101 Stories: Deondra Kamau Means

By The Children's Theatre

Celebrate TCT’s 101st season as it comes to a close as we applaud and appreciate those who contributed to the organization’s magic throughout our century-long journey.  During 10 weeks of recognition, we honor individuals who have been instrumental in the success of TCT, and who have not only helped TCT grow in mission, but also thrive, thanks to their passion.  It is these people and their moments in our history that shaped TCT to become what it is today. We encourage you to consider giving a gift in their honor to ensure the sustainability of TCT’s mission for the next 100+ years. 

A 26-year veteran of The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, Deondra Kamau Means is TCT’s Resident Playwright.

Deondra was born and raised in Cincinnati and discovered his love for the arts through music at church and at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. There, he got involved with all aspects of the arts – technical theatre, piano, choir, drama and musical theatre. After graduating from Webster University in St. Louis, he completed an internship where he served in many aspects of the work, acting tour roles, office support, and fundraising at the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre. This experience gave him a desire to start his own theater company, Kuumba People of Color Theatre Ensemble. Kuumba means creativity in Swahili. Their first production was Black Nativity by Langston Hughes.  Black Nativity is a retelling of the classic Nativity story with an entirely black cast. Traditional Christmas carols are sung in gospel style, with a few songs created specifically for the show.

In 1994-95, Deondra was continuing to work full time, expanding his theatre experiences and activities and bringing black history stories to life.  He enrolled at Xavier University as a music education major.  While working at The Diner located downtown, Deondra learned that his long-time mentor, former teacher, and friend, Jack Louiso, took the helm of The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati. Deondra shared that he had a bit of an ego at the time and he went to audition for Jack at TCT but never got a callback.  When he didn’t get a callback, he followed up and Jack shared that they decided to go in a different way. Deondra was shocked, and then inspired, so he followed up with his local mentors and acting coach. 

Less than a year after that, he was able to read for the new TCT series called The Young Adult Series (YAS) and secured the role of Crooks in TCT’s Of Mice and Men.  His involvement with TCT grew from acting roles to educational consultancies over the years, while continuing to manage other roles and work to help sustain his family.  

Deondra was interested in arts integration and arts expression, helping to develop social skills and self-esteem in children. TCT’s set designer’s wife was Deondra’s music teacher. She witnessed him play the role of Templeton the Rat three times over the years. She started to encourage him to reach beyond acting into writing scripts as well.

With Deondra’s help, TCT expanded its focus into curricular-based literature for young adults where historical stories came to life in workshops like “From the Page to the Stage.”  TCT’s WorkShop division focused on turning novels into plays and changed the focus of the writing to be more presentational.  Literature specific to young audiences featuring classics could resonate with young audiences.  This is where Deondra began to develop his gift and talent as a playwright.

Over the years Deondra sought out experiences from many different theatres, K-12 schools, universities and organizations, including the Freedom Center. Deondra feels God gave him wonderful gifts and with these gifts, he is creating life experiences, memorable moments, developing relationships to help children – especially those in underserved communities – to overcome challenges and become all they are destined to be. As teacher, mentor and performer he wants to inspire children as they grow, discover, and develop.

Deondra says what he loves most about working at TCT are the daring aspects to push the envelope with offerings that challenge audiences to think outside the box. He also really appreciates the opportunity to work with and learn from TCT’s Producing Artistic Director, Roderick Justice. 

Can you share a moment or turning point in your work with TCT that enhanced or changed the program?

Mr. Means says: “In the beginning, TCT’s Education department was predominately performance based. Outside of TCT, I had been participating in the “new” field of arts integration.  The Arts Integration practice motivated me to create interactive curricular-based activities and creative workshops that focused on social skills. The first being Self-Esteem Through Self- Expression. I was teaching in the Cincinnati Public, Archdiocese, and Charter School systems for about 10 years, as well as performing with TCT before eventually coming on board as an Education Associate. Now, 26 seasons later, I am TCT’s Resident Playwright.”

Was there a particular situation where you witnessed the TCT mission specifically enhance growth and development of children’s imagination or creativity?

Mr. Means says: “There are numerous accounts of witnessing the power of arts exposure to students from the diverse population that we serve.  A former TCT student and performer turned marketing executive posted something online and I couldn’t help but reflect back on his days as a shy kid with stars in his eyes on stage. As I watched his pitch about his business, I knew that his time with us at TCT was a part of his development as a contributing adult in our community and the world at large.”

“The numerous Broadway, national tour, and community actors that have come through TCT is just a small example of what we were able to help cultivate. But the most moving stories for me are the current and former Education Department students that I see at the library or at the grocery store, a church service, restaurants, and bars. These TCT alumni and patrons remember accounts of being changed through their experience at TCT.”

What else would you like to share about your time at TCT?

Mr. Means says: “Theatre changed my life. Being a part of the nation’s oldest professional theatre for young audiences is an honor. The 26 years that I have been around TCT has been extremely delightful and also hard at times. I have seen people come and go and I have seen people stay and leave. Those statements mean two totally different things. All in all, my growth as a human being, as an artist, as a friend and as a partner has been enriched with the relationships we develop on staff at TCT. We have gone through birth, marriage, divorce and more. The beginnings and ends of things. Following through on a task. Setting goals. Planning. Taking risks. Coming together as a team. That says a lot.”

“I seem to always be asking myself, what will we tackle next? What will we accomplish next? What will we start now? The joy of going beyond what you thought was possible because you were challenged to do so. The healthy challenge that is placed before you from a staff that values and respects the talents of the individuals who make up the team. I always like to use the analogy of the vehicle. If TCT was a vehicle or mode of transportation what would it be and what part of the vehicle do you represent?”

Would you honor Deondra Kamau Means with a gift to recognize the impact made on TCT?