There are moments when the full power of a musical is amplified and lifted beyond its prior potential by the events occurring outside of the theater walls. I witnessed such a moment this past summer during a stellar production of Ragtime when hatred and violence against our black brothers and sisters was tensely on display in Charlottesville and inside of the Ogunquit Playhouse the character of Coalhouse Walker was, after enduring physical attacks and injustice, imploring us to “Make them hear you”. There was no need to suspend disbelief, the urgency for justice was real.
I recently spoke to the actor, Darnell Abraham who so beautifully portrayed Walker in that production. He has been on tour with the moving musical The Color Purple and is currently preparing to play Martin Luther King, Jr. in the show, I Dream. We spoke about the therapeutic power of theater, the sad resonance of Ragtime, and how Abraham’s faith is aligning with his upcoming role as MLK, Jr.
How did you first get involved in the theater?
I first started singing in church. Then my parents enrolled me in a performing arts elementary school. I was also actively involved in community theatre. Even at a young age, I knew I wanted to pursue a performance career in the arts. I have always felt at home on a stage.
Has acting been therapeutic for you in any way?
Acting has definitely been therapeutic because it helps me discover things about other people, my own self, and the world around me. It is an exercise that requires empathy, honesty, and vulnerability. It has been a wonderful resource and outlet for me.
This past summer you played Coalhouse in the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Ragtime. This show, among many things, is about racism, violence, and injustice, and it happened to be running during the events in Charlottesville. How did that impact the company’s experience of putting on the show?
The tragic events that unfolded in Charlottesville are a reminder that Ragtime isn’t about an America from the early 1900’s, it’s about an America that is happening now. I am no stranger to being the recipient of discrimination or acts of hatred. However, what happened in Charlottesville deepened my resolve to be a voice for justice, for all. I believe I shared a special connection with my audiences because it seemed as though we were all listening intently with raw and tender hearts.
With all that’s happening around our country right now, I would love to see a Broadway Ragtime revival. Or perhaps a televised concert version of the show in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
How do you fully experience the journey of the character you are playing, such as Coalhouse Walker, but protect yourself from bringing home the emotions at the end of the night?
As an actor, I control the character and never allow the character to control me ever. I am also fortunate to go home to an amazing wife who helps me process my emotions and thoughts. This allows me to ‘leave it all on stage’ and fully embrace the character’s journey without it having an adverse effect on me.
How has it been performing as Adam in the national tour of The Color Purple? Do you find that the audiences in different cities have different personalities/responses?
I love playing the role of Adam in The Color Purple! Although the show centers around the three leading ladies (Celie, Shug, and Sofia), I have enjoyed partnering with the rest of the company in sharing this story about brokenness, community, faith, love, resilience, sacrifice, strength, progression, and resolution. Sometimes our audiences are vocally expressive and other times they are quiet. But regardless of their expression, they are always listening and that is most important to me because there’s a lot being said. We have been very fortunate to perform for generous and enthusiastic audiences and we love them!
The Color Purple is a show that focuses on faith. What role has faith played in your life? How does faith impact your work and your emotional health?
I grew up in church and so my faith in God formed at an early age. Faith is the bedrock of hope. That hope has carried me through some very, very tough times in my life – on one account, it even saved my life. Faith is what keeps me going in life, it gives me purpose. It also keeps me centered and grounded – it neutralizes the negativity and white noise in this world. Ultimately, my faith inspires me to be a peacemaker and use my gifts and talents to enrich the lives of other people.
What does it mean to you to be portraying Martin Luther King, Jr. in the upcoming show I Dream?
It means a great deal. Every once in a while an opportunity will come along that is akin to a divine appointment. That’s what playing the role of Martin Luther King Jr. is for me. It is a tremendous honor to portray the life and work of a man that I admire; a man that has done extraordinary work for black people in this country and around the world. In addition, when I was a young boy, my grandmother introduced me to the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr. and so doing this show while I am still in the midst of grieving her recent death brings me joy and comfort because I know she’ll be watching from heaven as I perform in the role.
I received a phone call from the show’s writer, Douglas Tappin, late one night. He explained to me that they were holding auditions for the role of MLK, Jr. and that I came highly recommended. The only catch was that they were holding auditions the very next day! I agreed to meet with them and spent a couple hours that night getting acquainted with the audition materials and reading through the script. I Dream depicts the final 36 hours of Dr. King’s life and arrives as the world prepares to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of his assassination.
I look forward to pouring myself into this role as it aligns with my own faith, hopes, and dreams. This time however I won’t be exhorting, Make Them Hear You instead I’ll be declaring, I Dream.
I Dream is playing at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, MI on MLK Day, January 15th at 7:30 pm. You can find out more about the show, the creative team, performances and more at the I Dream website. Click on The Color Purple website to find out when the show will be coming to a city near you. And to read more about Darnell Abraham, visit http://www.darnellabraham.com/