Artist to Watch: Keenan Ramos

2019 Was “A Dream Come True” for the Talented Kansas City Actor

Keenan Ramos has chalked up a remarkable run of performances, particularly in the last year or so.

He was scheduled to close out 2019 with a role in the Unicorn Theatre production of “Bernhardt/Hamlet” for director Cynthia Levin. Before that, he appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” produced by This Happy Breed and directed by Kyle Hatley. That show followed closely on the heels of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights,” directed by Nedra Dixon for MTH. The musical was preceded by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “Shakespeare in Love.”

The Shakespeare festival came after two heavy dramas at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre — the North American premiere of “The Shawshank Redemption,” based on the Stephen King novella and directed by Bob Paisley, and August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” staged by Karen Paisley.

“I don’t know if I’ll have a better year than that one,” Ramos said. “It was all a dream come true.”

In 2018 he chalked up performances in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, at the Unicorn and the MTH production of the classic “My Fair Lady.” Earlier in his career, before a stint as a teacher in Salina, Kansas, audiences saw Ramos in “Head,” Kyle Hatley’s unique play about John the Baptist performed at the Fringe Festival, as well as plays and musicals at the Unicorn and the Coterie.

This year, he’s scheduled to appear in the new Forge Repertory Theatre production of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in April and May.

Ramos, 38, pinpoints the moment the theater bug bit him. He was an athlete at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kansas. But one day his whole point of view shifted.

“I was a sports guy,” he said. “I was a very average football player and baseball player.”

But then he saw Nathan Louis Jackson, who was two years older, perform a monologue Jackson had written. That changed everything. Jackson, who began his professional career as an actor, would go on to achieve a national reputation as a playwright with dramas such as “Brokeology” and “When I Come to Die.” For several years he was Kansas City Rep’s resident playwright.

“I followed him to K-State,” Ramos said. “He moved to New York, I moved to New York. He’s been more like a brother to me than anything. I always gravitated to him. I just think he’s brilliant.”

Ramos’ upbringing in KCK puts him in an elite group of African American theater artists. In addition to Ramos and Jackson, the city has produced nationally known playwright Christina Anderson, actress/singer Angela Wildflower Polk and playwright/actor Lewis J. Morrow, director of new play development for KC MeltingPot Theatre.

Ramos said nothing about that surprises him.

“I think it’s experience,” he said. “People who come from that community, they witness a lot. They’ve gone through a lot. So it’s easy to tap into some of those emotions, the pathos.”

MeltingPot is one theater company where Ramos has not performed, although he hopes to. These days he makes ends meet by working in the box office at the Unicorn and loading and unloading planes at KCI.

Ramos, whose family tree includes Portuguese and Cherokee forebears, said few things are more important to him than exposing young people — particularly young people of color — to theater. He recalled a school matinee performance during the run of “Seven Guitars” at the MET.

“August Wilson, he’s a wordy guy,” Ramos said. “But those high school kids hung on to every word. I’m living proof that they need it, and that we can make a huge splash in the world of theater. I had that conversation with Sid Garrett (artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival) this summer. I loved how diverse the cast was. I had a kid come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I could do that,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you can.’”

Some of his KCK colleagues have found success without benefit of formal training. He cited Lewis Morrow as a prime example.

“Lewis never went to school for writing, he never went to school for acting, but he’s doing it,” Ramos said. “I asked him how he learned, and he said, ‘I just started reading plays and watching plays on film, and the formula just kind of came to me.’ He’s a freak of nature.”

Ramos, who also plays the violin, said his mother was a school principal and his dad was a security guard. It was his father, who had been a college basketball player at Baker University, who encouraged him to play sports. But he also guided him into the arts in his own way — by watching movies that some parents wouldn’t have let their kids watch until they were older.

“I remember watching ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Godfather,’ and I remember my dad saying, ‘Hey — this is good acting,’” Ramos recalled. “Most kids were watching ‘Goonies’ and I was watching ‘Reservoir Dogs.’”

Above: photo by Jim Barcus.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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