Actor Darnell Abraham’s new role as George Washington in the San Francisco run of Hamilton - described as “America then told by America now" - makes it a little harder for him to go unnoticed.
“One of the adjustments for me has been going out in public,” said Abraham after a performance Sunday at the Orpheum Theater. “Folks will come up and ask, ‘Are you Washington in Hamilton?’”
He stepped into the new role last month and Abraham said he’s continually learning about the nation’s first president.
“My goal with Washington is to strip away the icon, and really embody the humanity, so that we see a man who, yes, was confident, but yet we also see a man who had fears,” Abraham said. “When ‘Right Hand Man’ comes out, Washington is just really laying it out, saying, ‘You know, we are out-gunned, out-manned, I need help.’” Abraham said, quoting “Right Hand Man.” It’s the song that introduces George Washington.
“Hamilton” the musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies, the United State’s first treasury secretary, and one of the nation’s founding fathers. During the American Revolution, Hamilton served on George Washington’s military staff. Still, the Virginian war hero looms large throughout the performance.
“He is the founding father, and he is our nation's first president,” explained Abraham about Washington. “I think in the context of this show, I would say he's the adult in the room. He becomes Hamilton's father figure.”
The show isn’t just a retelling of history: it considers and reckons with some of the nation’s messier issues, like war, slavery and political compromise.
“I remember sitting in a studio back in New York City when I was learning the role, and in the song, ‘History Has Its Eyes On You,’ I remember being moved to tears, to the point where I actually had to stop working and just let it happen,” Abraham recalled. “There's a line in there that says, ‘who lives, who dies, who tells your story, you have no control.’ Here I am, fast forward, 2019. A black man telling a story about an America then,” Abraham said. “I just remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion, gratitude, I would even dare say a sense of grief.
“I am a descendant of enslaved Africans here in America, but in the midst of all of that, I feel empowered because here, at this time in our nation's history, I have an opportunity to be a voice for those who were once voiceless,” he added.
Unlike other historical retellings, "Hamilton" is a show about the mostly white men who helped establish the U.S., but told in rap, R&B, and hip hop music by people of color. Abraham said he learned some of the show’s dance styles growing up in Bakersfield.
“Both of my sisters are dancers and so one would think of some new dance routine, and they needed another body,” Abraham said, laughing. “So my sisters, they would pull me in, and I would learn very simple street dance steps, and then I also remember stepping, and we see elements of that in the show.”
Despite the twist on musical theater, Darnell Abraham’s mom, La Wain Powell, said it’s a great opportunity to see history retold.
“It allows for our children, my grandchildren, they’re taught this in school, but we’re going to take them to see the play and have it performed by people who look like them, which is going to catch their attention,” said Powell.
She and her husband, Tyrone Powell, have already seen the show in San Francisco, but not with their son as George Washington. When they attended, Abraham was acting in the role of Aaron Burr, another main character and Hamilton’s rival throughout the show.
Powell said she’s heard from many friends, congratulating her on Abraham’s success: “I have one friend that, when he was a little boy, said, ‘He’s going to be president.’ So, she texted me and she said, ‘I told you he was going to be president!’”
Powell added that what also makes this show special is that she has always told her children to learn from history, because, she said, it always comes back around.
To prepare for the show, Abraham constantly immerses himself in history, said Lily Ling, the music director and conductor for the San Francisco Company of Hamilton.
“When you go into his room, he’s watching documentaries on George washington, he’s watching documentaries on King George, just so he can get a deeper understanding for all these characters,” said Ling.
When Abraham was in school, he said there wasn’t a hometown musical-theater role model for him to emulate.
“I had my dreams and my ambitions,” he said. “I remember watching Denzel Washington movies and being inspired by him, I remember watching Sidney Poitier. So, these were men who looked like me.”
Abraham does realize, however, that he’s a role model for others now. Just last week, he flew back to Bakersfield to see his old school, former teachers, and current students at Dr. Juliet Thorner Elementary School. The school has a performing arts magnet program that Abraham said exposed him to theater when he was a student there.
“My grandmother would always say, 'Pay it forward,' and so it was a really unique and wonderful opportunity to do just that,” said Abraham. “To say thank you, but also to now go in, to sit down with the kids. You know, talk about what makes them excited.”
He said “Hamilton” feels like a celebration because he’s in his home state, near family, and he’s had the chance to say thank you. He’s focusing on the show in front of him, and just feeling, as one song in the musical goes, lucky to be alive right now.
Darnell Abraham will be performing as George Washington in “Hamilton” at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through January of 2020.