Photo by Eric Dobbs

India Henderson, '21

May 5, 2021
Richmond Scholar explores race, class, and power through theatre and leadership studies

Figuring It Out. It is the name of the play India Henderson, ’21, wrote and performed as her independent senior research project. It is also apropos of the complex issues the senior from West Chester, Pa., delved into during her four years at University of Richmond.

“Two young women’s lives take a chaotic turn as they grapple with the experience of sexual assault,” she said of her play. “As they navigate the fine line between their internal expectations and the complexities of the societal norms and morals imposed on them, they find themselves asking age-old questions. Ultimately, they redefine truth and empowerment on their own terms.”

Through the Richmond Scholars Program, the actress and singer received a full scholarship to attend the University as a Richmond Artist Scholar. She dedicated 20-30 hours a week to participating in up to four mainstage theatre productions annually. Many productions had themes that resonated with the social justice topics she encountered in classes in her leadership studies major, she said.

Henderson read “Thick: And Other Essays” by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in a leadership studies class taught by Dr. Thad Williamson.

“The book talks about what it means to be a Black woman in America,” she said. “I was excited that Dr. Williamson—a white, male professor—centered a Black woman’s experience. In this class and others, I became keenly aware of the ways my identity as a Black woman provided an opportunity to critically understand, tap into, and evaluate leadership.”

Henderson further explored her identity through the service-learning component of Williamson’s class, volunteering at a career-and-college-access center at a Richmond public high school.  

“The experience was a wake-up call for me,” she said. “I realized how crucial spaces like the Future Center are in determining a student’s trajectory.”

Opportunities like this helped her develop a better understanding of others, an essential skill for an actress, she said. It also heightened her awareness of race, class, and power—themes she revisited through her theatre minor.

“When you’re playing a character, you’re asked to step into their life,” Henderson said. “You learn a lot of lessons about empathy and humanity. You have to listen to what the other characters are saying and do the work to understand their motivations. This connects to leadership.”

During her junior year, she was assistant director of “Appropriate,” a play about a white family’s discovery of their deceased father’s racist past. “No one can control what their ancestors have done,” she said. “We’re at this intersection where we have to ask, what do we do with this? How can we move forward while actively confronting the truth of our complicated history?”

This question lies at the heart of much of the recent social unrest in the United States and on Richmond’s campus. Henderson has participated in the Black Student Coalition’s calls for renaming campus buildings named for an enslaver and a segregationist.

The Department of Theatre and Dance bestowed its Excellence Award on Henderson in 2019 and 2020. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies named her the recipient of the James MacGregor Burns Award, the School’s highest honor, given to a graduating senior in recognition of their academic, service, and leadership accomplishments.

In nominating her for the Burns Award, Dr. Williamson wrote, “India has a mature commitment to social justice, which she approaches in a spirit of humility and always with the desire to learn more.”

Flashing her radiant smile, Henderson said she plans to pursue a career in theatre, like her grandmother, actress Veronica Redd. She is mindful of her grandmother’s advice: “Your goal with each performance is to touch at least one person.”

Watch and read about India's play, Figuring It Out. 

Photo credits: India Henderson as the Moon in the April 2019 Theatre and Dance Department production of "Caroline, or Change." Photo by Eric Dobbs, directed by Dorothy Holland, music direction by Shellie Johnson, choreography by Christine Wyatt, scenic design by Josafath Reynoso, costume design by Johann Stegmeir, lighting design by Maja E. White, stage managed by Ginnie Willard.