Kevin Ray Johnson
I would like you to meet Roman Banks. Roman is currently the understudy for Evan, Jared and Connor in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway at The Music Box Theatre. On December 12th Roman made history by becoming the first Evan Hansen of color. I can only imagine how amazing that feeling must have been for Roman. If you were present or not Roman is a great example of knowing that if you work hard and stay ready anything is possible. I was honored to have the chance to interview this talented young man.
1. How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a performer?
Funny story: I originally wanted to be a firefighter. It wasn’t until I watched I Am Legend when I was 11 that I realized I might want to be an actor (and get a German Shepherd). I was just so intrigued with the movie and Will Smith’s performance. I couldn’t get over how incredible it must’ve been to do something like that. However, it wasn’t until high school that I realized I wanted to pursue stage performance over TV/Film. Hamilton actually helped me to see a place for myself on Broadway and gave me the motivation to pursue musical theater wholeheartedly. It was the first time I’d seen people like me and heard the type of music I listened to praised on a Broadway stage. It was revolutionary.
2. Where did you study?
I studied musical theatre for a year at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia.
3. Are there any mentors or people that helped you in your career?
Sharon Morrow, my high school musical theatre teacher. She’d always believed in my potential from the very beginning and would encourage me in everything I pursued. She played a great part in shaping me into the artist I am today. My uncle, Abe Clark, was also a huge mentor to me growing up. As a performer himself, he would come to every show I was in and would give me serious constructive criticism on how to better my performances. I always took what he had to say very seriously. Furthermore, Stephanie Higgins and Kevin Covert at Shenandoah Conservatory. Stephanie, my vocal coach, and Kevin, the assistant professor of theatre there, were incredibly supportive during my Dear Evan Hansen audition process. They met with me for countless additional rehearsals and coaching sessions to ensure that I was very comfortable with my material before my next audition. This past Wednesday wouldn’t have been possible without them. I’m so thankful for the roles these four individuals played, and still play, in helping me get to where I am today.
4. How has your time been in Dear Evan Hansen?
Magical. I still find myself unable to stop smiling when I think about how blessed I am to work at Dear Evan Hansen. It was a real dream come true moment when Stacey Mindich told me they wanted me for the job. Although it was my dream to play Evan Hansen, I’m so grateful to cover Jared Kleinman and Connor Murphy, as well. I want to be a versatile actor who is considered for any type of role, so it was a big deal for me to have the opportunity to cover all three boys. Additionally, I’ve gotten so close with all of the other understudies in the building. They’ve really become a second family to me and it’s always a delight to be with them backstage. We’re all so supportive of one another and have each other’s backs, so that makes it really easy to be so comfortable/vulnerable with each other in rehearsals.
5. Congratulations on being the first African American to play Evan Hansen. When you stepped foot on stage as Evan Hansen for the first time what did that moment mean for you?
Thank you so much. Quite honestly, I tried to leave the shock of the situation in my dressing room. Once I was downstairs and the show was about to begin, I tried to just breathe and focus on the story I was about to tell. Once I’m on stage, it’s not about me, or the moment, or what everyone is saying online. It’s about telling the story as honestly as I can and giving everything I have to the character. It always helps to remember that there are people in the audience whose first time experiencing the show will be with you in it. Once the show had ended, however, it was so nice to see the community’s response to what had happened. Playing Evan was really special not only to me, but to so many people, especially people of color. Ultimately, the more people who can see themselves on the stage and connect to this powerful story, including in a literal since, the better.
6. Do you have any favorite moments in the show?
I really love Evan’s scene with Zoe in Waving Through A Window. It’s so funny, but it’s also Evan really just trying his best to communicate with her. It’s just so much for him all at once. I also love For Forever, simply because the song is absolutely incredible in every way possible. It’s a joy to sing and take that emotional journey as Evan.
7. Are there any other shows in your career (other than Dear Evan Hansen) that will always hold a special place in your heart!
My last show in high school was Les Miserables. I had the opportunity to play Jean Valjean, and it wound up being such a special way to finish out my high school career. It was the first time me and both of my best friends all had principals roles alongside each other, and the community really ended up enjoying the show. It took a lot to pull off, but it was so worth it. I also played Cain in Children of Eden my sophomore year, and that was my first time playing a principal role in any production. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking on stage on opening night and knowing that I had lines and a song of my own. It only takes a second to take me back.
8. What advice do you have for young aspiring performers?
A wise man once told me, if you can see yourself doing anything other than theater, do it. It’s difficult advice, but it’s true. This business is brutal and tough. However, if you know this is your everything if you can’t imagine your life without the stage, and if performing makes you feel like nothing else does, then do it. Keep working. Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back from what you want to achieve. Trust that you carry something unique that you can give to the world. Outwork every other person in the room because your talent is simply not enough. Keep faith and great people around you at all times. Surround yourself with individuals who are going to pour life and love into you consistently and who genuinely want to see you succeed. That, more than anything, will keep you going. Having a relationship with Jesus has also helped me with acting, especially when I start to feel insignificant or worrisome about things. It’s allowed me to walk by faith and not by sight. And the biggest reminder: Take everything one day at a time. Don’t stress yourself out about the callback or the cast list.
Don’t worry about what job you are going to have in three months. Instead, invest that energy into something that can go towards bettering yourself or your craft and trust in the process. I love theatre with all of my heart, but even I have those days where I don’t want to do the work. However, if you can find a way to keep yourself reminded of the things I mentioned (or whatever works for you), then I trust you’re going to be alright!
For more information about Pasek and Paul’s Tony Award Winning Musical please visit – www.dearevanhansen.com