Presented by Equity Bank
He’s baaack. Romeo Montague, a.k.a. Evan Cleaver, that is. And hearts are aflutter already.
“It’s really exciting to be able to help bring the story of Romeo and Juliet to my hometown and perform in front of friends and family,” says Cleaver. He makes a rather dashing Romeo in the 30th Anniversary season of The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival (HASF), after a two-year absence due to the pandemic. Romeo and Juliet runs from June 14 through July 3.
Says Cleaver, “When we did the fundraising gala, I was running through the crowd right before the famous balcony scene. One of the ladies in the audience leaned over and said, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.’” Just a general question or literary pick-up line?
As William Shakespeare’s star-crossed lover, Kansas City’s own Evan Cleaver returns in a role with a star-studded past, from Leonardo di Caprio (with Claire Danes) to Orlando Bloom (with Condola Rashad), Leonard Whiting (with Olivia Hussey), and back to Gone With the Wind’s Lesley Howard (with Norma Shearer). No pressure there.
At Dillard University in New Orleans, Cleaver was the first student on a basketball scholarship to graduate with a degree in acting. When Hurricane Katrina hit, he went west to get his MFA from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In 2017, he appeared as Ted in Christmas Next Door, a Hallmark Christmas movie. He’s also had roles on The Walking Dead and Common Law. Where will we see him next?
You come from a well-known, very public Kansas City family. What were the influences in your upbringing that led you to the performing arts?
My grandmother, Betty Lu Donaldson, was a theater major at the University of Kansas. She went on to teach drama at Lincoln High School here in Kansas City. Love of the arts flowed from her to my mother, Dianne Cleaver. She’s seen all of the AFI Top 100 movies of all time except Goodfellas because she says it looks too violent. They introduced me to Sidney Poitier films. He made me want to be an actor—so suave, classy, and with a great sense of humor. Even though my father, Emanuel Cleaver II, watches the Nature Channel and C-level monster movies, he still cultivated and encouraged my love of the arts. The great part about HASF is that it’s free, so everyone has access.
How do you plan to make the 400-year-old tale of Shakespeare’s Romeo fresh and modern for today’s audiences? In your portrayal of Romeo are you going more classic and Laurence Olivier or more up-tempo and Bridgerton?
You posed a clairvoyant question here. Our director, Sidonie Garrett, wants to bring a Bridgerton feel to this production. She’s a visionary and that style will bring something new and exciting to Romeo and Juliet. We also have an amazing cast and crew. Jessica Andrews will be a wonderful Juliet and there was a moment in the callback where I felt a chemistry click. That’s the key. Collaborating with HASF veterans like Mike Rapport, Jacques Roy, and Sam Cordes, as well as some newcomers, we’ll discover our own way to tell this classic tale.
Are you interested in more of a theater career, or film, or however your acting career develops? Any role on your wish list?
As a proud graduate of Dillard University where I got my BA in theater and CalArts where I got my MFA in acting, theater is where my training is. Still, film and TV would support my theater habit. Mara Brock Akil is on my vision board. She’s another KC product. That woman is a phenomenal writer and director, and I dream of being a series regular on one of her sitcoms. Morgan Cooper and Nathan Louis Jackson are also KC creatives I’d love to work with. So, if I could craft my career, it would be a movie with Morgan Cooper followed by a Mara Brock Akil TV show, then a Nathan Louis Jackson play on Broadway.
How has living in Kansas City helped form and nurture your career?
I grew up in St. James right over on Paseo where my dad was pastor and now my brother. That community taught me faith, hope, and love for humanity. Those are key ingredients for a successful career as an actor. Also, the KC metro area is huge on basketball. I played for Coach Fritz at Center High School. He taught me the importance of perseverance, teamwork, and how to take direction, which really prepared me for this profession.
Not to mention Kansas City culture is underrated. From the Nelson to Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art to amazing theaters like KCRep, Unicorn, and Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. There’s so much inspiration for artists here. KC FilmFest International gave my short film, Kody Switch, its world premiere. Also, Hallmark is a KC-based company, and it was the Hallmark Channel that helped raise my profile by casting me in one of their Christmas movies.