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FREE TO ROAM: Actor thrives onstage and behind the scenes

Many elements came together to make Teisha Bankston into the theater artist she is today. The frequent star of productions at the Unicorn Theatre and Kansas City Actors Theatre recalls an important early improvisation class with Valerie Mackey at Theatre for Young America, where she made friends with like-minded youngsters and began overcoming her natural shyness. In a sixth-grade Greek mythology class at Our Lady of the Angels school, her teacher permitted her to write a play, through which she gained her first experience staging and acting in her own work.

Teisha played the mother in the Unicorn Theatre’s 2020 production of American Son, shown here with Brian Paulette and Bob Linebarger.

Teisha’s parents were supportive of her theater ambitions from the get-go, often helping her “run lines” for some of her more challenging roles. Her paternal grandmother, Mildred, had created an arts-friendly atmosphere for the family, and her father, Marlon, became a gifted guitarist who tours the United States. She loved hanging out backstage and (occasionally) appearing onstage with dad, as singer or backup percussionist.

“I liked the environment,” of stage life, she said, adding however that when it came to “stepping out into the center of the spotlight, it was a different matter.” Still, pursuing theater classes “helped me grow as a person, socially and also as an artist,” she said. “From that moment on, I never stopped.”

Completing her training at UMKC with a bachelor of arts degree in theater and a minor in Spanish, Teisha worked a gamut of jobs, from artistic to box office: initially at the Coterie Theatre, where she made her professional debut in an adaptation of John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

Currently Teisha is an administrative assistant for The University of Kansas Health System, where she helps keep orthopedic/trauma medical-surgical care units running smoothly. Meanwhile she has grown into one of the region’s most gifted actors, known for her versatility and high professional standards.

Actors Theatre’s production of Little Women featured a top-flight cast: Coleman Crenshaw, Christina Schafer (kneeling), Karla Fennick, Teisha Bankston, Hillary Clemens, Carla Noack, Phil Fiorini, Chioma Anyanwu (kneeling), and Jerry Mañan. / Photo by Brian Paulette


“The stage is my home,” she said. “When I’m not on the stage for a while, a piece of me is missing: It is definitely my spot.” She has embraced a variety of activities, including film, radio theater, talk shows, commercials, teaching, and modeling, but she loves “the grit and the ‘present-momentness’ of live theater,” she said.

“What happens in that moment is what lends truth and connection and authenticity to the experience. … For someone who is an introvert, there is something about getting out there on stage: it all starts to click. And part of it is the relationships (a) with your fellow actors, and (b) perhaps even more importantly, with your audience. …  They’re listening, they’re a ‘scene partner.’ And when you’re having a good night, you can feel the energy of that audience. It’s like an ‘aliveness.’ ”

Teisha Bankston appeared in the Unicorn Theatre’s Eclipsed in 2017; from left are Njeri Mungai, Teisha, Dianne Yvette, and Ashley Kennedy. / Photo by Manon Halliburton 

Recently, Teisha’s career has taken on a new dimension: that of leadership, especially at Kansas City Actors Theatre. “I’ve fallen in love with this aspect of theater,” she said, “which I never thought I would ever aspire to, or that it would be the place for me.” Teisha is currently a board member and co-artistic chair at Actors Theatre, and she plays an active part in the company’s committee for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“The needle is moving in an important way, as it should be,” she said of recent changes in American theater. “Kansas City theater is a special place. … There is so much incredibly diverse talent here, and I think it’s about time that our views of theater are beginning to evolve.” Not many theaters in Kansas City “operate the way that KCAT does, as far as having an artistic core company … and everyone having a voice around the table. Which is so beautiful.”

Teisha has also begun directing, at companies such as Kansas City Public Theatre, where she finds satisfaction in “helping a playwright bring a story to life, and helping actors bring the best versions of themselves to their roles.” Only when you direct, she said, do you realize “how nerve-racking it is. Because you’ve seen an entire cast through something, and then you hand it off. …There’s an amount of trust you have in your cast.”

In March 2023, the Unicorn presented Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Marys Seacole, with Cecilia Ananya, Teisha Bankston, and Jackie Price.

The range of Teisha’s own stage roles is remarkable. In the Unicorn Theatre’s production of Danai Gurira’s harrowing Eclipsed, she experienced total immersion in a role as the captive wife of a warlord. “That role sticks to my bones still, because I had to put it on so tightly,” she said. “I had to morph myself completely into it each night.”

In the title role of the Unicorn’s Marys Seacole she was called upon to leap back and forth through dizzying warps of time and place. “Her narrative was never in the order in which it happened,” she said of the character, with a laugh.

In American Son, she played a Black mother trying to pry information about her jailed 18-year-old son from an uncooperative police officer, with little help from her estranged white husband. Earlier in her career she appeared in Ron Megee’s Children of the Damned Corn, a refreshing and (at that time) relatively rare excursion into comedy for Teisha. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but one of the most fun times I’ve ever had onstage. That play was a game-changer for me, because it opened up opportunities for me to be seen in different ways onstage.”

Teisha Bankston played Beth in Actors Theatre’s production of Little Women, which also featured Hillary Clemens as Jo. / Photo by Brian Paulette

More recently she played Beth March, with uncommon tenderness, in Actors Theatre’s production of Kate Hamill’s Little Women.

“I never realized how entrenched in that story I would become,” she said. “I knew Little Women as a kid, but … it was never a part of my growing-up narrative, as it was for so many people. But I fell so much in love with Beth, and with the March family, that I realized how universal that story is.”

Teisha loves Kansas City, and it turns out that the feeling is mutual. “I’ve been here my entire life, born and raised. I can’t even imagine living anywhere else.” She hopes that through leadership positions, and by appearing in roles such as Beth, she can find ways to reach out to young people and others who are eager to see representation onstage. “Little kids might come to that show and see it and say, Wow look, Little Women is for me, too!”

—By Paul Horsley

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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