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Spartan Profile - Jonathan Kirkland

  • Author:
    Devon Barrett
  • Published:
    Spring 2017

Jonathan Kirkland: Singing, Teaching, Inspiring in Hamilton

Even in his heyday, it’s unlikely George Washington ever entertained crowds like his contemporary counterpart is doing now on a Chicago stage.

This younger version of our first president is not like the guy pictured on our dollar bill.

He’s 6 feet 4 inches, rocks a buzz cut and sports a dark goatee. His name is Jonathan Kirkland.

A former basketball player with the voice of an opera singer, Kirkland is starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical.

The production is a much decorated hip-hop, rap-infused Broadway darling. And its cast features black and Latino actors as America’s forefathers.

“This is arguably the biggest musical in American history and they chose me to bring this role to life,” said Kirkland with a youthful dose of disbelief.

Yet he started his climb for just such a role as a music performance major—despite a tantalizing opportunity to try out for the Spartan men’s basketball team. Plan B, he said, was teaching.

Like most of those who make, it worked his way to top playing smaller roles.

Last year he appeared in different play surrounded by a well-respected cast.

“I was onstage with major Broadway veterans, and Tony winners, and Emmy winners, and Grammy winners. If ever there was a moment that gave me confidence I was on the right path…that was it,” he said in a recent phone interview.

And he hopes he can inspire minority performers of all ages.

Last winter, he and his fellow actors had just such a chance. They’d invited Chicago inner-city high school students to a special matinee performance.

The teenagers had been preparing for the occasion writing rap poetry and rap songs in classes. After the curtain fell, some of them performed for the Hamilton actors, who packed the first row.

This time it was professionals who were awe struck.

“Their talent was mind-blowing,” said Kirkland, “…they’re standing up there onstage in front of everyone and they’re just going for it.”

It was one of those rare experiences in which originality, creativity, and inspiration flowed both ways, he said.

“I had to see men who looked like me, singing the way I sing, and doing the things that I thought were cool in order for me to believe it was possible,” he said. “Our cast is so diverse (that) for young kids of color to watch a performance onstage where everybody looks like them? That’s a rare opportunity,” Kirkland said.

He hopes it’s one of many more  to come.

~Devon Barrett