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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2019

Hamilton’s Isaiah Johnson Takes Time To Celebrate

Wednesday, May 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

On Monday June 24, Theatre Bay Area will throw Spark Into a Flame, a benefit honoring philanthropists TonI Rembe Rock and Arthur Rock and raising money for TBA’s programs. Performing at the event will be Isaiah Johnson, who stars as George Washington in the third national tour of Hamilton, currently playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

Johnson, who will be joined at the benefit by his wife—two-time Grammy nominee Stacie Orrico—returns to San Francisco and to Hamilton after playing Washington in the first national tour of 2017. I chatted with him about retreading these boards and his performance at the benefit.

Isaiah Johnson

You’ve been involved with Hamilton for a while, playing Washington in the 2013 workshop production and then again in the first national tour. What’s it been like to return to the show this time around?

At first I had a lot of trepidation. Every cast of Hamilton is different, the culture of each cast is different, and I think the company that we had two years ago was really dynamic in its own unique way. We had a lot of fun and I was able to tap into some artistic highs during that time. I think the trepidation came because first of all I hadn’t been using my voice for months and months and months, shooting a new TV show [where] I was actually required to smoke a lot so my voice was very out of shape. And also I think anytime you have to do something twice as an artist it’s always a little unnerving because you can’t repeat yourself and I think the fear is: “Oh my God, will I find something fresh? Will it be authentic? Will I connect to the material as I did before?” What I ended up discovering after joining the rehearsal process was actually that working on camera in between the two productions was a wonderful, wonderful venture because it allowed me to enter back not necessarily depending on my voice as my strength but more so [on my] acting and I was able to settle into the scene work in a way that I never had before.

Had you spent time in the Bay Area prior to touring with Hamilton?

I was here back in 2010 at the Marin Theater Company doing Tarell Alvin McCraney’s west coast premiere of his brother/sister plays. It was a coproduction between MTC and the Magic Theatre and it was a wonderful time. That was actually the first time that I met Tarell McCraney who is the writer of this new TV show that I just did [David Makes Man on the OWN network]. That was also the first time that I met Daveed Diggs who later won a Tony for playing [Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton]. Daveed and I became friends during that production, and so whenever he would come to New York to work on Hamilton, he and I would get together, sometimes he would couch surf with me. It was a wonderful production that made the whole world of theatre so much smaller. 

I was also born in Marysville, California which is two hours north of Sacramento so my origins I guess would be northern California. I didn’t grow up here but whenever I come back it feels like home. The folks over here at the Orpheum have become family. It was so comforting to come back and see a lot of familiar faces that we had worked with two years ago. 

What can we expect from your performance at Spark Into A Flame, Theatre Bay Area’s annual benefit?

My wife, Stacy Orrico, will be performing with me, and we’ll also be performing with the Ken Husbands Trio, a local band. They are jazz and funk aficionados and they often play at Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio. We first met them two years ago when we did a big fundraiser for Hamilton Families [a San Francisco provider of services to the homeless].

We’ll have a little bit of Motown, we have a few numbers by Stephen Schwartz for the theatre aficionados, we have a couple of popular songs out now and some wonderful classic songs. We really want to celebrate love. I get up every morning and I watch the news and I read what’s going on politically and socially and we just want to encourage people: don’t forget to take time to celebrate love. Celebrate those you love, celebrate your friends, celebrate your partnerships, celebrate things in life that inspire you. 

We’re gathering [at the benefit] to raise awareness and support for our local theatres and the reason that we chose that theme is because theatre is an act of service and those of us that are involved in it do it for the love.

Spark Into a Flame is at Z Space on June 24. Buy tickets here.

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at rotimionline.com