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Photo: Roy Rochlin

Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” Talks Career-Spanning Work at Sixth & I

Rapper and actor Daveed Diggs called the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, and spaces like it, “empathy gyms” – where audiences use live performances to work on how to negotiate feelings in real time.

In Monday’s wide-ranging onstage interview by NPR’s Ari Shapiro to celebrate the synagogue’s 15th anniversary, Diggs, whose mother is Jewish and father is African-American, discussed his career, including his latest role in the play White Noise and life after Hamilton.

“Daveed’s artistic choices mirror the multifacted nature of his talents and his personal background,” said Sixth & I Executive Director Heather Moran. “Offering colorful and provocative art at the intersection of race, culture and identity, Daveed Diggs embodies the essence of what Sixth & I stands for.”

Diggs won a Tony and a Grammy in 2016 for his dual part as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical Hamilton. While Diggs made his entrance to the song “Guns and Ships” from the musical – the conversation focused on his hip hop group Clipping and more recent work, not just the founding-father themed phenomenon.

He performed “Something in the Water” from the soundtrack of Blindspotting, the 2018 movie he wrote and starred in with friend and collaborator Rafael Casal. Mutual friends introduced the two and set them up on a “rapper playdate” shortly after college and they have been creating music and art together since, Diggs said.

He dismissed the idea of dividing his career into pre- and post-Hamilton eras, instead saying his spot in the musical was actually “part of a very long progression.”

At first, working on the musical was just “doing a piece of art with my friends,” he said. “It felt very small until the whole world wanted to see it.”

“What Hamilton did for me, more than anything else, was allow me to keep working in the way that I’ve always been working but making money off of it,” Diggs said.

He had been writing raps and doing plays with his friends for as long as he could remember, “and nobody cared, and then Hamilton happened and everybody cared.”

Days after wrapping up his three year stint as Lafayette and Jefferson, Diggs said he flew straight to play a teacher in the movie Wonder. He later had roles in Black-ish, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the upcoming small screen adaptation of Snowpiecer.

“I just wanted to keep doing things that I have never done before,” Diggs said, so film and TV were the logical next steps.

But Diggs has also found his way back to the stage – although he emphasized he was looking to do another play, not musicals, as Hamilton was a unique scenario.

His latest role is Leo in Suzan-Lori Parks‘ White Noise that opened last month off-Broadway. The piece tackles how two interracial couples who are longtime friends deal with the aftermath of Leo getting attacked one night and brings up intense racial discussions.

The conversations Park’s play or Shapiro’s discussion with Diggs at Sixth & I can spark are why live performances are needed in an age of so many screens and media choices, Diggs said.

“We just are all here negotiating whatever we’re talking about in real space,” Diggs said. “Places that have committed to creating these kinds of spaces are so important because they create community.”

Diggs’ appearance is a part of a larger fundraising campaign for the synagogue’s 15th anniversary celebration this year. for more on his work, visit www.daveeddiggs.com.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org

Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton Lives Up to the Hype at the Kennedy Center

The last time the legacy of Alexander Hamilton crossed my mind was during my IB History of the America class, when I was given the task of analyzing one of the many papers Hamilton authored and its lingering effects on the structure of our country. I am admittedly a sucker for hype and excitement, and yet the impact of the wildly popular musical dealing with something that was also a subject of intense history class study seemed to evade me since its debut in 2015.

I wasn’t avoiding it – it just never seemed to pique my interest enough for me to look into it further. My aforementioned, decidedly unsexy association of the Founding Father with the arduous IB exam season as a junior in high school certainly did not help either.

So, I went to Hamilton at the Kennedy Center last night totally blind. I was even unaware that the composition of the music was different than a traditional Broadway play, incorporating elements of hip-hop, pop and even brilliantly constructed rap battles into its score, until my (extremely excited) mother mentioned it to me right before the show began. 

Whether it be to catch your favorite band live or take in the DC debut of an 11-time Tony Award-winning play, there is something remarkable, maybe even unforgettable about soaking up art that you’re excited about. And yet, there is something equally memorable about attending a performance with zero expectations and an open heart, as I did for this production.

And I was completely and utterly blown away. Every single member of the cast brought an exceptional level of talent to the show, and I have never seen actors so invested in their individual characters. I felt Hamilton’s (Austin Scott) hunger for power mature into a fiery desire to leave this new nation better than he found it in its fledgling years. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Julia K. Harriman) grew from a lovestruck lady of wealth to the cornerstone of her family’s name, holding them up with strength and grace even in the absence of her beloved husband and son.

The serious tones of the production were perfectly offset by the humor of Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce), especially when he appears onstage in Act II with “What’d I Miss,” complete with a sparkling grin and hilariously cheesy dance moves. And who can forget King George, who balances providing historical context with a large dose of comic relief perfectly?

I’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who wasn’t brought to tears by “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” at the end of the show. The song served as a reminder that while on the surface the show may be about someone often considered a smaller player in the larger story of the founding of America, it’s truly so much more than that. It’s a story of ambition, love, loss and redemption – things all Americans face, in the 1700s and today, Founding Father or not.

Perhaps the best part of this particular production is something more unexpected, though. As parts of the story itself take place just a short drive from the Kennedy Center, there was a special kind of magic in seeing the play in our nation’s capital. Attendees have the privilege of being transported to the time when the tough conversations that led to the formation of America took place while sitting in the heart of what resulted in Hamilton and company’s efforts. Witnessing this unfold before your eyes through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s expertly crafted story at the Kennedy Center is an experience unlike any other.

For those familiar with the phenomenon of Hamilton, this particular cast and production will only add to the spectacular legacy the show has built for itself over the past several years. And for those like me going into the show with little to no knowledge of the show, prepare to carve out a little (let’s be real, a lot) of room in your heart for the play. It is certainly something that will stay with you forever – and erase any history exam-related memories you may have on the subject matter.

Hamilton runs now through Sunday, September 16. Go here for more information about the recently announced ticket lottery.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

https://www.roundhousetheatre.org/

Euan Morton Headlines Round House Theatre’s Broadway in Bethesda Gala

Broadway vet Euan Morton has played a handful of attention-grabbing roles in the theater, beginning with his Tony-nominated performance as the iconic Boy George in Taboo in 2003, and currently donning the cape and crown each night as King George in the mega-smash Hamilton. In between, he played the namesake character in Hedwing of Angry Inch in the touring production of John Cameron Mitchell’s landmark musical.

On Saturday, May 12, Morton will be the headline performer at Round House Theatre’s Broadway in Bethesda Gala 2018. The silver-piped singer promises to perform tunes from each of the three musicals above.

“I’ll be singing a lot of the stuff that people know and love and I’ll be doing some stuff that I’ve never done before, which always makes me nervous,” Morton says. “I’m doing more musical theater because it’s the world I’ve been involved in a lot more recently and I love it.”

One of the new numbers he’ll be doing is “Another Hundred People” from Company, a song he’s always enjoyed but has never performed live.

“It’s sometimes difficult when you can do anything because you don’t want to make the evening a bunch of disconnected music, but I’ve done a lot of different stuff, so I’m trying to tie it together and make it a cohesive evening,” he says. “I want to do songs I’m going to walk away feeling good about and that I think an audience will enjoy.”

Morton has been friends with Round House’s executive director Ed Zakreski for many years, and when asked to take part in the gala, he was more than happy to take a night off from Hamilton to help the theater raise some money.

“It’s important for me to support theater in the Northern Virginia and DC region because I have a home there and I’ve performed in a number of theaters in the area,” Morton says. “For me, it’s been as much a part of my theater life as New York has or London has, and I feel it’s important for me to give back to this community.”

The area’s proximity to New York combined with the patrons and audience of savvy theatergoers has made the DMV theater community one of the best in the country, and he considers it an artistic enclave.

When his nights aren’t tied up on the Broadway stage, Morton and his family—which includes his wife (producer Lee Armitage) and son (Iain Armitage, who plays the title character in CBS’s hit comedy Young Sheldon), enjoy visiting the myriad theaters in the region.

“It’s a spiritual place for my family and we are all involved in this great theater community,” Morton says.

He’s been playing King George in Hamilton since July 2017, and has really been blown away by the fandom of the show and how the musical continues to be such a dominating force on Broadway.

“I do feel that the actor playing the king is less relevant than the king himself, and the fans are coming to see the character, not me,” he says. “I love getting to stand on stage and say things like, ‘na, na, na, na, na.’ This show has shown the importance of politics in theater and has been like a supernova with fans all over the world. It’s been really nice to be a part of this.”

When considering new roles, Morton says he looks for things that are challenging and ones he’ll enjoy repeatedly without getting bored. He considers himself very lucky to have played the roles he has.

“It’s been continually exciting and challenging as everything I’ve done has been,” he says. “There’s not a moment where I thought, ‘Can I do this anymore?’ because every time I have that feeling, something new comes along and reminds me of why I’m doing it and how much it means to me and other people.”

The night will also include a silent auction and a performance from Catherine Backus, a finalist at the 2018 Bernard/Ebb Awards who was the 2017 General Category winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest.

For information about the gala, visit the Round House Theatre website here.

Round House Theatre: 4545 East West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; 240-644-1100; www.roundhousetheatre.org