The Dudley born funnyman is back, but this time he’s serious. Lenny Henry is performing the lead role in August Wilson’s Fences. He tells David Johns about why it’s the right time to be walking the boards
Baseball is not a game we’re that familiar with this side of the pond and Lenny Henry is certainly no expert on it either. Growing up around the streets of Dudley, Lenny and his mates were more used to a game of footie, kicking a ball through jumpers for goalposts. But now he’s learning his sports all over again – because at the ripe age of 54 he’s having a swing at playing baseball. Seriously!
“I’m pitching myself into it big-time,” says Henry with a wry smile on his face. So, what’s going on? Typically male mid-life crises tend to involve splashing out on motorbikes or cars and Henry surely has the money for that. “It’s all to do with work,” Henry explains. “I’m learning about the game because the character in my new play is an ex-baseball player. I’m all over it. Seriously man, I know all there is to know about playing ‘ball.” It’s difficult to know if he’s joking or not when he says he’s being ‘serious’.
But we’ll have the chance to find out when he returns to his home region in his latest ‘serious’ role in the highly-acclaimed Fences – a classic African-American play by August Wilson. In its previous US incarnation on New York’s Broadway, Fences won Denzel Washington a Tony award. Henry is taking a new production on a seven-week UK tour, with the opening week at Malvern Theatre at the end of the month – and we caught up with him on a trip back to Birmingham during a break in rehearsals. He’s in the lead role of Troy, a 53-year-old former baseball player who’s hit on hard times and is now a garbage man. “It’s all about the struggles and the interwoven relationships in his life and through the story,” says Henry. “I can identify with him – I know all about relationships in life. It’s a serious piece and it’ll bring something new to people.”
‘Serious’ is a growing theme in Lenny’s professional life these days. “After all my time in comedy, I think it’s ok to want to do something else with my time. “I’ve done a lot of stand-up stuff and comedy and sitcoms on TV. Now it’s good for me to do plays. I want to do them. When you’re working on TV in comedy you work with people who are always trying to make their mark, wanting to do something different, change something. They whinge a bit, too, and it gets really frustrating. Then after that there’s the critics who pick everything apart and whinge some more. “But when you do a play by a great writer, there’s nothing they can change or moan about. People can’t mess with a classic and August Wilson’s material is classic. They’re stuck with it. They can comment about your interpretation and stuff, but they can’t have a go at the piece itself. And that’s great.”
Malvern is the opening of a UK tour that also includes Bath, Richmond, Oxford and Cambridge. If all goes well, the production will then go into theatre in London. For now though, Lenny is looking forward to seeing his family and friends in the ‘home’ audience. “They all still live in the area. Like, I’ve a sister in Brierly Hill, another one in Wolverhampton. My best friends are still all from the area, too. I’m a local boy born and bred, grew up here and went to school here. I knocked around all the local places – like Buffery Park and so on. “I still spend a lot of time here. I come here for two reasons – to see my family and friends or to work. I love the Midlands, it’s such a cool place. “I’m sure the family will be booking in when I come to Malvern. They love to see me on stage, especially when it’s so local to home. “Do you know what though? They’re never the same when they come to see me in a serious production as they are when I do stand-up. They’re just different somehow. My sister goes all peculiar and quiet in the bar after the show. “When I do stand-up they’re just normal. They have one big laugh. But when they see me do serious stuff they change. That’s funny don’t you think. Actually… it’s weird!”
Henry says he wants to continue working and is interested in expanding into new and challenging territory. As all actors should, he’s taken on some Shakespearean roles, although his current performance is just as challenging, he says. “I’m all for doing different and challenging things. I’ve just done two Shakespearean plays in a row and didn’t want to do another. I’ve been aware of August Wilson’s work for some time. Fences is hugely well written – there’s loads more lines than say in Othello, which I’ve also done. “I’ve had to learn lots of things for this play. There’s the African-American vernacular for a start. Get that wrong and people won’t believe anything. We’re two weeks into rehearsals and I’m at the point where blood is pouring out of my forehead as I try to remember the lines. And I’ve had to learn how to play baseball, too, of course…”