After he won a Cloris Leachman Award in 2016—an honor that celebrates excellence in theatre in the greater Des Moines area—Ken-Matt Martin jumped on a plane the next morning to start his first day at Brown University. His acceptance speech that night spoke of surpassing expectations of representation and giving power to those the world had never given it to. The words “equity, diversity, and inclusion” set the foundation for his future works.
The Little Rock native has since been heavily involved with acting across the nation, taking on lead roles in musicals and plays like Superior Donuts and Hairspray. He’s won multiple awards for his work, including two regional Broadway World awards. But it was his role in a regional production of Shrek: the Musical that shifted his focus. Staring at himself in a mirror in costume as Donkey made him realize he had a greater vision for himself.
“It was taking a toll on me having to keep playing all of these roles, playing mostly the angry young Black man,” he said, addressing roles primarily written by older white men for younger Black men. “To date, that was the last show that I did as an actor. That’s when I made the pivot to directing.”
In 2014, Iowa performing arts venue Des Moines Social Club premiered their first production of Fences with Martin at the helm. This life-changing moment of directing and producing led to the beginning of Pyramid Theatre Company (PTC), a performing arts organization based in Des Moines. The company was formed under the leadership of Martin and founding artistic director Jiréh Breon Holder to be a place where Black voices and skills were given a spotlight and an opportunity to thrive. Building PTC came from a place of passion and the desire to oversee how their own lived experiences were reflected onstage, and played authentically by people who had lived those experiences offstage.
“I was pissed off because I was tired of feeling like the only way that I was allowed to tell stories that were reflective of my experience were through the white gaze and under the oversight of white men,” Martin said. Promoting that space in their community was vital, but Martin knew it couldn’t end there.
Looking back from his current position as associate producer at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Martin can trace the way his journey has prepared him for and led him to his ultimate goal: to use theatre for social change. Martin noted that he was only the second Black male to graduate from Brown’s Directing MFA program when he graduated, and the first full-time staff member who was a person of color at Williamstown Theatre Festival when he joined as producing director. Now, at Goodman, he has an equal voice at the table at a place committed to diversity and is optimistic about the change he and other colleagues who look like him can provide.
“I’m able to work and find my way into these spaces and still be myself authentically,” Martin said. “But I also know and carry with me the knowledge that I am actively disrupting these spaces just by the means of my existence within them.”
Martin is itching to get back into freelance directing and wants his Arkansas roots to play a role. A personal aspiration of his is to spend more time with his family in the South and gain, or recover, nostalgic moments to present onstage. He’s hoping that presenting Southern stories onstage will entice more Southern audiences to attend the theatre, while also opening up conversation. He credits his upbringing for instilling the significance of sharing culture, traditions, and history of his people.
“I’m interested in being able to tell stories that are reflective of what it means to grow up in the South and to be Black in the South specifically,” he said. “It’s its own unique beast, and I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t born with the values and the things that I was brought up with growing up as a Southerner. I don’t want to lose sight of that.”
Currently he’s working on a short film called The Last Supper, written by Jonathan Norton that he’s directing for PTC. This comes after their season was canceled due to the pandemic and they decided to make it a film instead. The plan to start filming at the end of June using footage from TikTok and Zoom. As Martin puts it, it’s “a funny, of-the-moment exploration of a Black family’s life hit by COVID-19 and the unrest happening in the country at the same time.”
While work onstage is paused and the nation is out on the streets to demand police reform and end to structural racism, Martin said that “rededicating myself to work with a Black theatre company felt important. I’m also one of the original 300 signatories of the We See You movement manifesto, and I’m proud to add my voice to their work.”
Martin said he “is rooting for everybody Black” and hopes to see more of a unified involvement of the community in the arts. Whether it be a local theatre company supporting its neighborhood or an institution putting on productions, Martin wants both spaces to be comfortable for Black people to succeed without any judgment from one another. Changing the faces in the boardrooms and the ways that theatre engages with audiences remain clear objectives in Martin’s career.
“We learn our first lessons about empathy and our first lessons about morality from performative things that people do,” he said. “It’s when people can empathize and see themselves inside of other people that we can actually get to the point of changing people’s minds and challenging their thinking and their morals and their ability to see various human beings as just that, and in different light.”
Sharee Turpin is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
This article originally said that Martin was only the second Black male to graduate from Trinity/Brown’s MFA Acting and Directing program; this is true of the directing program, but there had been several Black men in the acting program before him.