somewhere for a day or two days—my friend had a relapse. It was, like, this major nightmare scenario that happened.” Thankfully though, Guirgis’ father wasn’t assaulted during the episode. And Guirgis has remained friends with the houseguest, who has seen the play. (“He appreciated that I disguised him.”) To Guirgis, friends are family.
Between Riverside and Crazy is special to the playwright. Because there is so much of his dad in it. But also because of Henderson. So, did Guirgis ever admit that this whole endeavor started with a little falsehood? “Yeah. He found out pretty quick because the first time he came to do a reading it was, like, only 15 pages,” admits the writer. While working on the play those first few years, Henderson would travel from Buffalo to NYC for developmental readings. “He would come stay in my house. We do a reading, and it was a whole thing. It wasn't just a reading, it was getting friends together in a living room and eating ribs and having a few drinks. It's really beena family affair,” says Guirgis. In fact, Henderson is staying with Guirgis again during some of the pre-Tonys press events.
One gets the feeling that Guirgis kind of collects people. The family reunion goes beyond just that with Henderson. While the playwright is gushing about Henderson’s nomination, he can’t help but mention David Zayas, an old friend from LAByrinth Theatre whose wife Liza Colón-Zayas was in Between Riverside and Crazy, and Kara Young, who starred in his play Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven in 2019. Both Zayas and Young are Tony nominated for acting in Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living. And, as mentioned, almost the entire Off-Broadway cast of Between Riverside and Crazy came with the show for the Broadway production. There were actually only two people involved that Guirgis hadn’t met before.
“It's family, you know, it's family,” Guirgis says again. “The fact that [the play] connected outside the family, it's a big, big deal.”