Okieriete Onaodowan On What ‘Hamilton’ Means To Him And The Rage He Felt The Night Mike Pence Showed Up

As Hamilton‘s longest-tenured original cast member – playing the duel role of both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison – Okieriete Onaodowan was there that night in December of 2016 when then Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrived for a show. For Onaodowan, it wasn’t just that Pence was there. Yes, the headlines that night were that a number of people in the crowd booed Pence. But for Onaodowan, he couldn’t stop thinking about the people there who cheered for Pence. As in, why in the world are you at Hamilton in the first place if you’re cheering Mike Pence? When I asked Onaodowan what was going through his mind that night as he performed for this particular crowd, the word he said was “rage.” And he repeated it six times.

This weekend, Hamilton will finally be available for home consumption through Disney+. It’s a recording from 2016, with the original cast members at (as Onaodowan says) at the height of their powers. Filmed mostly in front of a live audience (some shots had to be done earlier that day), this is the first time people will have full access to what was, even still this year before Broadway shut down, one of the most difficult tickets to obtain. Onaodowan still holds out hope that people who see this show can still learn something from it, even though, no, it sure didn’t do anything to change Mike Pence. And Onaodowan explains, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and this national moment, what Hamilton means to him today.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but getting tickets to Hamilton was not easy.

[Laughs] No one has ever told me that before.

They should really let the people performing know this stuff.

I never knew.

We went in December of 2016 and you were one of the last original cast members still there. You were getting a lot of applause, like an athlete on a retirement tour.

That’s a great analogy. That’s what it kind of felt like. It was like that, in his final season, and I want to do a backflip somewhere like, “Yep, I’m done. We’re out.”

So obviously a lot of people wanted to see this, and it’s important for people to see this. And they moved up the date. But should something like this had happened earlier? Or does this feel like the right time?

I feel like what we’re experiencing is like eight things converging at once. It’s like, every week, for me, I think the significance of this dropping has changed. For a while it was COVID, and after George Floyd was murdered, the meaning, again, changed why it’s released early as opposed to later. And with where we are right now, I think it’s important for people to get this message: the message of it’s your duty stand up and say, “This is what America should be.”

Not only that, you should work tirelessly to make sure that happens through legislation, through writing, through understanding the laws and making sure laws are passed. That’s basically what Hamilton did. The first number, you see him stand on a box and you see Burr push him out the way. And then he uses his words to break down what he’s saying and break down the crazy madness of what he’s saying and tell the people, “This is not it. This is not what your country should look like. This is not how the people who lead you should sound.”

That sounds eerily reminiscent of what protesters are doing right now, of all shades and colors in response to the murder of George Floyd. That message, I think, is vital for people to come home to after a long day of their Twitter feed and Instagram feed and seeing all this madness and hearing the things that that man in the White House says and does. To put on entertainment and also get some medicine – also get some empowerment and also get a message that says, “It is now we have to do this. You have to speak up.”

You mentioned the man in the White House. Where you still there when Mike Pence came to Hamilton?

Yes, I was.

What were you thinking that whole night? I mean, I can imagine…

Rage. Just rage. Just rage, rage, rage, rage. Because in the beginning of the show, he entered and there were a lot of people cheering as well. There’s a Venn diagram of people who love Hamilton and people who love the man in the White House. It was just hard as an artist to think what I’m doing is promoting this message, in black and brown skin, telling our founding fathers’ story, and yet there were still people in there who are celebrating the arrival of Pence. It’s complicated and it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to know sometimes you may put art out, but it’s not necessarily interpreted the way that it’s intended. It’s actually not stopped me from still putting it out. It was a very tough and difficult show.

It shouldn’t stop you. You said it’s difficult to wrap your mind around it…

It’s hard.

But how did you? Because the entire message of what you’re trying to say is the polar opposite of what this man represents.

You just do it. Exactly. And it’s hard to then perform for people that you saw cheering him, and now are in the front row looking at you. It’s like, “Yeah, dance for me.” But the whole point is you do it. How do you do it? You do it, like anyone who’s done anything that’s hard to any degree. Your purpose, your spirit and your will should take over. And my love and the intention behind creating the art, I will just focus on. I will have those feelings of apprehension and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, I know at my core why I’m doing it. You focus on that, focus on what got you there and what will keep you going.

The people cheering wasn’t really in the press much. Because obviously the President made a big deal about people booing. But I imagine sitting that it might have been difficult to put on a show for those people who stand against everything with what the show means.

It’s complicated. When Hillary came, people booed. People cheered and people also booed. I feel like I was able to see why Targets are on fire in that moment. It’s because people really do have a different definition of what this country needs, and it couldn’t be more representative in that room. But you do it anyway because there is a chance – and it’s the difference between people who hold faith in their heart and hold resentment – is there is a part of me that still hopes it’s like, “Well, we don’t know. All the data says this, but maybe Pence may turn around and do something different at the end.” That was one of the things. I was like, “I just have to focus on that today. I just have to focus on that instead, and hope and hope and hope.”

I want to believe in the humanity of people that might still be in there and think, “Well, maybe he’ll learn a lesson from this.” And it just never seems to happens. I’m very pessimistic about these things. I mean, but this is hindsight. In the moment, that’s what I believed. It was tough, at least we got through it. History has shown us that was correct, it did not change his mind. My job is to perform. That’s it. Just to perform, regardless who’s out there, people out there or not. He was out there and it’s like, “I still have to do the thing.”

Now, have you seen what’s going to be on Disney+? What a weird question to ask you. “Have you seen Hamilton?”

[Laughs] That is weird. We had an opportunity to see the link. But Disney’s, to keep it super tight, we literally had 24 hours, just 24 hours to watch it and I wasn’t able to see all of it. I saw half of the show and, from what I saw, it’s just remarkable, again, to see it. In theater, we can never truly see what we make because when we step out, it’s going to change. Your understudy’s on, so everyone’s performance is different. It was lovely to see, to really see our show. I’ve seen versions of the show, but it was remarkable just to really see what everyone actually saw. And for me, it was just exciting to see the homeys do their thing because we’re normally backstage when someone’s on stage, or we’re onstage when someone’s having a moment. It was great to look and just to see what I’ve been hearing, to be able to look and see them in the moment and not just have to listen backstage or catch a glimpse from the sides. That was special.

Were you given a heads up before that performance? Like, “This is going to be the performance of record, basically, for the rest of eternity”?

Yeah, we shot it over like three days. So, yeah, we had a heads up. There was a lot of prep. There was a lot of talking. At the end of the week, some of the footage you see is, we shot it, and then actually performed that night. Some footage from that night, some footage is from a Monday where we had cameras on stage. It was a whole thing. And we had five days total of shooting, three days of actual performances, and then two days of catching things here and there. So yeah, we were prepped and we were ready and we were told, but it was beautiful because at that point, it was so ingrained in our bodies. It was just kind of perfect. We were cooking with gas. We were comfortable. I feel we gave one of the best shows because it was just right in the pocket.

What does Hamilton mean right now for this moment? Not as much it’s great people are going to see it, but for you, specifically something in it?

I know what you’re saying. For me specifically, it’s the message of Hamilton saying this is not what America should be, and that is what means most to me. That at the core of this character, everything starts because he says, “I don’t think this is the way this country should look,” and the whole show is just following a man who’s determined to change it. I think that is something vital that every protester, every human, any person who watched George Floyd with a knee on his neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, needs to say: “I need to do this, and it can only change if I have the resolve and the will Alexander Hamilton had, and I am dedicated to creating the country that I believe is true and just.” That’s what it means to me.

‘Hamilton’ begins streaming via Disney+ on July 3rd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.