By Kristen Mitchell
When actor, songwriter and composer Christopher Jackson learned he would be portraying George Washington in a musical about the country’s first treasury secretary, the first thing he did was walk into a bookstore and pick up a biography. With a penchant for history, Mr. Jackson wanted to understand the flawed man behind the iconic Founding Father.
Long before Hamilton made its debut on Broadway, he was asking himself the big questions about what kind of stressors Washington would be carrying in every scene; what battles in the war, and later in the cabinet, would he be toiling over. Grasping the emotional turmoil of Washington’s life was key to delivering full, authentic and truthful performances, Mr. Jackson told the George Washington University community on Monday, marking the university namesake’s 289th birthday and GW's bicentennial in a special only-at-GW virtual event.
“My aim was always to know as much as I could,” he said. “Fortunately for me, I was portraying a character that had been written about more than any other figure in that age on this side of the world, so there was just an endless amount of information.”
Mr. Jackson revisited his role as Washington as part of the Presidential Distinguished Event Series, launched in 2019 to connect the university community to renowned leaders, thinkers and performers who are shaping our society. Members of the GW community had the opportunity to submit questions ahead of the event, which was moderated by Denver Brunsman, GW associate professor of history who specializes in the politics and social history of the American Revolution.
GW President Thomas J. LeBlanc opened the evening, noting the timely nature of the event after the recent launch of the university’s bicentennial celebrations. In the virtual environment, he said, the GW community continues to be engaged in important discussions that help us use GW’s teaching and research mission to create a greater world.
“Mr. Jackson has entertained and educated countless people through his work—bringing to life the legacy of the nation’s first president and our university’s namesake,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We have a unique opportunity to learn about George Washington, and about history, through the lens of the arts. Mr. Jackson’s performance as George Washington is one of many in a long list of credits that showcases his far-reaching impact on the arts.”
[video:https://vimeo.com/516409161/1a0b6b11c0 width:560 height:315 align:center lightbox_title:A Conversation with Christopher Jackson]
In tandem with its success, Hamilton has been criticized for glossing over the Founding Fathers’ role in upholding slavery. There is no reckoning with the fact that Washington was a slaveholder, Mr. Jackson said—and the portrayal of a character should not be confused with the celebration or “the edifying of all of that person’s life.”
Criticisms of how Hamilton addressed slavery are fair, Mr. Jackson said, but the musical also opened up more room for in-depth debate about the Founding Fathers and their shortcomings. The musical seeks to highlight both the virtue and shame of the founders—the wise words of equality they crafted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and how they failed to live up to them.
“Whatever the vehicle is that creates more need for conversation, creates more perspectives of looking at a particular issue, is one that is worth pursuing,” he said.
Mr. Jackson spoke about how early in his theater career, there were extremely limited roles for Black actors outside of shows like Cats and The Lion King where everyone wore heavy makeup and costumes, camouflaging the skin underneath. He’s proud of how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and In The Heights have opened doors for non-white actors to take center stage.
The most significant impact Hamilton has had on our culture is that it paved the way for future generations of actors, producers, playwrights and more to see themselves on the stage, Mr. Jackson said. Because a recording of the musical can be streamed via Disney+, young people who have no means to see shows on Broadway can watch the critically-acclaimed musical from their homes, a development that would have been unthinkable when Mr. Jackson was growing up in southern Illinois.
“Anytime that a person sees someone on television or film, or goes to the theater and sees someone on stage that looks like them, it means something,” he said. “It makes a difference.”
Mr. Jackson ended the night with an exclusive rendition of “One Last Time,” his favorite number from the musical. The song explores Washington’s decision to leave office after two terms, setting the precedent for a peaceful transition of power.