Checking In With… Kinky Boots Star Kevin Smith Kirkwood

Interview   Checking In With… Kinky Boots Star Kevin Smith Kirkwood
 
The actor is part of the ninth annual Night of a Thousand Judys event to raise money for the Ali Forney Center.
Kevin Smith Kirkwood
Kevin Smith Kirkwood

As the temporary shutdown of Broadway continues, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.

During Pride Month, the series continues with LGBTQIA+ artist Kevin Smith Kirkwood, who made his Broadway debut in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and subsequently played an Angel in the original cast of the Tony-winning Kinky Boots. The actor, who earned a 2005 New York Innovative Theater Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor for It’s Karate, Kid! , also appeared in the national tours of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, …Spelling Bee, and Grease, while his other Off-Broadway credits include How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes, Dial 'N' for Negress, Dragapella!, Amazing Grace: The Musical, and The Astonishing Return of the Protagonists!. Kirkwood starred as Roxy in the 2015 horror film Condemned and can be heard voicing the role of DJ in Marvel’s Wolverine podcast.

Kirkwood will also be part of the ninth annual Night of a Thousand Judys June 24 at 8 PM ET to honor Judy Garland and raise money for the Ali Forney Center, which provides services for homeless LGBTQIA+ kids. Click here for more information.

25 LGBTQIA+ Theatre Artists Share Their 2021 Pride Plans

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Kevin Smith Kirkwood performs at the Sparkle Actors Fund benefit Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What is your typical day like now?
This past year my days have been anything but typical. There are light days and dark days, days that feel packed and busy, but also lots of slow, quiet, reflective days. I’ve never been an early morning kind of guy if I don’t have to be. So, on the many days when no structure is necessary, I love to sleep in. Once I’m up, it’s time for coffee and feeding my cat Nippy. Next, I have a set of yoga-based physical therapy stretches/exercises that I mix with meditation. This wakes up my mind, body, and spirit. I’m still not back at the gym, so on the days I can muster the time and energy, I either do a video workout in my kitchen (thanks, Shaun T) or take a run to Astoria Park if it’s nice outside. The rest of my “down” days are filled with answering emails, catching up on the news and current events (I love CNN and The View), cleaning my apartment, doing laundry, running errands, checking in with family (both blood and chosen), long bubble baths, and lots of time spent on my comfy couch reading or watching TV. What the kids are calling “self care.”

What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
I’m a big non-fiction guy. And in light of our country’s intense year of racial reckoning, two books that I’ve been re-reading and recommending: Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery and Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told By Those Who Lived It. The latter is a beautiful collection of stories, poems, and harrowing accounts of life from historical Black figures. We all have to intentionally search out the Black history we don’t get in the American educational system in order to understand how we got to where we are in this country today. There’s also a brilliant and informative documentary produced by National Geographic called LA 92. It connects the dots by taking us from the civil unrest after 1992’s Rodney King verdict up through the Black Lives Matter movement today. Those are just a few things I’ve been reading and watching. And then, because I like balance, I’m also living for Legendary on HBO Max, RuPauls Drag Race, Pose (so sad to see it go), The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Married at First Sight, and 90 Day Fiancé! Yes, that’s right. Don’t judge.

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Kevin Smith Kirkwood and RuPaul after a Kinky Boots performance Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

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?
Whew, that’s a loaded question... First, I love the fact that people are finally starting to understand how hard it is to navigate this business as a person of color. We’re finally recognizing how deeply rooted systems of white supremacy have governed everything from the stories that are told to the faces that are allowed to tell them and, of course, profit from them. The Great White Way has needed to reckon with some tough truths for a long time. I will speak for myself when I say that the years of silence from the Broadway community (while unarmed Black men were being killed in the streets by police) was hurtful to say the least. As a queer man, I remember the community’s response to the Marriage Equality fight. We were on the front lines screaming “love is love is love”! And, I do believe that artists should be on the front lines when it comes to social justice activism. So, I’ve been thoroughly inspired by the recent conversations the community is finally starting to have around Equity. The coming to terms with past traumas and grievances, and the promise of progress gives me so much hope for our industry. Hope for growth. Change. I love it. And, I’m here for it! At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. We all fell in love with the magic of theatre. I want folks to realize that creating a more equitable and inclusive business and community will only serve to foster even deeper, more creative, more loving art. And, art is power!

What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
First, I would say to them, you are not alone. For all of us, and especially those who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, this past year has been quite the mental health challenge. I lived alone, in NYC, through both the isolation and the unrest. I learned a lot about myself. You have to develop a set of coping mechanisms that can help you tread the dark times. I’m a big proponent of therapy (ask any of my friends—LOL). Especially as artists, practicing mindfulness, learning to control our feelings and therefore thoughts, is extremely helpful. Also, nurture your close friendships. Chosen family (as well as blood family) or a small circle of people you can lean on for support in those times is immeasurable. I’m also lucky in that department. Self care; take long showers, burn aromatherapy candles, eat ice cream, exercise, take naps. I have also found that CBD works wonders in alleviating anxiety. Look into it. And, finally, if you’re an artist, just create something. Anything. I found that even in the times that I didn’t want to, when I finally did just "do something" (sing a song, write an idea down, do a dance in my kitchen), it always helped to alter my mood or lift my spirits. And finally, no matter what, if it gets too dark, reach out. You are loved.

Billy Porter and The Angels (Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto and Paul Canaan) in <i>Kinky Boots</i>
Billy Porter and The Angels (Kyle Post, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Joey Taranto and Paul Canaan) in Kinky Boots Matthew Murphy

How, if at all, are you keeping your creative juices flowing? Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
Yes! I love…no, need to stay creative at all times! And, honestly, it saved my soul through the pandemic. In May of last year, I bought an interface and microphone and performed my very first virtual solo show, presented by SohoMuse. That experience opened up a world of virtual performances and voiceover opportunities. I was also cast in a documentary produced by ARD (the German equivalent to PBS) that followed the lives of three New Yorkers from different walks of life and examined how the pandemic was affecting us. I was proud to represent all of the artists struggling during the shutdown of our industry. We filmed for five months, and the doc premiered in November in Germany and ten European countries across the world. It’s also got over 1.9 million views on YouTube, and I’ve received messages of love and support from people all over the world! Then, I also recently played the role of Demetries in the film I See You and You See Me, produced by the Queens Theater (written and directed by Harris Doran). That film just premiered last month and is also available online. The ARD documentary crew also followed me to the Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire last fall, where I made my directorial debut, directing and choreographing the very first AEA-approved live indoor theatre show since the start of the pandemic. I was extremely proud of our production of Little Shop of Horrors and can safely say that I’ve fallen in love with directing. As we speak, I’m creating, working, and planning to return to the Weathervane next month to direct and choreograph a production of Kinky Boots! We’ll also be presenting a special performance of my solo show, Classic Whitney: Alive!, on the Weathervane mainstage, so I’m very excited about that. And then I am so grateful for several other opportunities that have materialized, especially the upcoming Night of a Thousand Judys concert. It’s no surprise that I’m a huge Judy Garland fan (haha), but I also live for Justin Sayre’s work and art!! I have always wanted to perform at this concert. So I was ecstatic to be included this year.

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Kevin Smith Kirkwood and Ashanti j'Aria at Glimmer of Light celebration Joseph Marzullo/MediaPunch

How do you feel about returning to live performance?
You know what? I’m ready!! I have been so damn careful this whole time. I isolated. I masked. I sanitized. I got tested. I understood how important it was to “trust the science.” So then, it was wonderful to be able to “escape” to New Hampshire to work for a few weeks last fall. The COVID numbers there were lower. The theatre could create a “bubble.” I felt safer there than I did here in NYC. But now that I’m fully vaccinated and the numbers seem to be trending down, I’m a lot more confident about the safety of returning to live performances. Last week, I sat in a room at The Green Room 42, with an audience, and watched my BFF Natalie Joy Johnson kill it in her first live show (and mine) in over a year! The feeling in the air was electric! Frankly, I couldn't be more ready, or excited, or happy to get back to feeling that connection!

What would you say to audience members who may be feeling uneasy about returning to a theatre?
I would say get vaccinated, mask up, and buy those tickets anyway! Make your way to the theatre, take a deep breath, look around, and see that, as an audience, you’re all in this together. You’re not the only one feeling that feeling of nervous uneasiness. Take that in. It’s one of the magical things about live theatre: a group of strangers all assemble in a dark room and become one to witness the ethereal experience that is theatre. It’s a human connection on so many levels. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us how precious human connection is and how much we need it to survive.

Are there any particular ways you celebrate Pride Month each year? How will you celebrate this year?
Yes! Every year, my friends Christian and Peter host a Pride brunch at their downtown Manhattan apartment and then we walk to the parade. In 2019, the brunch party came out to watch me perform as Classic Whitney: Alive! on the Procter & Gamble float celebrating 50 years of World Pride! I’ll never forget riding past Stonewall, dressed in “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” Whitney drag, singing “One Moment in Time,” LOL. I’m also busy all month performing for Pride events and celebrations. We won’t be doing our usual Classic Whitney Pride show at Joe’s Pub (last year’s was canceled), but we will definitely be back in 2022. This year, I performed virtually for Westchester Pride and the Loft LGBTQ Center’s Pride kickoff, I’m doing the Thousand Judys concert Pride week, and also a corporate show for a private consulting firm. My pride will be on display all month, and then hopefully I’ll get to hug my friends at brunch on the day of pride.

What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
Last year, I joined the Board of Directors for the National Queer Theater, an innovative and worthwhile non-profit whose mission is to uplift the voices and stories of queer artists and the LGBTQ community. So much of the work that we do also directly works to create a more just and equitable world. Visit our website at NationalQueerTheater.org. There’s the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Equal Justice Initiative, who are doing great things for criminal justice reform. There is also fierce work being done in the Broadway community by groups like the Black Theatre Coalition and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and they deserve your attention and support. Get involved folks.

Checking In With… Jose Llana, Star of The King and I, Here Lies Love, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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