The Theater Community is Celebrating the Versatile Actor’s Return After 20 Years Away
It’s sad when Kansas City loses a talented performer to a larger market. It’s gratifying when we get one back.
Elroy Hawkins (stage name L Roi Hawkins) has returned to the area after 20 years away, appearing in The Black Repertory Theatre Company’s 2017 productions of “Stickfly” and “A Soldier’s Story,” and in the Unicorn’s March 2018 “Informed Consent.” More recently, Hawkins played Langston Hughes’ lawyer in The Kokopelli Theater Company’s “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” and reprised that role at The William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas, in May.
Hawkins is versatile. As Sergeant Waters in “Soldier’s Story,” he was the fierce, hateful, unbending officer in Jim Crow 1944 who caused a suicide with his own bigotry. In “Informed Consent,” Hawkins demonstrated his command of the opposite emotional scale. As Liz Cook of “The Pitch” stated, “L Roi Hawkins is endearing and vulnerable as Graham, a Dad of the Year type with the patience of Job.”
Hawkins grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and graduated from the University of Kansas. Though greatly interested in the theater — he performed on stage in high school and college — he yielded to his mother’s request and got a degree in business. After graduation he worked for two and a half years as a marketing rep for AT&T, but hated it. He began pursuing stage work in KC but, at that time, in a much less developed theater scene than now, he found little opportunity as a black actor. Thinking he’d have a better chance in theater-rich Chicago, he moved there in 1993.
Chicago wasn’t as open as he hoped. At one audition he was asked to do a monologue of animals; he ended up part of a youth theater. This led to a three-year stint with Stage One, a children’s theater in Louisville, which offered him roles in classics such as “Romeo and Juliet” and gave him a solid sense of his own potential.
“My three seasons at Stage One, Louisville, taught me that I had range and depth,” Hawkins said, “and not to accept the limitations others tried to put on me. To challenge people who say I’m ‘not right’ for roles I want, and to ask for the chance to prove them wrong.”
When it came time to sign up for his fourth season with the youth theater, he made the bold decision to move to New York and, he hoped, to adult roles.
It was not to be. At auditions, he would regularly find himself among hundreds of applicants. To sustain himself he waited tables and worked as a bartender, often in dance clubs where he pocketed $1,000 a night. He wasn’t just mixing, he was “entertaining,” and customers paid for the extra.
Consonant with his resume, he found work with Theatre Works USA, a children’s theater company, and continued with them for six years, performing repertoire based on stories about famous figures including Thurgood Marshall. There were many national tours in that time, sometimes for as long as six months.
Hawkins relished those traveling times. It “allowed me to see parts of North America I’d probably never see otherwise,” he said. “Two weeks in New Orleans, two weeks in Anchorage, two weeks in Toronto . . . all the while bringing live theater and the story of Thurgood Marshall to thousands of children.”
It also gave him time to read, explore and plan his future.
Between tours back in New York, Hawkins had a steady gig as a bar captain for a high-end catering company. That served him well when he was asked to join up with two friends who had been contracted to open a restaurant in Tamworth, Australia, a few hours northwest of Sydney, and the “country music capital of Australia,” home to a major music festival.
Hawkins agreed to a one-year commitment and managed everything for the two owners. He thought about staying on, but a schedule of 65 hours per week and visa restrictions kept him from extending his assignment. He decided to return to the U.S. and to acting.
Kansas City, home to his mother and sister, was an easy choice. He also had theater connections. Hawkins had appeared in a Unicorn play in 2008 and knew Cynthia Levin. Other contacts included the Coterie’s Jeff Church, and actor Damron Russel Armstrong, who had just founded the Black Repertory Theater of Kansas City. Armstrong puts Hawkins “at the top of the list of amazing actors to work with.” He was quickly signed up for “Stickfly” in November 2016.
Hawkins is happy to be back in KC. Here, he faces auditions of five applicants, not 200, and feels a sense of warmth, respect and appreciation he did not encounter in New York. And he is cheered to see that companies are committed to hiring local actors. “The KC theatre scene today is amazing,” he said. “I’m excited to be an actor again.”
Hawkins closed out 2017 as Clarence, the angel, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a Theater Squared production in Fayetteville, Arkansas, directed by Jeff Church. “Dapper, delightful and charming in the role” was Church’s assessment, adding that Hawkins had been untypically cast. He and Church were keen to team up again this fall in “Becoming Martin” at The Coterie but, instead, Hawkins has been cast in “Of Mice and Men” for KC Rep. Hawkins terms this “my actor’s dilemma” — having to choose between terrific shows happening at the same time.
Looking ahead, Hawkins says he someday hopes to play the lead in “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play about a gay, mixed-race baseball player named Darren Lemming and his decision to come out.
“Darren Lemming is a dream role because he’s bi-racial,” Hawkins said. “People have thought I was bi-racial my whole life. I’m not, but finally a role that’s a perfect fit . . . he has an extreme emotional journey. And there’s full nudity. I think that would be the ultimate challenge to my inhibitions.”
Hawkins occasionally laments not having pursued an academic theater degree. He frequently finds himself surrounded by younger MFAs and highly degreed actors and characterizes himself as the “acting version of the old country doctor.” But, as we know, those old medical men were among the most coveted and cherished.