Four-time Fulbright Scholar, practitioner and acting technique pedagogist, Dr. Baron Kelly is a decorated actor, director and scholar. Currently, Kelly serves as a professor in the University of Wisconsin Theatre and Drama Department and is directing and acting in August Wilson’s Fences.
Kelly has an unusual story for how he ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, much of it stemming from the idea to write a dissertation. He credits the fact that he went to drama school in London as the reason why he seemingly did everything in reverse.
Kelly always knew he wanted to write about Earl Hyman, an African American man who had a tremendous career in Norway as well as in the United States. Hyman is remembered for his role as Bill Cosby’s father on the Cosby Show. The interesting thing is that no one has ever written about Hyman’s Norwegian career. That was the driving force behind Kelly’s pursuit of a Ph.D. program. Kelly went on to earn his Ph.D. in theatre research from UW.
“I was hoping to get into a program at an institution that had a top Scandinavian studies program, and I was in California at the time when UW reached back out to me fairly early on saying how they’d love to have me,” Kelly said. “I came up to visit because a friend of mine had a brother up here, and the rest is history.”
Theatre was not necessarily Kelly’s first love, but it has always been with him for as long as he can remember. He reflects upon being around seven to eight years old and sitting in front of the television set watching black and white movies from the ’30s. He recalls crying and not realizing why he was crying but being embarrassed by it, so he would continue to sit there and take in these classic movies. That is essentially where it all started.
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Kelly later auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City where he got accepted into the children’s chorus at age 11. It was here that he became exposed to all the foreign languages and spectacles on the stage that kept cementing themselves within him.
He noted how he was always working or taking classes in between performances. He even lived at home for a bit before moving on to work professionally for a few years before meeting his first mentor who built the American Players Theatre.
Flash forward a few years and college comes within Kelly’s horizon. He mentions how the motivation for attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art came from a fellow actor who was in the same theatre as him in Baltimore. She would come in to watch him during rehearsals, and happened to be good friends with Derek Jacobi, a well-known British actor. She was the motivation behind attending RADA, and before he knew it, Kelly was off to drama school in London.
Not too soon after, he was traveling the world and living out of bags before eventually returning to New York, where he did a few stints on a couple of varying soap operas. He starred in “All My Children,” “As the World Turns” and primarily “Loving,” where Kelly starred alongside Bryan Cranston.
Kelly joined the Theatre and Drama Department at UW in August 2020. Just this past year, he was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre.
Kelly will be returning to London next year, from January to June as part of a UW Global Launch program. UW has offices in Florence, Spain, France and the UK. As a senior faculty member, Kelly was asked if he wanted to be interviewed, and of course, he said yes. After interviewing for Italy and London, Kelly will be the only UW faculty teaching acting and literature courses overseas.
“In the United States, movie stars are the equivalent of what royalty means in other countries. It’s all overblown here, so a lot of people remain unaffected by the theatre. People watch movies and go ‘I could do that’ and for the most part they can, Kelly said. To really train that takes work and time, not everyone has to go to drama school but most do. That is what happens in London. It is more about the craft there. It’s all too fast today, everybody wants it now. Your generation wants the right answers, they do not want to deal with the process. Everybody wants to be a star.”
Kelly is an international man, having traveled all over the world. He commented on his favorite destinations that his work had brought him.
“For many different reasons, Russia. Russia for acting and teaching, Norway for acting, Singapore for teaching and Finland too for various reasons,” Kelly said.
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Kelly expresses his appreciation for the wonderful teachers he has had in his life, many of whom have extended their gratitude to him. He went on to mention how it did not matter where someone came from — what mattered was the beauty of young actors coming together, sitting in the same seats, with great acting teachers, watching and learning.
When asked about his own personal and unique experiences from his life that he tries to teach to his students and performers alike, Reez Bailey is brought up. Bailey is one of those certain people Kelly will always be in touch with for the rest of his life, he will help former students such as Bailey as much as he can.
When asked what specifically about Bailey makes Kelly so sure of this, Kelly spoke about Bailey’s admirable attributes.
“He has the right attitude and the talent,” Kelly said. “You should always try to do what you can do and be a good person because theatre has the gift to be able to spur consciousness, if it’s done properly.”
That is the higher ideal Kelly aims to convey. He mentions how about 99% of what he has done has been incredible because he has stuck with it and been awarded his recognition based on merit. He is an anomaly because of all the accolades. Furthermore, he has one foot in academia and one in the professional world, so he is constantly polishing his own craft.
Fences will be the third production Kelly has done here at UW in the theatre department. He verbalizes how this performance can be a turnkey for future events on campus. He aims to show the wider community that UW can be a welcoming place, especially for kids to come and see themselves being represented.
“I’m going to be in it and directing it, and I’ve never done that [before]. This play is specific to African American culture, both the story and the humanistic drama are universal,” Kelly said. “The playwright, August Wilson uses language and creates character dialogue centered around these major life issues in what is known as ‘Century Cycle’ play.”
Fences takes place in 1957 and spans seven years from the beginning to the end of the show. The play showcases the events that occurred in the United States during segregation, specifically Black people’s experiences, according to Kelly. Wilson uses the metaphor of baseball to discuss discrimination and the second-class citizenship that Black people deal with.
When asked about the nature of the performance, The Badger Herald was curious if Kelly had received any pushback when first attempting to put on this play.
“The only pushback was how we were going to cast it. This is being touted as a research project because of the kinds of stuff I have written about with acting and my books, [and] it is all going to be combined with this traveling performance,” Kelly said. “The Dean, Diana Hess, has even helped finance this production since she wants to see it happen. We are trying to make Fences the biggest success that it can be in this situation.”
To close out the conversation, Kelly had a few words to share with readers.
“The costumes and set are going to be spectacular, so I urge you all to come and see a great piece of theatre and the wonderful actors who star [alongside him] in Fences,” Kelly said.
FENCES performs in the Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre March 1-10.
Wednesday March 1 @ 7:30 p.m.
Thursday March 2 @ 7:30 p.m.
Friday March 3 @ 7:30 p.m.
Saturday March 4 @ 2:00 p.m.
Saturday March 4 @ 7:30 p.m.
Sunday March 5 @ 2:00 p.m.
Thursday March 9 @ 7:30 p.m.
Friday March 10 @ 7:30pm