When Kelvin Roston, Jr. moved from St. Louis to Chicago to further his acting career in the spring of 2008, he rented a Hyde Park apartment with his then-wife and infant son and expected to spend the rest of the year auditioning to line up roles for 2009, although he had a day job as a pirate as part of the entertainment on Navy Pier.
Then his cousin Ronald L. Conner, who had moved here five years earlier, invited him to the May opening of “First Breeze of Summer” at Court Theatre, in which Connor was appearing.
At the cast party afterward at Seven Ten Lanes, the restaurant and bowling alley on 55th Street, Roston met Runako Jahi, then artistic director of ETA Creative Arts Foundation, and Ilesa Duncan, who was directing “Get Ready,” about a singing group trying to get back together, for the theater. She had lost a cast member and, having heard Roston could sing, invited him outside to audition on the spot.
“I sang a song from 'Caroline, Or Change' and got the part after being in Chicago only two weeks,” Roston recalled. “I've been working steadily ever since—at least until the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Roston's next three shows were at ETA, but in the fall of 2009, he landed his first role at Court Theatre, as Sylvester in August Wilson's “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” directed by Ron OJ Parson, with whom he has worked frequently since. In the spring of 2011, he was cast as Jim in Court's “Porgy and Bess” but got to go on as Crown when Todd M. Kryger, who was playing Porgy, was injured and the actor playing Crown stepped into that role. The Bess in that production was Alexis J. Rogers, who is now Roston's wife.
Roston was Floyd Barton and his cousin Conner was Red Carter in Court's 2014 production of Wilson's "Seven Guitars,” and he also was Four-Eyed Moe in 2017's “Five Guys Named Moe,” but his two greatest triumphs at the theater were his 2019 back-to-back performances as the title kings in Wilson's “King Hedley II” and Sophocles' “Oedipus Rex.”
Thanks to those performances, he won Court's 2019/20 Nicholas Rudall Classic Artist Award, which was established in 2018 to honor founding artistic director Rudall (who translated “Oedipus Rex” among other works). The award comes with a stipend of $2,500 and recognizes an artist with a passion for and dedication to classic plays.
In a press release, Court's artistic director Charles Newell said “Kelvin is masterful at making stories resonate with contemporary audiences....I know Nick would have been dazzled by Kelvin’s towering portrayals of two such different kings.”
Roston, now 42, became an actor partly at the prompting of Conner. Born and raised in St. Louis, he went to Catholic schools that had good theater programs, and he became head of the choir at his church, where his grandfather was pastor. His mother, also a singer, “groomed him” to become a musician.
"I'd been doing theater all my life, ever since I played a priest at the age of four,” he said. “Whatever show there was at school, I was in it, but I never thought of it as a career.”
The cousins both performed in plays in high school, and after they graduated, Conner went to Clark Atlanta University to study theater, while Roston started at St. Louis University in pre-med.
“I realized then that I could have done what he did, but I'd made my choice to become a neurosurgeon,”Roston said.
However, after taking an introduction to psychology course, he switched majors. “I loved it,” he said. “My mother was bipolar, and the class made things make sense to me that hadn't before.”
The eldest of five children, Roston left college after two years to help care for his mother, and got a job with TWA just as it was becoming part of American Airlines.
In the meantime, Conner had returned from Atlanta and started working with the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.
“He called me and asked why I wasn't there, and I replied that I liked getting a paycheck every two weeks,” Roston recalled. But he did start going to the theater and took classes with founder Ron Himes, who became a mentor and began putting him in readings.
“Eventually he offered me a backstage job as a production assistant,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be onstage but thought this might be my only opportunity. I took the job at the beginning of the 2003 season and by the end had my first professional role, as young Joe Hardy in 'Damn Yankees.' “ He added that he quit his airline job the day after Himes hired him.
Roston's next part was in “Mama” at Unity Theater Ensemble St. Louis, and he also went to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I was a freelancer,” he said. “I learned immediately not to wait for anyone to throw me a bone. Most theaters want to keep people they think are good, so I had to show I wasn't going to wait to get offers.”
Roston returned to St. Louis Black Rep for a role as a balladeer in the choir for “The Gospel at Colonus,” and he joined the company's three-year intensive internship program at the same time.
“We studied everything you'd learn at school and had to work all the departments,” he said. “We also were the theater's education company that did touring shows in the schools. It was boot camp—but worth it. I built a resume and developed my work ethic.” He also said he learned something about money: As a production assistant and actor, he got two salaries. As an intern, he only got one, and it was smaller.
After the internship, Roston stayed at St. Louis Black Rep another year as touring company manager, so he got to be boss of the interns while still performing in main stage productions. In 2006, Himes decided to do a series of one-person shows called “I Stand Alone.” Although he had some in mind already, he solicited ideas from interns and others.
“I was reluctant because I didn't think of myself as a writer and considered the project intern busywork,” Roston admitted. “But Himes told me to do it, so I decided it would have to be about music and came up with a one-person show about Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Donny Hathaway.
"Himes said I couldn't possibly do justice to all three, so once I did some research and realized that it was Hathaway's mental illness that spoke to me, I narrowed it down to just Hathaway in what was originally called 'Psychology of a Genius.' “
Much revised and renamed “Twisted Melodies: A Donny Hathaway Story,” the one-man show had its world premiere starring Roston at the Congo Square Theatre Company in 2015. It had a run at Baltimore Center Stage in 2017 and in 2019 toured to that theater, Mosaic Theater Company in Washington, DC, and the Apollo Theater in New York, which has talked about bringing it back. “If it weren't for the pandemic, we'd be on tour right now,” Roston said.
Since he moved to Chicago, Roston, who now lives in Chatham with his wife and two sons, has performed at many theaters including Congo Square, Paramount, Marriott Lincolnshire, Goodman, Writers, Black Ensemble, TimeLine, Northlight, and Steppenwolf. One of his favorites was the title character in Black Ensemble Theater's 2011 production of “The Jackie Wilson Story,” which opened its new theater building,
“Chester Gregory couldn't reprise the role (from 2000) because he was on Broadway, which was one of the best things that could have happened to me,” Roston explained. “I learned I could do things I never thought I could, like a split, and a lot of other perks came from it. Marriott Theatre called me to audition for 'Dream Girls.' I ended up being cast as James Thunder Early because another actor had to leave. And director Marc Robin took me as Early to Pennsylvania, Maine, and Japan.”
Roston's other out-of-town credits have included the New Theatre & Restaurant, Overland, Kansas where he and Alexis were both in “Sister Act” and were supposed to start rehearsals for “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2021. On television, he's been in Chicago Med, Chicago PD, and several commercials.
When the pandemic shut down the theaters, Roston was appearing in “Day of Absence” at Congo Square. After that, he was scheduled to star in “The Gospel at Colonus” at Court Theatre, then take “Twisted Melodies” on tour through the end of the year.
“The Gospel at Colonus” has been postponed indefinitely, and at the moment, he's slated to start rehearsals in early spring for another ill-fated title character, “Othello.” Court hopes to open the play live in April, with digital availability for those who don't feel comfortable returning to the theater.
“We've been figuring things out during the pandemic,” Roston said. “A lot of theaters have called us to record songs for galas, so we've done some of them. Alexis and I also are self-recording for a Congo Square sketch show called 'Hit 'Em on the Blackside.' And we're working on our own two-hander.”
Regarding the second pandemic—social injustice—Roston said you can't talk about America or his industry without addressing the topic of race, but “Oedipus Rex” stands out for him because a few years ago, no one would have thought of casting a Black man as the king. “The role also was my favorite at Court because it allowed me to pull out things that aren't inherently part of me. The cast became a real family as we figured out how the movement was going to work. It was a great collaboration.”
Like everyone else in theater, Roston looks forward to getting back to that collaboration and sharing it with audiences, even though he appreciates the new ways that have been found to make art and wants to keep them, too.
“Sometimes you fall into a routine and don't realize how much it means until it's gone,” he said. He added that he also misses Hyde Park haunts, such as Chant for its ambiance and Asian food, Valois for the terrific Reuben sandwich, and of course, Seven Ten Lanes around the corner from Court.
“I'm a pretty good bowler, as were my father and grandfather.”