Originally published on Playbill.com
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The phrase “right hand man,” from the song of the same name that introduces General George Washington to the stage in the hit musical Hamilton, could easily be utilized offstage to describe the relationship between the actors who play Washington (Christopher Jackson) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
The dynamic between the two Founding Fathers was a close-knit one of both professional and personal alliances and loyalty. As Jackson succinctly put it, “There wouldn’t have been Hamilton without Washington, or I dare say, there wouldn’t have been Washington without Hamilton.”
While the relationship between Jackson and Miranda is not necessarily as close as the two Founding Fathers, it is one of both emotional and creative fusion over many years. Jackson, who made his Broadway debut in The Lion King as Simba, returned to the stage in 2008, playing the ambitious Benny in Miranda’s Tony-winning musical In the Heights, remaining with the show for almost its entire run. Collaborating with Miranda on Heights, which Jackson described as “something that sort of blew my mind and came out of nowhere,” also affected his personal life deeply — he met his wife at an early chemistry read for the musical. (“It was the first and only chemistry read I’ve ever had in my career. It worked.”)
The friendship between the two was apparent when, after accepting the Tony Award for Best Score, Miranda rapped, “I don’t know about God, but I believe in Chris Jackson,” an honor Jackson was unaware his co-star had planned.
“When I first met Lin, there’s always been sort of a big brother/little brother kind of relationship,” Jackson reflected. “Lin is someone that I care a great deal about, and somebody that I’ve shared some incredible moments with — the birth of my children, my marriage…” But, he hastened to add, unlike Washington and Hamilton, “I’m certainly not in the position to give Lin a job. I’m not in control of his career. He clearly is someone who has his own destiny by the horns.”
The importance of playing Washington, the general leading the troops through the Revolutionary War and serving as the first President of the United States, is not lost on Jackson, whose stage credits also include Memphis, After Midnight, Bronx Bombers and Holler If Ya Hear Me. Performing in Hamilton, which features a cast of minorities portraying the Founding Fathers through rap and hip-hop music, is an opportunity Jackson savors.
“I know that when I was 11 years old, if I had seen a show like Hamilton, it would have changed everything for me,” he said. “It’s really important to let people know that when they come to our show, they can have a life-changing moment. I think once you see characters like us portrayed in real life, the power is you can somehow see yourself in that.
“When my daughter walks into a school building, the first picture she sees in the lobby was President Obama. I didn’t have that when I was kid,” he added. “Prior to 2008, no other generation of black or Latino — none of our generations ever had that… To be able to have the opportunity to be in something like this, this very specific thing at this time — it’s shaping my life.”
Jackson had the opportunity to meet current President Barack Obama when he brought his teenage daughters to see the musical in July. President Obama joined the ranks of numerous political figures who have seen Hamilton, including First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Describing meeting President Obama as “an honor that I can still barely describe,” Jackson added that meeting the First Lady was “a seminal moment in my life that I will never, ever forget.”
Assuming a position of leadership is nothing new to Jackson, who grew up playing team sports and is devoted to establishing an environment where his peers can thrive in their work. Before each performance he leads the cast in a prayer in order to connect with each other before the musical begins.
“Theatre has an inherent spirituality to it,” Jackson said. “To so many people, theatre is their church. It’s an opportunity to feel something with other folks. That moment that you go to a show — it will never happen again. I can’t think of many other things that facilitate that kind of gathering and communal experience. There’s a lot of mention of God, spirits, importance… how it can affect change and effect the way that audience members experience their lives after leaving that theatre, after experiencing the thoughts and words and emotions that present something different for them. I think that’s what the power of theatre is. That’s why I don’t take it lightly. It’s a very sacred instrument to us as a society.”
Despite his reverence for the stage, Jackson has not brought his 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to see Hamilton — “They don’t hear Daddy yell a lot at home” — but he does contribute to their entertainment as well, having written for “Sesame Street” for more than 15 years. And, he said, his daughter is already showing an interest in dancing. When he brought her onstage at the Public Theater during Hamilton‘s Off-Broadway run, “her whole body changed.”
Jackson’s personal and professional lives were intertwined profoundly when, in 2007, his son was diagnosed with autism the day of the first Off-Broadway run-through of In the Heights. Jackson learned of the diagnosis when his wife called, five minutes before the performance began.
“I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know where to go,” Jackson recalled. “I’d never heard the word autism before.”
He quickly discovered the organization Autism Speaks, which he said has served as an enormous resource for his family, and he and his wife have been involved with ever since, participating in walks to raise awareness. And, he added, “Sesame Street” is initiating an autism outreach program for which he is composing music.
“We’ve been able to turn people on to awareness and other young parents who have had a child and discovered they were on the spectrum. It’s something that we talk about constantly. I hope to do more in the future, especially with the notoriety of the show. Anything I can do to just let aunts, uncles, friends… Autism presents a tremendous amount of challenges and a tremendous amount of possibility that comes along with the diagnosis. It’s difficult but there’s so much out there… It’s been a really incredible journey in terms of where our son has grown and how he’s continued to be brave and do the work. It’s difficult being a parent on this schedule, but we figure out ways to make it work.”
Although Hamilton has been open on Broadway for several months, Jackson has not finished researching and developing the character of George Washington. Currently on his fourth read of Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, his perspective on present-day public figures has also evolved.
“The phrase that Lin and I discussed a lot in terms of resonance is the idea that ‘history has its eyes on you.’ Everything that they do is magnified. These are men that are not just thinking about what’s happening; they’re thinking about how it affects lives 5, 10, 15, 20, 50 years down the road.
“It’s when those ideas come out that I think the power of Lin’s piece and how we’re delivering it — the hope is that it resonates with President Obama, with Vice President Biden, with George Lucas, with artists and people who have created things that have a lasting effect beyond what we saw on Friday night or what we saw on CNN two days ago. It’s one of those grander ideas that I don’t think one person that sat in office hasn’t been thinking that very thought and been burdened by that thought. Once you’re in office, everything is posterity.”
And, he said, his curiosity regarding other historical figures has only grown. When asked who in history he would have liked to meet, he listed George Washington, both Roosevelts, and, “Obviously, Lincoln is a figure I would have loved to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.”