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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers
KenYatta Rogers

Today's subject KenYatta Rogers is currently living his theatre life onstage at Signature Theatre playing Folk Man 3 in Spunk. The production is directed by the esteemed Timothy Douglas and runs through June 23rd in Signature's ARK space. The show is KenYatta's Signature Theatre debut.

Throughout his career KenYatta has performed in some of the area's biggest and best theatres in a wide variety of productions. Select credits include Death of a Salesman and Jitney at Ford's Theatre, King Hedley II, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Arena Stage, Gem of the Ocean, Father Comes Home From the Wars, Two Trains Running, Glengarry Glen Ross (Helen Hayes nomination), Eurydice, A Wrinkle in Time, and A Lesson Before Dying at Round House Theatre , Topdog/Underdog, and A Raisin in the Sun at Everyman Theatre, Colossal, and Venus at Everyman Theatre , Holly Down in Heaven at Forum Theatre, Fever/Dream at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, The Comedy of Errors at Folger Theatre, and Insurrection: Holding History at Theatre Alliance.

Regionally Kenyatta was seen in Coriolanus at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts and The Piano Lesson at Trustus Theatre in South Carolina.

When not performing, KenYatta can be found teaching and directing theatre to the next generation at Montgomery College. For his excellence in that field he was awarded as Maryland Professor of the Year in 2014.

Kenyatta has come full circle with Signature Theatre's production of Spunk. Read on to see how.

No matter the role or the show, you are guaranteed a stellar performance from KenYatta Rogers. I'm sure you will agree Spunk is no exception.

At what age did you know theatre was going to be your chosen profession?

That's a funny question. There were lots of steps involved. I knew theatre was going to be my chosen art and forever a part of my life when I was 10 and performed in Pinocchio (I was a little bad boy, not a stretch for me at the time). It wasn't until college when I participated in theatre at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University that I even entertained the notion of doing this professionally. It was there that I found my voice and my village. After graduate school I moved to this region. I was given access to the profession through Jennifer Nelson (founder of the African Continuum Theatre Company). When I got my Equity card, I figured I'd stick around and do this acting thing professionally for a while.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers
L-R Gavin Lawrence, KenYatta Rogers and Chappelle in the City Theatre production of Spunk during the company's 1994/95 season. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What do you remember the most about your first opening night as a professional actor? What and where was the show?

One of the first professional shows I worked on was actually Spunk! It was at City Theatre in Pittsburgh, way back in the day..... I remember being scared to death. I was an understudy for all male roles. I idolized the actors and the director and as understudy I really didn't want to let them down.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers
KenYatta Rogers in the Signature Theatre production of Spunk. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

You are currently performing in Signature Theatre's production of Spunk. Can you please tell us a little bit about the show and something about the characters you play as well?

Our Spunk takes those first words of the Blues Speak Woman and truly invests in them. We "celebrate the laughin' kind of lovin' kind of hurtin kind pain the comes from being human....tales of survival....told in the key of the blues." Through investing in a robust process of table work (deep reads and discussions sitting around the rehearsal table) we discussed the importance of Zora's tales in our own lives. This process leads to a deeply rooted performance celebrating the Black experience resultant of the cast basking in the cultural currency that flows freely between us (as is typical of any Timothy Douglas directed play).

I play Sykes in "Sweat," Sweet Back in "Story in Harlem Slang," and Man/Slemmons in "The Gilded Six-Bits." They are different from one another but each has the stamp of Zora's unique perspective. They are Black men with something to prove, often times looking for that satisfaction outside of themselves, and feeling some kinda way about not getting what they know they deserve. Problem is for each of them, that leads to some pretty problematic ways of living and loving.

Why do you think Zora Neale Hurston's stories work so well in a theatrical setting?

I think it's because she writes/rights the souls of Black folks (to borrow a W.E.B. Du Bois book title). She was a wit, a dreamer, a fabulist, and an anthropologist (by training) who grew up in an all Black town in Florida which provided her the resources she needed to become a master storyteller. Like August Wilson, she was a great listener and listened with an ear for poetry and music when she observed the members of her town while she was growing up. She knew the stories of Africans in America are worthy of examination and love and deserve to be showcased and celebrated. She deals in the marrow of any relationship and the great transaction between human beings and themselves, human beings and other human beings, and human beings and God/Nature. Her worldview that was born equally of the well traveled dust tracks of her Southern upbringing and of her world travels. She traveled as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company and no doubt picked up a skill for hearing the rhythms of theatrical and musical production. She also tried her hand at play writing. Combine these experiences with her natural flair for the dramatic, a penchant for excitement, and her love of the limelight, and these tales on the stage seem more an inevitable than surprising.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers
KenYatta Rogers in the Signature Theatre Company production of Spunk. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

What do think are some of the messages audiences will take away with them after seeing Spunk?

Live. Love. Lament. Live some more so that you can get where you are going which probably ain't where you are at.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with KenYatta Rogers
A very early career pic of KenYatta Rogers as Troy Maxon in the 1990 Centennial High School production of Fences. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You've performed in many plays by August Wilson. Of the ones you've already done, which is your favorite?

I've performed in eight of the ten. I have not done Seven Guitars or Radio Golf. The two I thought I liked least, King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean, just jumped onto my favorites list after performing in them. I think my favorite is always going to be the one I will have worked on most recently. Just like my children, I love them all.

You are on the teaching staff of Montgomery College. When you are rehearsing a production around town or elsewhere, how do you balance teaching with the show's rehearsal schedule?

That's a great question. It is difficult. It takes all the hours in the day. I have an incredibly supportive administration and faculty over at MC. I also have incredibly supportive members of the arts community who accommodate my schedule. I've been blessed to have supporters in both the academic and DC theatre community who have invested in me and my particular mission. The greatest benefits are the relationships that are built between the artists and theatres and the college. The most tangible benefits of the my relationships with area theatres are the exchanges we've been able to establish with students who intern with these theatres and guest artists from area theatres coming to Montgomery College to provide workshops, direct, and to teach. When we see shows in DC each year or when we see a show on Broadway each spring, students are able to meet with members of the cast and crew with whom I've had the opportunity to work here in DC, providing students an opportunity to interact with the great talent we have here in the metro area. It is a privilege to work in such a resource rich region. And while I am grateful to MC and the professional theatre community, the real gratitude is owed to my family, without whom this great balancing act would not be possible. (Thanks Michelle, Kasai, and Mecca!)

After Spunk finishes its run, what is next for you performance wise?

Next is Fences at Ford's Theatre. Then I will be directing next spring at Montgomery College. See you in the theatre!

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Deputy Director, Creative Content and Publicity James Gardiner for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

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