Okieriete Onaodowan is a veteran actor who many know from the hit musical Hamilton or the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off, Station 19 which he exited earlier this year, but he’s so much more than that, and we’re sharing a bit of him with you today.
Black History Spotlight: Okieriete Onaodowan
Okieriete aka Oak (but you KNOW how I am about your ability to honestly start pronouncing people’s names properly) really leans into the gentle giant descriptor well these days. Mostly because he’s tall, and SUCH a kind soul, but let’s be real, anyone taller than 5’5″ around me feels like a giant. I digress. Today’s Black History Spotlight is all for my brother from another mother, Okieriete Onaodowan.
Anyway, I came into awareness of the actor in 2020. More specifically Independence Day of 2020 when Hamilton was released on Disney+. I was looking for something to keep my mind off of the fact that the very same weekend in 2019 we were preparing to bury my baby brother. Listen. Musical aside, when I saw Onaodowan enter the stage as Hercules Mulligan, my interest was piqued. Clothed in period costuming from the neck down, including an AMAZING green duster ( my sewing heart has dreams about whipping one of these up, just like the yellow trench coat that Warren Beatty wore in Dick Tracy ) and current clothing neck-up – HEY SCULLY – he immediately set the tone for our future interactions.
So, where does one go to express their appreciation in a proper way? The Twitter of course. Which I did, and now I have a Twitter sibling to hang out with every now and again.
At only 34 years of age, Oak’s resume is pretty impressive. Hamilton wasn’t his first experience on a Broadway stage, that crown belongs to Cyrano de Bergerac where he played the Pastry Cook/Cadet/Sentry roles. From our interactions, I can only surmise that he loves the stage – a lot. He also wants to get back there soon. When he’s not belting lyrics from a stage though, he’s playing complex characters on the shows many of us love like Station 19 and we’ll soon be able to watch him as a recurring cast member of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan airing on Amazon Prime. I’d say that he literally disappears into each of the characters he plays, but if I can make a bold declaration, I would say Dean Miller is a close reflection of his real-life persona. Speaking of Dean Miller, let’s not EVEN talk about how upset I am with the way his story ended on Station 19.
But since this month is about Black History and the work that every person I’m spotlighting is doing, let’s talk about Oak’s activism, shall we? It’s loud, and it’s proud, and it’s often in short shares or quips on his social channels. In 2020, he organized several fundraisers with his Hamilton castmates to raise funds for organizations doing the hard work to combat the hatred that so many marginalized folks were experiencing as a result of voting a racist into office in 2016. If you don’t agree with that statement, this blog and its content might not be the place for you. I’ve learned more about Qualified Immunity by following Oak. One of the things that I am learning to do is listen more than I talk (goodness that’s so hard for me, especially when I’m passionate about something) and learn which tools I can use to make a point without needing to dunk on an individual. There are days where Onaodowan presents a masterclass in this technique.
It takes a very special individual to not only be as visible as he is, but as vocal with issues literally killing the people he loves as a whole. His celebrity doesn’t shield him from vitriol spewed his way as was shared in a post on Twitter last year, but he keeps the interactions to a minimum so the focus can be on fighting the system as a whole rather than taking potshots at the upholders of it.
His activism and career intersect often. With his character Dean Miller in Station 19 he was one of the Black voices of the series that spoke out about situations that his character and other Black people had to go through in order to get where they were. If he wasn’t challenging the image of his former Battalion Chief Sullivan, he was rescuing Black teenage girls from the hands of a sex ring. He was also awkwardly raising and loving his on-screen daughter Pruitt with the help of his crew members. After his exit of Station 19 – which was VERY hard for me to watch for reasons outside of seeing my friend exit a show I had come to enjoy tweeting out about weekly – he shared that he would be directing a stage reading of The Very Best People by John Lavelle at the IAMA Theatre, so I went, because I’m an adult and I do what I want. The play is in the early stages of development, but what we were privy to I can only describe as uncomfortably funny. To see how hatred is homegrown while being able to weave humor throughout was an amazing feat of Lavelle’s and the direction that each actor went with their character was enough to make me feel a bit icky inside. Which is exactly how we were supposed to feel I’m told. Speaking out on these things has never been an issue for me, but seeing art imitate life in such a way was a lot. I’m anticipating strongly-worded think pieces about it whenever it hits the stage for public consumption.
If you follow Okieriete, you’re also certain to get a bit of musical education. He oft tweets out songs and artists that he loves, and they are often names I’ve never seen. Sure, other people have, and it solidifies that I REALLY need to stretch my curiosity further than I have been doing in recent years. Not only does he share music, but he’s also starring in music videos too. The current one, from artist Matthew Santos on February 3, is titled In My Breath. Take a look at it here.
Born in Newark, New Jersey to Nigerian parents, he grew up among SIX sisters which I’m sure prepared him HEAVILY for our friendship. He played football for a brief stint before being injured and THAT, my friends, led him to the stage in high school. This led to him joining the New Jersey Youth Theatre. After high school, he auditioned for and was accepted Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University where he stayed for a year.
I’ve always known the arts were important. I went to an elementary school and high school that relied heavily on them. There was something about being able to lean into my creativity and to find my people through it. I’m so glad that at some point in the 90s and early 2000s, a love of the arts was nurtured in Okieriete and that I’m alive to experience it. We already know that he’s secured his place in Black History through his attachment to Hamilton, but we’ll all know it’s for far more than that, even if that single moment is pretty impressive.
Getting to know someone with as large a platform as he possesses makes me keenly aware that everyone is connected at the core, and we’re all responsible for looking out for each other. One quote of his that has stayed with me is ‘many drops make an ocean’ – to which I’ve determined to mean, small actions make for big results. It may not seem like we’re doing a lot on our own, but we’re creating a great body of work with the little we are.
One of these days, hopefully, we’ll sit down for a proper interview where we can chat with our extended Houseful. I’m sure we’ll all learn a little bit of something. Connect with Okieriete on Twitter, Facebook, or when he shares a little bit on Instagram.