Moshe Henderson is a bright, savvy, and droll gentleman who is wise beyond his 19 years.
He was recommended to me for a role in a stage reading I am developing by his former directors/mentors Kathleen Edwards and Tony Curry. Kathleen had cast Moshe in several roles at the Highliners, a South Seattle youth theatre where she serves as Artistic Director. I had seen him there in the somewhat thankless role of Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie and as a credible Peter Van Daan in Renton Civic Theatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank. Kathleen had really felt he had made a terrific jump as an actor in her summer 2015 production of Rent. Based on this I met with Moshe, who met me with a warm hug, an open heart, and a passion for theatre similar to my own at that age. I was sold, and hope you are too as you begin getting to know him.
Let’s start with your name.
With my parents being, let’s say religious, my Dad wanted to call me Moses, but my Mom didn’t like the name. One of their pastor’s presented the name Moshe–”Mo-Shay” in Hebrew–but they Americanized it to “Mo-Shee.” I used to really dislike the name, but now I think it’s like saying Topol in Fiddler on the Roof.
My middle name is Shekinah. I’ve thought about changing it to Monroe, but Moshe Monroe, well, sounds like a drag queen. And yes, the name Moshe helped me get cast in Fiddler on the Roof.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get involved with theatre?
I grew up here, mostly in the White Center Area. All I knew growing up was my church and school, which was a private school. I didn’t really get introduced to theatre until High School, besides church productions which were written by teachers who didn’t really know how to structure a plot, or write from anything but the stories that didn’t originate in the bible.
The first musical I saw was High School Musical. I had a friend Alicia, a pretty redhead, and my one and only girlfriend, who was a Highliner at the time, I needed Art or PE credits which my Highs School didn’t offer them, so I signed up for the Highliners. I got the role of Fyedka in Fiddler mostly because I was one of the only boys they had. That was my first time working with the show’s director Tony Curry.
I continued on, not just because I needed the credits, but because I started really having fun. I loved the community; in theatre met the first gay guy I ever knew, and I thought: “That’s not what I’d heard about gay people. He’s so approachable and nice.” He also ended up being my first kiss later on down the line.
So getting involved in theatre had a big impact on you?
It was a new community of people. My parents were getting really scared about my exposure to theatre, and to different lifestyles. My 3rd show was Chicago, and my parents were not thrilled by me being cast in that. I played District Attorney Martin Harrison, who goes after Roxie Hart in the murder case. My Dad was bi-polar and he had a huge episode. That was the first of my shows that he couldn’t see me in. He was in jail and going through some serious episodes.
Did you parents ever become supportive of your theatrical ambitions?
My parents had divorced when I was a baby, so I lived a life of being bounced back and forth from my Dad’s to my Mother and Stepfather’s homes. With Dad I would watch musicals like Hello Dolly! And then he’d show me Streisand in Meet the Fockers and say “That’s the same lady” and I would be all, “No it’s not.”
Really, I guess my Dad was also one of my musical theatre influences, just watching all those old musical classics. He wasn’t overly complimentary about my own performances, especially starting out, but he gave me the attitude to always push to be better. When he said “You aren’t a singer” it challenged me to become one, and on each show to pick up on every note I received, learning how to adapt notes to be able to use them to my best advantage.
At that time Kathleen cast me as Jud Fry the villain in Oklahoma! It was a good outlet for everything that was happening with my Dad. When the others were all singing Oklahoma!, I would be in the back being punched out—Jud wasn’t killed in our version. And I was, well I thought I was a method actor back then, and I kept thinking why was I going through all this.
My Dad got really depressed about my exposure to different kinds of literature and the arts. Because of the way he was before he died three or so years ago. I never came out to him. It seemed to be one more thing I didn’t want to lay on him. But I knew he loved me, and I loved him.
I don’t feel I had a bad childhood though, despite having a mentally challenged Father and a Mother from the Philippines who had very different standards and values. I think in many ways I have had a spectacular life. I could have had a much worse life.
You struck out on your own fairly young, right?
I went out on my own at 17, moved out of my parents’ house, and took charge of my life. I came into some money from having gotten hit by a car a long time ago, and had social security from my Dad’s passing.
My family relationship is still existent and it’s going to be mended in the future. And I have a strong theatre family.
And now you have your own theatre company, too.
I used some of the money to build a theatre company, Basement Theatrics, which began as a theatre club in my Junior year. Our first show, A Very Potter Musical, wasn’t great, but I learned so much from it: the time it takes to build a set, cast a show, reserve rehearsal spaces, work with a theatre venue (which in this case was Renton Civic,) conduct a tech week, spread myself too thin, break down, recover, and let the show go on having fired 2 people along the way (which I still don’t regret. They needed to be fired.) And doing a post-mortem for myself, so that the next time we did it we would start out correct.
For my senior project, I did a show called Ordinary Days that was a personal favorite, with friends from Highliners and Village Theatre whom I shared the same passion with. It’s a piece about beauty, and reality, and simplicity, and enjoying every day. For me that was such a life-changing model. Through that show I thought this is what I want to do, all the time.
In the end all you have is children and art, to quote Sondheim. I don’t believe art lasts forever, but art evolves even if you’re not gonna like how it evolves, because it continues on, like how people continue to personalize and adapt Shakespeare to make it more acceptable to a new generation. I just want to be part of that journey. You know what? It just makes me happy. Being in someone else’s shoes, and knowing what your objectives are, having them met per se in a show, or denied, and then learning from another person’s mistakes which luckily you only have to live for like an hour and a half, and then just applying it to your own life. I mean, life ain’t a musical, but it’s a romantic idea. Why not tear yourself away for that hour and a half onstage, and be part of something bigger? That can really affect someone’s life.
Name a contemporary show that influenced your life.
My life was changed by Rent. When I first saw the last Broadway taping, I didn’t even know what a drag queen was. I was like, wait what is that? How can it be like this? How can they be in love? What about AIDS? How can this be a real, loving relationship, and bawling my eyes out not understanding why I felt a real connection to these characters. Later it helped me come out to my closest friends, and eventually my Stepdad, and move on with my life. I lost a few friends who didn’t understand my new life, and one of them is slowly coming back into my life. And I rotated in some of my theatre friends who understood me better, and have a better understanding of life.
What is your next project?
In a year or so, Basement Theatrics will hopefully produce Spring Awakening. After establishing ourselves as a LLC, which is what we are looking to do, we hope to provide a good salary, hopefully even offering profit-sharing, to help with marketing and help with their investment in the show. I want people who really care about the piece itself.
We’re working show by show, and not creating a foundation like at the Village or 5th Avenue Theatres, who sometimes produce shows because they know they’re going to sell. I want to do shows, that mean something to me, that have had an effect on my life, that create personal change or discussion. If I don’t feel that way, then I leave it to the original, or to someone else to restage it.
But musicals are so open to interpretation. I love that about them. Our key word to our mission is verisimilitude. You can read all about it on our website: basementtheatrics.org or my own website: moshehenderson.com .
And now with a tip of the hat to InsideThe Actors Studio, what is your Favorite word?
Favorite Curse Word:
I would say Fuck, because it reaches across to everyone in society. It is an outlet; It heals wounds. It shocks people, but it also can put someone on the same plane. It makes people more comfortable with others, IF they are comfortable with the word itself. If a kids says fuck, their parents start treating them differently. It’s a rite of passage.
As you enter the Gates to Heaven, what do you hope God will say to you?
You changed other people’s lives.