Stephen McKinley Henderson, an alumnus of the UNC School of the Arts and an award-winning actor, told about 200 graduates Saturday that their future work as artists will bring people together.
“Our purpose as artists is not to lift ourselves,” Henderson said. “It is to lift up the art and thereby lift us all.”
Henderson, a 1972 graduate of UNCSA’s School of Drama, delivered the commencement speech at the university’s graduation ceremony at Truist Stadium in Winston-Salem. About 900 people attended the event at the site where the Winston-Salem Dash, a minor league baseball team, plays its home games.
Saturday’s event was the university’s first in-person graduation ceremony since 2019.
“There is a great civility to citizens gathering in museums, concert halls, opera houses and theaters,” Henderson said. “Gathering not knowing what political or religious affiliation of the person standing or seated next to them might have — each experiencing creative expressions through their own personal lens to the same performance of fine art in the same moment.”
Henderson, 71, a native of Kansas City, Mo., said that people attending such events represent a combined audience who are amazed at the performers’ talents and skills.
“At a live performance, joyous laughter and unexpected tears” unite an audience across all racial, cultural and gender divisions among the audience members, Henderson said.
The UNCSA graduates should accept their roles as “alchemists of empathy, sorcerers of empathy and magicians of empathy,” Henderson said. “Live performances are empathy clinics.”
You are the essential workers whose workplaces have been closed for a dangerous length of time,” he said. “Our country needs your services.”
Henderson also spoke about his experiences as a UNCSA student and some of his achievements as a renowned character actor in plays, television shows and films.
In April 2014, Henderson was part of the cast in the Broadway play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” that was being performed at a New York theater.
Henderson’s character appeared in the play’s second act, he said.
Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama attended the performance and met the cast during the play’s intermission, but Henderson hadn’t yet appeared on stage.
Henderson shook the president’s hand, Henderson said. He then greeted Michelle Obama, who knew the play, and recognized Henderson’s character and asked him if he’d be on stage soon, Henderson said. Michelle Obama then gave him a hug, Henderson said.
He told the audience at graduation that he will never forget that moment.
Before his speech, Chancellor Brian Cole presented Henderson with an honorary doctorate in fine arts from UNCSA.
During the ceremony, the university awarded master’s degrees in fine arts, bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and bachelor’s degrees in music. Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 participated in the event.
A group of 519 students were eligible to receive degrees at Saturday’s event, according to the university’s program. A university official called out the names of graduating students of both classes who didn’t attend the commencement.
Cole and other speakers praised the graduates for overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and earning their degrees.
“Commencement means more to you because of what you had to do get here,” Cole said. “You have achieved so much. We are proud of you.”
After spring break in the 2019-20 school year, the university conducted most of its classes virtually, said Lauren Whitaker, UNCSA spokeswoman. During the 2020-21 school year, the university conducted most of its classes in-person.
After the commencement, Isaac Balachandran, who traveled from Bangalore, India, to study at UNCSA, said that the only information he had about the arts conservatory came from an online article on the Hollywood Reporter website.
“It was very affordable,” said Balachandran, who received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in picture editing and sound design. “It was a roller coaster of fun.”
Jessica Rex, of Greenville, S.C. said she had a great experience during her three years at the university.
“I can’t believe it went that fast,” said Rex who received a master’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in design and production. “I learned a lot.”