BY JEREMY SHERE
Growing up in Thomson, Georgia, in the 1960s, Kenneth L. Roberson had dreams of dancing on Broadway. But finding little opportunity to pursue his artistic dreams in his small, segregated town, and encouraged by his parents and by the African-American community to make a difference in the fight for civil rights, Roberson majored in journalism at the University of Georgia. After graduating in the late 1970s, he began working at the Athens Banner-Herald in Athens, Georgia.
“I liked working at the paper, but I knew in my heart that I was not following my true calling,” says Roberson, now 60 and a professor of practice in musical theater in the Department of Theatre, Drama & Contemporary Dance at Indiana University.
Inspired by his friend Kate Pierson, whose fledgling band, the B-52s, regularly drove 1,000 miles from Athens to New York City to audition and play gigs, Roberson enrolled in an Alvin Ailey dance workshop in Atlanta and was encouraged to audition for a scholarship with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Manhattan. He was awarded the scholarship and promptly decamped for the Big Apple.
For the next several years, Roberson danced on and off Broadway, making a living without quite achieving the level of stardom to which he aspired. But soon choreography emerged as an alternate path.
Roberson’s big break came when he was chosen as lead choreographer for Avenue Q, an off-Broadway musical spoof of Sesame Street featuring human and puppet actors. The surprising hit show graduated to Broadway in 2003 and won Tony Awards in 2004 for best musical, best score, and best book, and established Roberson as a major, sought-after talent.
“Winning a Tony was a dream come true,” Roberson says. “I felt like I was being propelled up to the stage — a stage (at Radio City Music Hall) where I’d performed as a dancer.”
In 2014, after more than two decades in New York City, Roberson was ready to try something new. He accepted a position at IU, where for the past year he has done his best to help students follow their own artistic dreams.
“My best advice for aspiring artists is to just do it, to practice your art any way you can, however and wherever you can,” he says. “It may sound cliché, but the best thing young people can do is follow their gut.”