Checking In With… Dear Evan Hansen and Songs for a New World Star Roman Banks

Checking In With...   Checking In With… Dear Evan Hansen and Songs for a New World Star Roman Banks
 
The actor discusses pandemic life lessons, returning to the stage, and the personal meaning of Jason Robert Brown's "Flying Home."
Roman Banks
Roman Banks

As stages begin to reopen around the globe, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.

The series continues with Roman Banks, who made his Broadway debut as the first person of color to play the title role in the Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen after auditioning for the show’s open call as a freshman at Shenandoah Conservatory. The actor subsequently guest starred on the second season of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, portraying newcomer Howie, and his original music, including an EP titled Days, can be found on all streaming platforms.

Banks can currently be seen in the limited engagement of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, the opening production of Paper Mill Playhouse's 2021–2022 season in Millburn, New Jersey. Directed by Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, the song cycle also features three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello (Parade), Andrew Kober (Beautiful), and Mia Pinero (West Side Story). Watch highlights from the production here.

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Roman Banks in <i>Songs for a New World</i>
Roman Banks in Songs for a New World Evan Zimmerman

What is your typical day like now?
Oh gosh. Lots of running around. The pandemic really made me very much not a morning person, so the adjustment has definitely been a bit of an overload. My commute to the rehearsal space is around 75 minutes, give or take, and if I’ve got a busy post-work day and need to get my workout done in the AM, that can be a bit stressful! Very much still adjusting!

Can you describe how it felt to be back in a rehearsal room on the first day you and the cast assembled?
It felt very matter-of-fact. I always pictured I’d be back without masks and running around hugging everyone. But here we are, almost two years later, still doing those go-in-for-handshake-to-awkward-elbow-bump things and I’m really just…over it at this point? A real boiling point for me was the singing mask, actually! I took a moment of frustration to just comprehend the fact that masks have evolved into an adaptable state for performance rehearsal. Like, we didn’t have to be in this this long. Mask “evolution” didn’t have to happen! But…here we are! That being said, I’m still grateful for the technology and all of the work still being done to keep me and my cast/crewmates safe. Grateful to even have a cast/crew again.

Is there any particular song or part of the show that seems particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past 18 months?
Oh yeah! Most of the show! It’s mind-blowing how timeless this music and lyrics are. JRB was not here to play any games, okay?! But one that truly strikes me every time, one that I’m still exploring with every run, is "Flying Home." I see it as a love letter to all those we lost. To George Floyd. To Breonna Taylor. To the hundreds of thousands lost to COVID. It’s a love letter to them. It’s my moment to say, “You should still be here. We miss you. We love you. We’ll meet again soon. Guide us as we go.” It’s very emotional and personal for me.

Mia Pinero, Andrew Kober, Carolee Carmello, and Roman Banks in <i>Songs for a New World</i>
Mia Pinero, Andrew Kober, Carolee Carmello, and Roman Banks in Songs for a New World Evan Zimmerman

How do you feel about returning to live performance?
Excited? Scared? Excited and scared? There’s such a pride in it because, like, we made it through, kinda? We’re still figuring it out. But I’m so proud of the overall spirit of resilience. The fresh energy coming back to those who maybe took this all for granted at some point in time? There’s an overall energy in the air that’s just new. On all fronts. And that’s the part that thrills me. I just pray that it remains.

What would you say to audience members who may be feeling uneasy about returning to a theatre?
I get it! I live by myself, so to go from sitting on a couch in my apartment to 1,000 people staring at me for nearly 90 minutes feels like a sensory overload. It’s going to feel uneasy because, like, that’s nature at this point. But just know we’re doing all we can to keep you safe, and we expect the same from you. And if that unspoken agreement remains at the forefront of this comeback, then we’ll all be back to feeling more comfortable in a packed house much sooner than later, I think. Fingies crossed.

During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow actors, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I want them to be aware of when it’s time to stand at our side and when it’s time to move out of the way. Accept what you do know. Accept what you don’t know. Accept what you thought you knew, and know where the line is drawn. Everything isn’t going to be settled in an extra 20 minutes of training on diversity. Everything isn’t going to be settled when you hire two more Black people. Everything isn’t going be settled when you finally hire a Black person to play the role full-time instead of understudy. Real change is integrated. It takes time. It’s top to bottom. This is a structure we’re at war with, after all. A structure is carefully planned, built, and maintained for safety of those who designed it. We’re saying to hell with the structure. Break the structure down. And you, as non-BIPOC individuals, can either yell from the sidelines, watch, or grab a hammer. But it’s happening, regardless. We’re not going back. We're going towards better. Better for everyone.

in <i>Songs for a New World</i>
Mia Pinero, Roman Banks, Andrew Kober, and Carolee Carmello in Songs for a New World Evan Zimmerman

What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
Unsafely assuming you’re not fighting against the unrest, my advice would be to take care of yourself in the best way you know how. Nourish yourself, tend to yourself, hold grace for yourself. We didn’t sign up to be revolutionaries. We just wanted to tell stories. But, here we are. And, to be honest, this shit gets overwhelming very easily. Don’t be afraid to fall back, feed yourself, your soul, hydrate, and meet us back out there when you’re ready. We’ll hold space for you. We need you, after all.

What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past year-and-a-half that you didn't already know?
Oh gosh. I could probably write a book about that. I learned a lot. It was a scary time for me, personally. My mental health fell hard, as I’m sure many others’ did. I learned a lot about what I need to survive and what I don’t. I saw and felt God in new ways. I learned what things I lean into when I feel helpless and lost. I learned how to really reach out to people when I need help (which is extremely hard to do as a completely self-sufficient person). The list is long. But most importantly, I think I finally understood just how not alone we are in almost anything we face as human beings. Any emotion we could ever experience, someone has felt those things before. Someone has considered our considerations. Most importantly, someone has gone through it and survived. There’s power in that. There’s uneasiness about it, too, because then you’re like, is this all one giant simulation?! But truly, there is so much strength in knowing that someone has faced your situation or a very similar situation to yours and maybe not only survived it, but came out of it even stronger. It helps you find the strength to keep going. It’s like, “If they made it, so can I.”

What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
Broadway Advocacy Coalition is doing fantastic work and is being led by individuals who I deeply care about fundamentally changing this industry. I’ve donated to them at every chance I could during the pandemic, and it’s exciting to see them continue to find ways to hold the industry accountable, take up space, and make this business safer for BIPOC performers. I’m in awe of them. Give them all your money!

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