When Kelly Renee Armstrong was a student at Bowie State University, she had several interests. Her first love was theater, but since Bowie did not have a drama department, she settled for being in campus plays while majoring in political science with a minor in pan-African studies.
Politics was her second love, and she thought she'd go to law school, but after graduating from Bowie, she worked for several corporations and took roles on the side with community theater companies in Annapolis, Baltimore and Catonsville.
It was after she had a daughter in 2008 that she began to rethink her career path.
"I started to ask myself what I really wanted to do to be an example to her as someone who goes after their dreams," said Armstrong, who lives in Columbia. "So I decided to go back to school and started auditioning for graduate school.
She got a scholarship to Catholic University of America and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in performance. While at the university, she starred in "Yellowman" at the Rep Stage Theatre, a professional company at Howard Community College, and was nominated for several awards.
She then landed roles with the Bay Theatre Company, Washington Stage Guild and last year was a 2013 Individual Artist Award grantee. More recently, she starred in Arena Stage's production of "Our War," which closed Nov. 9.
"I went in for a general audition [at Arena Stage] with a lot of others and did a monologue so they could see my range and decide if they could use me in a specific show," Armstrong said. "I was hopeful and was overjoyed and blessed when I got the call to be in the show. Arena is a premier theater with lots of history, so this is a big deal."
In "Our War," Armstrong and five other cast members take on the personas of characters of different ethnic, economic and social backgrounds as they share their experiences connected to the Civil War.
The monologues the characters present give widely divergent views on the war, often connecting it to contemporary issues and giving voice to various ethnic groups.
"Our War" is part of the National Civil War Project, in which theaters and universities are working to produce original works to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflict. Arena's artistic director, Molly Smith, said it was inspired by Baltimore's Center Stage's "My American Project," in which 50 playwrights focused on the question, "What is my America?"
The monologues were written by various playwrights. Half are women, three are Native American and several are African-American. Included are award-winning playwrights Lydia Diamond, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lynn Nottage, Tazewell Thompson, Robert O'Hara and Charles Randolph-Wright, all writers Armstrong admires.
"They are awesome playwrights, and they write plays I'd see myself cast in," Armstrong said. "I've only done some of their plays for auditions, so it's been fun to investigate them in a close way like this."
On opening night, Armstrong is first seen in a monologue titled "Antique," written by O'Hara. Speaking with a Southern accent, Armstrong carries on both sides of a conversation between a young woman who is having a Civil War-era photo — a family heirloom — appraised and an antiques dealer. Armstrong shifts easily from delivering the lines of the appraiser to those of the young client, with good timing and humor.
"There's definitely a bit of comedy in "Antique." It's what I love about Robert O'Hara: He's is good about putting funny next to friction," she said.
The funny comes out along with the woman's greed when she realizes the old photograph is worth a lot of money. The friction comes with the realization that she's willing to let it go for a price.
"I got a mortgage that's overdue," the woman says.
Armstrong said the character's shallowness got to her a bit, but it was not evident as she delivered her lines.
"I don't like that everything can be for sale and that people don't hold certain things as sacred, so I thought it was ridiculously intelligent the way it was written. [O'Hara] gives you your medicine with laughter," she said.
Armstrong said that on the show's opening night, celebrity and well-known guest performers read monologues during the 90-minute performance. One of Armstrong's roles, a segment called "That Boy," written by Lindsay-Abaire, was selected to be read by guest performers including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Dressed in red and gold, Ginsburg delivered the monologue about the birth of a slave baby who would grow up to fight in the Civil War.
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"I was more than happy to give it up to the notorious RBG," Armstrong said, laughing.
Director Casey Campbell, who teaches at Howard Community College and worked with Armstrong when she was a graduate student at Catholic University, said she is not surprised to see Armstrong doing so well at Arena Stage.
"Kelly is an actor with incredibly deep emotional reserve, and when she's on stage, she grabs your heart and takes you on a journey," she said.
Campbell said she was so impressed with Armstrong when she directed her in a university production that she cast her in leading roles at Rep Stage at HCC. About two years ago, Campbell hired Armstrong to teach as an adjunct professor in the community college's theater department.
"I love teaching acting and learn as much from the students as they learn from me. Plus, they keep me legit, and I don't get old around them," Armstrong said.
Up next for Armstrong is a starring role in "The Call" at the Washington-based Theatre J.
Armstrong will portray an artist who is friends with a white couple who plan to adopt an African child. The play will open in May at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast Washington.