Common is no stranger to centerstage. The musician, actor, and activist has spent more than three decades in the spotlight, rising from Chicago’s underground hip-hop scene to become one of the most celebrated and versatile artists of his generation. With an Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar under his belt, Common—born Lonnie Rashid Lynn and still Rashid to his friends—is circling the last letter of the highly coveted EGOT, making his Broadway debut as Junior in Between Riverside and Crazy, available to watch via simulcast from January 31 to February 12.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 2015 play opened last fall at the Helen Hayes Theater to rave reviews and a New York Times’ critics pick to boot. But don’t ask Common what was said. “I haven’t read one review,” he tells me in the Lobby Bar of the Times Square Edition on a Friday afternoon. “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t want it to affect you too much where you’re just like, Oh, we were incredible. You don’t want it to get you down either.”
In Between Riverside and Crazy, Common stars as Junior, the formerly incarcerated son of Walter “Pops” Washington, a recently widowed and retired Black policeman played by stage veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson. The unfortunately timely premise revolves around Pops and his refusal to drop a discrimination lawsuit against the NYPD after getting shot six times by another police officer while off-duty, even if it means losing his rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment that he shares with Junior. “Imagine being a young Black man growing up in the ’90s with your father as a police officer, and your father not really embracing you,” Common says while describing Junior’s plight. “As Black men—and I don’t want to say all of us—but we haven’t experienced that intimate vulnerable expression of what fatherhood should be to a son.”
Although he made his rap debut with 1994’s Can I Borrow a Dollar? and was a member of the experimental rap collective the Soulquarians with other artists including Amir “Questlove” Thompson, Erykah Badu, and D’Angelo, Common quickly established himself as a talented screen actor, appearing in films like American Gangster, Suicide Squad, and John Wick: Chapter 2. Despite his numerous credits, Between Riverside and Crazy marks his first time doing theater. “It’s so different than anything I’ve ever done before,” he says of Broadway. “I believe it’s the most disciplined art form that I’ve participated in—the most intimate creative experience I’ve had.”
He then delineates the nuances that separate live theater from his first love: live music. “A concert is you directing your energy, and sources, and music, and thoughts, and words to the audience. Looking them in their eyes, especially in hip-hop. Only Miles Davis would turn his back to the audience,” says the three-time Grammy winner. “When you’re doing a play, you, your energy, and your intentions are directed towards the people on the stage.”
The main person he’s directing that energy toward is Henderson. Working with Henderson—a Tony-nominated titan of the stage and screen—has been nothing short of inspiring for the theater newbie. “I’m about to soak this up, and I’m just going to listen and observe,” Common says about working with Henderson. “He is truly a master in the art form of acting. He also is a brilliant human being and a really good, warm human being.”
Unsurprisingly, Henderson is chock-full of wisdom about acting for the stage. “One of the things he said was, ‘Man, don’t try to get it right. Get it true. Don’t try to get it right. Just get it true.’” Other pearls of wisdom—like his thoughts on a pivotal scene where Pops and Junior have a heart-to-heart—Henderson keeps closer to his chest, possibly for fear of ruining the magic. “He don’t want to talk too much while we still in it,” Common says. “But he said, ‘I’m going to talk to you after the run.’”