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From church choir to studying opera at MSU, Southfield native on his path to Hamilton stardom

jonathan kirkland
Bella Isaacs
Michigan Radio

If you aren’t one of the countless people who’ve seen, listened to, and obsessed over Hamilton, you've probably at least heard of it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking biography-turned-musical has enamored countless audiences in the nearly four years since it began playing off-Broadway. In September 2016, the show opened in Chicago, where it has run eight shows every week.

This interview was originally broadcast on January 7, 2019.

Michigan native Jonathan Kirkland is one of the founding members of Hamilton’s Chicago cast. He retired last September after playing George Washington for two years.

Kirkland grew up in Southfield and attended Michigan State University, where he studied voice with a focus on opera and classical music.

But it wasn’t until he was a graduate student at the University of Houston that Kirkland first dipped his toe into musical theater. He played Prince Charming in an original production of Cinderella adapted by the African American Shakespeare festival.

“It took me to a different level that I didn’t know existed for me,” Kirkland said.  

In 2013, Kirkland made the decision with his wife Jocelyn to move to New York City and pursue a career on Broadway. Three years later, he started rehearsals for Hamilton.

Jonathan Kirkland playing George Washington in the Chicago production of Hamilton.
Credit Jonathan Kirkland / Instagram
Jonathan Kirkland played George Washington in the Chicago production of Hamilton's original cast.

Hamilton’s cast features actors of color who play America’s Founding Fathers and other white historical figures. Kirkland says that playing George Washington was marked by an "intriguing duality" for him. While it was an honor to play the father of the country, Kirkland says he had to grapple with the fact that Washington never had the courage to end slavery when he knew it was wrong.

This duality sparked an internal debate for Kirkland, but he says there is one thought always reinforced the conviction that this role was for him. 

“If there were any way to come full circle to where America should be, it would be a man of color playing a slave owner, but playing it my way, doing it with my interpretation as a black actor," he said. 

One thing that Kirkland admires about Hamilton is its ability to bring people together in their shared love for the show. He was moved by the enthusiasm and admiration expressed by audience members, everyone from young African-American boys to elderly Jewish women.

“How did Lin write a show that’s palatable for everyone in a nation that can’t really agree on much?”

Listen to Stateside’s extended conversation with Jonathan Kirkland to hear more about his experiences as one of Hamilton’s original Chicago cast members, and how his roots in Michigan helped shape his career. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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