For many of us, Lenny Henry is the exuberant, larger than life comedian with a perpetual grin, last popping up on our screens for the latest Comic Relief. However, in recent years, Henry has turned to acting, and in the process has tackled some pretty hefty challenges. Notably, he defied critics with an astounding portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello – “it sort of came out alright” is his self-effacing appraisal – and now, he has taken on the role of Troy in August Wilson’s celebrated Fences.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, we see the protagonist Troy coping with his own experiences in racially-segregated America; he was a promising baseball player but was excluded from success, and has harboured a deep-rooted resentment ever since, resigned to being a garbage man. His clouded philosophy about life results in irrevocable and tragic changes in his relationships with family and friends.

Henry didn’t choose the play on impulse – it had been a long time coming. Henry speaks of his encounter with the distinguished American actor James Earl Jones, who he worked with on the film True Identity. “He said he had done this play called Fences, and he said it probably wouldn’t appeal to me because I was only thirty, but maybe when I was a bit older I would read it and it would resonate with me. And Holy Macaroni, it did.” For Henry, life experience was critical in allowing him to relate to the character; Troy is contradictory to say the least, and Henry feels that as a younger man, he would not have been able to empathise at all with the character’s situation. “He’s a strong, patriarchal figure and yet he’s got a wandering eye. He’s a very tough dad but he loves his son. He’s a constant best friend but he doesn’t listen to his best friend. He’s got so many things riled up in him, but he’s also someone to admire. He’s fearless.”

Henry has clearly devoted considerable time to understanding the context of the drama and Troy’s situation within it. He describes how the African-American civil rights movement was beginning to gain momentum in the 1950s, but had not yet come to a head; “…it’s set in a very crucial moment of African-American history, just before the explosion of civil rights. Martin Luther-King has just started his long walk to the mountain-top, Rosa Parks has just sat on the front of the bus and refused to move.” But Henry makes a point of emphasising Troy’s bravery in facing up to such adversity. “Traditionally, the black guys lifted all the garbage cans at the back of the truck and the white guys drove the truck. And Troy stands up and says, why do the white guys drive and the black guys lift? …It’s a small thing, but in the scheme of things before 1957, before Martin Luther King has his full flowering, it’s a massive statement that he makes.” Henry is refreshingly passionate about his character; he doesn’t seem to just be regurgitating spiel for the publicity rounds, but is genuinely moved by the many obstacles Troy tried, and often failed, to overcome.

Henry doesn’t just give captivating accounts of the African-American experience; he works incredible anecdotes into his answers. Was it difficult doing the Comic Relief 25th Anniversary in the middle of touring with Fences? “If you’re talking about matters of life and death, they’re very close. I was on a plane once going to Italy, and the plane suddenly went into a dive. We were sitting near the cockpit, we could hear the cockpit of the plane making noises – we were going almost straight down and I was thinking ‘this is it, this is it’. But then there were three bumps and the plane levelled out. There was a massive laugh of relief from every single passenger and a round of applause.”

Henry clearly has the ability to compartmentalize certain aspects of himself and bring them out at will; he also mastered the complex African-American vernacular, and the sheer number of his lines, which he concedes was tricky. However, Henry has been lucky in the support he has had with his role in Fences. He has known the director, Paulette Randall, since he was in his 20’s, and has met the widow of the playwright, Constanza Wilson. “She said Troy was modelled on him because August was the consummate story teller. I thought, I’m a story teller, I should be able to do this.” Henry has great, but justified, self-belief; he appears to approach each project he does with rigorous research, stating how he “immersed himself in all things August Wilson” prior to taking on the role of Troy.

There’s no doubt about it; Henry sells the play well. Fences is a complex beast, but one that contains universal themes that each and every one of us can relate to. Relationships, racism, prejudice; all are salient themes throughout. As Henry succinctly puts it: “…if you’re from a family, if you’re a son, a daughter, a mum or a dad, then you can relate to this play. And that’s everybody.”

Fences is at the Oxford Playhouse from the 25th – 30th March