Kevin Carroll: Storytelling from the stage
Storytelling runs in Kevin Carroll’s family.
“My grandfather, my father and my brothers all have a knack for storytelling,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world that we enjoy more than a good story.”
During his time at Salisbury High School, Carroll and his friends found themselves seeking out stories.
“We would find ourselves having an experience and a big part of that experience was the story we got out of doing it,” he said. “We enjoyed that just as much as whatever we were doing, whether we were playing football or walking to Krispy Kreme.
“It was always about the journey and the stories.”
At the time, Carroll didn’t realize that storytelling would eventually become part of his profession.
As an actor, he gets the unique opportunity to tell other people’s stories.
“I’m getting a chance to participate in the world in a way that I think means something,” he said.
Carroll originally planned to become an industrial technologist, but decided to switch majors after seeing his first professional play as a freshman at North Carolina A&T.
“I was so mesmerized and moved by that play,” he said. “I thought ‘I don’t know how much difference I can make being an industrial technologist, but I do think I can make a difference doing this.”
His most recent projects support his decision to jump into acting.
Carroll is currently playing Toledo in Portland Stage’s production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.
“Ma Rainey is known by many as the mother of the blues,” he said. “In the play, we explore the lives of blues musicians in the 20s and we also get a chance to see one of the first female artists who took control of her own destiny in the face of white America trying to steal her music.”
The play confronts the issues of race, fame and generational divides through the rhythms of the African-American South.
Carroll appeared on an episode of NBC’s television show “Law & Order” that aired Oct. 2.
“This story was inspired by the Trayvon Martin case,” he said. “Actually there are a number of headlines included in this episode; you will see influences of the Trayvon Martin case, the Paula Deen scandal and the stop and frisk program that New York has been grappling with.”
Carroll said his role was small, but meaningful.
“I can’t say I played Trayvon’s father, but I played a character who was essentially him,” he said. “He didn’t have a lot of publicity, his mother did a lot of speaking for the family and for Trayvon himself.
“I think there was a notion of maintaining their dignity in the face of what could appear as a huge injustice at the time; they refused to stoop down to what some might expect from a family of color by screaming and making a scene.”
Carroll said the episode “challenges the way we perceive people based on stereotypes.”
“Having some background to pull from and understand going into the role was fascinating to me because I was able to think more deeply about it and find some unique angles,” he said.
Rather than audition for the role, the director of the episode sought out Carroll, who has appeared on the show several other times.
“From my understanding, he thought ‘Oh, I’d like to work with Kevin Carroll on this,’” he said. “It’s one of the few times that has happened, but it’s always nice when you get an offer.
“It was great that it was an offer for one of the pivotal stories in culture this year.”
Carroll said it was rewarding to be part of “questing our collective consciousness about culture.”
“As artists that’s really what we do, hold up a mirror to humanity,” he said. “I enjoy functioning story lines that really call into question where we stand on issues – those offer big rewards.”
Carroll said it’s rare to get a chance to work on two such meaningful projects back to back.
“As an actor you spend most of your life just trying to pay your rent,” he said. “But every once in a while you come across a project where you have the opportunity to really effect change and have people think about the human condition so that we can hopefully grow as a culture.
“Both of these roles solidify my reason for being an artist.”
When “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” wraps up next Sunday, Carroll will be part of a committee that gives scholarships to young aspiring actors.
“The students selected will come be part of a youth arts week in Miami,” he said. “It’s a way to help them on their journey to pursuing a life in the arts.”
Carroll will plan his next moves from there, but he does have an idea of what he’d like to pursue.
“After spending a lot of time in theatre, I do plan and have started to concentrate on film and television,” he said. “It’s been great to have the years that I’ve had in theater because it’s a wonderful foundation for the craft.”
In the past, Carroll has appeared on Broadway in “Angel in America,” “45 Seconds from Broadway,” “Take Me Out” and “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.”
His off-Broadway credits include “Home,” “Satellites,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and “Blues for an Alabama Sky.”
Carroll received an Obie Award in 2009 for sustained excellence in performance. An Obie is the highest honor you can get in the off-Broadway community, selected by a committee of theatre artists and Village Voice theatre critics.
Carroll, who lives in California, typically travels back to Salisbury two or three times a year to spend time with his family, including parents Mae and Kenneth Carroll.
“My family is very important to me so I try to get back between projects,” he said. “I also just enjoy the pace of being at home because when you’re away and you’re juggling a bunch of stuff at one time, time seems to fly by.”