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Theater community honors actor Stephen McKinley Henderson in heartfelt ceremony

For years, Stephen McKinley Henderson graced the boards at Studio Arena Theatre, working his way through the American theater canon on his slow and steady rise to wider fame.

And on Monday afternoon, direct from Broadway, the Buffalo-based stage and screen actor and former University at Buffalo professor returned to the Theatre District to be honored with a permanent spot in the district's Plaza of Stars.

Henderson -- currently appearing in the acclaimed Broadway production of Lucas Hnath's play "A Doll's House Part 2" -- flew to Buffalo on his day off to participate in the ceremony kicking off the city's 36th Curtain Up! celebration.

Buffalo's theater community, which has benefitted from Henderson's influence and commitment even as his international reputation has grown, turned out to celebrate their most famous member.

"I think the reason Steve is being honored here today is not simply what he achieved out there in New York City or London or Hollywood, but because we feel such a deep connection with him still in Western New York," said Anna Kay France, a Buffalo playwright and Henderson's former colleague in UB's Department of Theater and Dance. "As he's moved ahead in his profession, Steve somehow doesn't leave people behind."

Henderson, 68, who was honored with a proclamation from Mayor Byron W. Brown, appeared in a dark suit with a pocket square and a fedora of the sort often sported by his mentor, the playwright August Wilson. He smiled as he took to the podium on Monday and glanced over at the former Studio Arena Theatre, where he worked throughout the 1980s.

"There are so many memories in this theater here, working with actors who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage," he said. "Buffalo has the greatest fans for the team and for the theater. People come out for Buffalo's theater."

Despite his rising reputation -- and growing resume of appearances in major films and Broadway productions -- Henderson maintains a close connection to Buffalo's theater community. His guidance has been instrumental in the development of Road Less Traveled Productions and Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, among others, and he is considered a trusted adviser by many of the community's leading figures.

"The City of Buffalo and the theater community in Buffalo has been such an important part of my journey as an actor," Henderson said in a phone interview with The Buffalo News last week, recalling his time at Studio Arena in the 1980s. "It was a very wonderful world and there are world-class artists there in town."

Shakespeare in Delaware Park founder Saul Elkin, who hired Henderson to work in UB's theater program, recalled being immediately impressed with him the first time he watched the actor lead a class.

"The way he connected with that group of students, and the way he did over the years as an acting teacher, was a very special charm," Elkin said. "And he shares it with all of us."

The same goes for Paulette Harris, artistic director of the Paul Robeson Theatre, who praised Henderson for his contributions to the company's young members.

"Steve has done a lot for our theater," Harris said, "especially taking time out of his busy schedule to come and see the actors who are just getting started."

Henderson joins Buffalo theater luminaries A.R. Gurney, Michael Bennett, Katharine Cornell, Nancy Marchand, Neal Radice, Mary Kate O'Connell and others in the Plaza of Stars, near the district's illuminated sign at Tupper and Main streets.

In his remarks at Monday's event, Henderson mused about the effect his work and that of his fellow Buffalo actors and directors in the Plaza of Stars will have on future generations of aspiring performers and writers.

"All those young people who will come and dream on these stars," he said, shaking his head, "that's quite something to think that one might be a part of."

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