BWW Interviews: Characters' Psychology Intrigues DREAMGIRLS Star, Kelvin Roston, Jr.
It is hard to connect the soft-spoKen Young actor with whom I am conversing to the soul-singing, hip-swinging rogue he is playing onstage at the Pickard Theatre. Indeed, the more we chat, the more Kelvin Roston, Jr., who plays James "Thunder" Early in the Maine State Music Theatre hit production of Dreamgirls, seems to be full of surprises.
He is modest about his vocal gifts, and he tells me that he "still doesn't consider himself a dancer" (though he studied with Katherine Dunham in East St. Louis); nonetheless, he is bringing down the house each night with his thrilling numbers. He reveals that his college degree is in psychology, not theatre - that his dramatic training came afterwards in a three-year internship at the Black Repertory Company of St. Louis, and he tells the story of coming to his profession as an actor with a sense of quiet astonishment.
"It all started in St. Louis, " Roston recounts. My grandfather was a pastor, and I was a musician for the church, so my singing started there." He tells how both heand his cousin were on the high school football team and how he persuaded his cousin to join him in acting in the school plays. For Roston it was a pleasant pastime, but his cousin Ronald became hooked and went on to become a theatre major at college. After college, it was Ronald 's turn to encourage Kelvin. "I was working for airlines at that time, and he said to me "Why aren't you working with Black Repertory Company? It's such a jewel right here in the city.'"
Roston says he was hesitant because of the "iffy nature" of the business, but he began to hang around, and started to take some of Ron Himes' classes. "People started to notice me and have me run scales on the piano. Then Himes put me in a reading, and at end of season I won the audition to play Joe Hardy in a production of Damn Yankees, set in the Negro Leagues, and that was my first professional job!"
"After that season, I knew I wanted to learn more - to become a real artist, so I joined the internship program. For the next three years I was very busy, working on the main stage, touring, taking master classes. I was able to build my resume before going to Chicago."
After being graduated from the St. Louis internship program, Roston decided to move to Second City. "Chicago was the next step for me. It amazes me how many opportunities there are - all the Broadway shows and the repertory companies like the Court Theatre, Steppenwolf, the Goodman, not to mention the Black Ensemble Theatre."
It was in Chicago at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre that Kelvin Roston, Jr. first played Jimmy Early and worked with director Marc Robin, whom he credits with teaching him so much and helping to advance his career. "It has been awesome working with Marc. He gives you freedom, but he also has a very specific vision. He will ask you a question that he doesn't want answered, but he wants you to consider it and that aids in characterization."
Asked how he sees the character, he tells about an amusing meeting in downtown Brunswick, where Dreamgirls in currently playing. "I ran into a lady in the supermarket last night, and she told me how much she had loved the show and Jimmy's character. 'He's a dog but he is so likeable,' she told me." The actor agrees: "He is a real person, and Marc wanted him to be a flawed person." What Roston says he tried to avoid was any kind of caricature of the entertainer. "He is sometimes played for the spectacle like a wild man, a kind of buffoon. I researched the historical Jimmy Early and tried to find the right kind of grimy voice for the character."
Portraying historical performers has been something Kelvin Roston, Jr. has done quite a bit of in his young career. One of his most notable recent roles has been the title part in The Jackie Wilson Story which opened the spectacular new Black Ensemble Theatre's performing space on N. Clark in Chicago in November 2011. Roston had played in several shows at Jackie Taylor's remarkable African-American company, among them Ain't Nothing but the Blues and The Sensational Songs of the Sixties, but playing legendary musician Jackie Wilson was a big break. The role had been originated in 2000 by Chester Gregory, and Roston says, "I had big shows to fill. Jackie Taylor put me in a bunch of stretching and dancing classes to learn some Jackie Wilson's movement. It was a lot of work, but I do work hard," he confided. Still, the actor had a bout of nerves before the opening and said to Taylor, "Are you sure you think I can do this? And she said, 'You're going to do it!' It proved to me I could do a whole lot more than I imagined," he adds. Not only did he have to recreate Jackie Wilson's dancing and stage charisma, but he also had to find the voice. "His singing was so very clean, and he could hit unbelievable notes," Roston recalls.