Baron Kelly, theatre scholar, Shakespearean actor, Fulbright scholar, author, professor and director

Baron Kelly: From the Streets of New York to the World's Stages

by Johnny Jones

Baron Kelly is an international theatre scholar, a Royal Academy Shakespearean-trained actor, a four-time Fulbright scholar, the author of two books on acting technique and a distinguished professor, director, mentee, and mentor. But Kelly says these means to his still evolving ends are the result of a meeting between his love for acting and his up-bringing in the streets of New York City. Kelly was raised by working-class parents who migrated from Jacksonville, Florida. He recalls while growing up, his family still took trips down South to visit his grand-mother and other family members who remain today "on the Kelly homestead" in Duval County, Florida. It is this story-like, even mythical, outline that makes it possible to understand Kelly as a critical cosmopol-itan theatre practitioner who has worked, traveled, written, taught, and shared his wisdom with the young and old of the theatre for five decades.

One might assume that Kelly's love of the theatre was inherited or developed naturally from his New York City childhood. Talking to Kelly, however, one recognizes quickly that any romantic story of his life in New York theatre is deeply connected to a passion and work ethic for the craft that is "old school." For example, shadowing him in a rehearsal room, he will quip, theorize, and demonstrate his "old school discipleship" to Sanford Meisner and to Uta Hagen, both of whom he trained under in New York City. He will also casually tell personal stories about late, great legends such as his cousin, the actor Paula Kelly, or his for colored girls "homegirl," Laurie Carlos. These lifelong experiences and encyclopedic knowledge fuel Kelly's unique repertoire that also drifts casually into stylistic references to the Negro Ensemble Company and the likes of Arthur French, James Earl Jones, and Adolph Caesar.

Searching "Baron Kelly" on the International Movie Database will reroute you to Kelly's first name, Hubert, and reveals credits stemming from the 1980s, including a role in Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, Bird, starring Forrest Whitaker. How-ever, in the 1990s, his work on television series and movies is listed under his middle name "Baron." That was around the same time that he was accepted into London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), where he studied in the same halls as masters of the craft such as Sir Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, the late Alan Rickman, and Anthony Hopkins.

Upon returning to the States, Kelly's career in New York extended from Broadway and regional stages, where he worked steadily as an ensemble actor and built major character roles, such as Belize in the premiere of playwright Tony Kushner's Angels in America at Eureka Theatre Company...(continued)

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Johnny Jones is a professor at Simmons College of Kentucky, Louisville's only Historically Black College/University, where he also chairs the Cross-Cultural Communication Program. In Fall 2023, he also served as Artist-in-Residence in Hip-Hop Theatre Studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin. A native tongue of the Arkansas Delta, Jones is an interdisciplinary creative whose writing focuses on Black narratives in modern and contemporary theatre and media.


Fall 2023

This article is featured in
Vol. 28, No. 4

Also in this issue:

  • Ending the White-Out: The Case for More Theatre about African American Military Heroes

  • Terrnce Spivey: Theatre in His Bones

  • Editor's Notes: Hailing Three Male Theatre Artists

  • In Memoriam: Ron Cephus Jones and Gus Solomons Jr.

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    Baron Kelly and Charlie Sexton in the University of Louisville Theatre Arts Department and Common-wealth Theater Center's 2016 co-production of William Shakespeare's King Lear.

    Baron Kelly in front of the Univer-sity of Wisconsin-Madison's Hemsley Theatre.