December 17, 2020

Alumnus Darnell Abraham (MM ’13) on MSM, fame, and the importance of humility.

Rising talent Darnell Abraham (MM ’13) speaks about what he learned from his years at MSM, his big break playing Washington in Hamilton, and what’s most important to him today.

 

Written by Savannah Harris

Determined and energized with a laser-sharp focus, Darnell Abraham has a commanding presence. He seems an obvious choice for the role of George Washington in the “And Peggy Tour” of Hamilton, with his powerhouse vocal ability and natural, effortless leadership style. Alongside his abundant talent, his character and integrity clearly make their mark.

Darnell graduated from Manhattan School of Music in 2013, with a Master’s in Classical Voice. He split his time at MSM between Opera Theatre and American Musical Theatre Ensemble founded by Carolyn Marlow. A recent transplant at the time, Darnell found a home base at the School. Of his experience he said:

“MSM created this environment that was both competitive, but also nurturing, and that’s hard to come by. When there’s a competitive environment, it’s easy for it to become cutthroat and very sterile and disconnected, but I didn’t get that at MSM. Instead I found community. I found a place where people– where professors were keenly interested in my development as an artist, and my growth as a person.”

He credits MSM with providing him the space to develop key professional skills: learning to navigate the teaching-styles of various directors and composers, figuring out how to market oneself in an ever-changing landscape, and developing a strong foundation of technique on which he’s been reliant in his role as Washington.

Landing the role of Washington in Hamilton

After playing Adam in The Color Purple Revival Tour, Darnell’s agent called with a thrilling offer: to join the company that would bring Hamilton to Puerto Rico with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Several weeks of rehearsals later, the crew and cast flew down to perform closely after Hurricane María, as a fundraising effort to support the arts community of Puerto Rico. Darnell made his debut as Washington opposite Lin-Manuel, officially landing his “dream role,” which he took over full time in August 2019.

Stationed at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, Darnell stepped fully into his new life and role. Having worked for years to develop the skills necessary to meet the demands of an 8-shows-per-week gig, he was ready to take on both the physical and emotional challenges of portraying this country’s first President.

“There’s a weight, there’s a sense of responsibility– a stewardship. There’s also legacy that’s wrapped up into it, because for me to step into the role as a Black man, portraying the role of a Founding Father who also happened to be a slave owner– that’s pretty significant,” said Darnell.

It’s Washington’s many imperfections as a key historical figure that make way for true storytelling, one of, “uncommon justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation,” he said. For Darnell, choosing a role is a highly intentional process, one that’s centered around the role’s ability to uplift, to heal, to bring us back into our humanity– and this extends beyond the stage.

Since March, the world of performance has experienced an indefinite stall, one that has sent artists from all fields into a complicated waiting game. The And Peggy cast has stayed connected throughout this time, offering love and support to each other while dispersing around the country, some back to New York, some to LA, some back at home.

Darnell and his wife Wanda have relocated to southern California, where they remain focused on self-care, community support, and the craft he has spent years dedicated to. In a collaboration with Azusa Pacific University and West Productions, Darnell released a Christmas project– the performance of five pieces of Christmas repertoire, beautifully shot– in early December. As a true man of faith, Darnell’s purpose was to bring forth a project that feels good, and one that brings us all together in a polarizing time.

“With so much division and so much hurt, the aim in this thing is to unite people,” Darnell said.

The importance of humility and equity

Unity is a value Darnell holds dear, having grown up in Bakersfield, California, in a close-knit family that always extended support to their community. He shared a word of wisdom from his grandmother who used to say, “Be careful how you climb that ladder, because you never know who’s going to break your fall.”

It’s this sense of humility and equity that Darnell leads with. You get the sense that he’s taking you just as seriously as he takes himself, and all with great warmth and charisma.

In a time when the idea of staying “grounded” can seem far out of reach, Darnell cites exercise, prayer and meditation, and journaling as activities that have kept him afloat.

“There’s a lot to process, especially for artists. We’re trying to process our industry which is on this indefinite hold. Many of our friends within the industry have lost their jobs indefinitely, with no promise of return. There’s that, and then there’s the pandemic,” Darnell said. “The world is filled with so many uncertainties. And then if you’re a Black artist, or artist of color, we’re looking at injustices that are playing out on TV… so there’s that trauma. Exercise has been a benefit for me, because it helps keep things in balance, and journaling has been great because it gives me a chance to release some of those frustrations on paper.”

Words of advice for others

The importance of self-care is something he relays to young artists as well. He stresses the need to pace oneself and to avoid burnout in a world that requires being constantly updated. Darnell’s advice? Classic, tried and true: “Have a plan, have contingencies, because things will change.” “Be careful how you treat people.”

But best of all, and most timely, “Don’t lose hope. The industry is coming back, and it’s going to come back stronger, because there will be a hunger for live entertainment. People are going to want to gather and congregate again, so that comes back to: Be ready, get ready, and stay ready.”