Rene Colon ’14, M.Div. ’16
Nearly two decades have passed since Darnell Abraham ’09 walked beneath the lights of this particular stage. Though not an exceptionally large or prestigious theater, the weight of the moment moves him to tears. The stage in the cafeteria at Dr. Juliet Thorner Elementary School in Bakersfield is Darnell’s very first.
Darnell paces the empty platform, reflecting on his performing arts career that began on this very spot when he was in the first grade. “This is almost like a spiritual experience for me,” he said. “I’m just deeply moved right now.” Today, as is often the case for stage actors, Darnell is waiting for a showtime of sorts. Thorner students are preparing to flood the cafeteria in waves to meet Darnell and learn from him, one of their own.
It’s not unlike the charged moments of anticipation before the curtain rises eight times a week at San Francisco’s 2,200-seat Orpheum Theatre, where Darnell plays George Washington in the touring production of Hamilton, one of Broadway’s most celebrated modern musicals. The genius of Hamilton lies in framing our nation’s history from the vantage point of citizens today. As the playbill and lyrics go, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” The power of Hamilton is not lost on Darnell, a black actor playing the role of a founding father who is revered as America’s first president but who also owned slaves.
In Act One of Hamilton, Darnell sings as Washington about personal and collective legacy in “History Has Its Eyes On You.” The lyrics hold layers of meaning for the APU alumnus. He is connected to those who came before him and those who will follow. “Darnell realizes that he is standing on the shoulders of his ancestors and at times carrying those people with him,” said Darnell’s mother, LaWain Powell. “For those who didn’t have a voice, he’s now their voice.”
“I know that we can win, I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you.”
During Darnell’s youth in the Central Valley, his mother and father, Tyrone Powell, fiercely protected their son’s creative instincts. And at Thorner Elementary, the performing arts faculty and classroom teachers nourished his artistic development. Yet Darnell often felt the sting of being different. To his peers, he spoke differently, thought differently, looked differently. “Growing up in the theater, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only black kid in the room,” said Darnell. “It’s a joy today to perform on a stage filled with actors from all different backgrounds, but I personally know too well what it’s like to be an outcast and feel unwanted.”
Those early and painful experiences fundamentally shaped Darnell’s heart for others. With his wife, Wanda (Perkins ’09), the pair have cultivated a life that draws people into community. “My passion is inviting people to the table,” he said. “My hope is to be an active participant in making the world a better place by celebrating life, diversity, and what makes us unique. What an opportunity and a privilege I have to do that in this industry.”
Darnell doesn’t take his position for granted. It is the result of years of intense work and moments of doubt, hustling through auditions and enduring rejections, opening nights followed quickly by closing nights. Looking back, his time at Azusa Pacific and his faith in God prepared him for each step of the journey.
After APU, Darnell honed his craft in a variety of roles that would take him touring throughout the country. He played the lead role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., in Ragtime, portrayed doctors in the rock musical Next to Normal, and was cast in The Color Purple revival national Broadway tour. Other parts in Darnell’s diverse repertoire include principal performer in Disney’s Festival of The Lion King and Jake in a Broadway Series production of Side Show.
“I’m interested in telling stories that make a difference. It’s been really extraordinary to participate in all of these shows that do just that and tackle issues we are grappling with in America today.”
Ten years after graduating, Darnell would be cast in Hamilton and perform with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Puerto Rico on the show’s national tour. Darnell shared the stage with Miranda when he made his debut in the role of George Washington. “That was just crazy,” he laughed. “Even talking about it now, I'm like—well, that happened.”
Across all his theatrical engagements, Darnell has taken on narratives about challenging and relevant themes, like social justice, immigration, mental health, women’s rights, and the experiences of marginalized people. Like the characters he has portrayed, Darnell doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, yet he approaches every personal and professional encounter as an opportunity to reflect the love and hope of Christ.
“If I can create moments that spark conversation and reconciliation, then I feel I’ve done my job,” he said. “I strive to be a bridge builder and a peacemaker.” Whether reuniting with family at home in Bakersfield, coaching school students, gathering with the close-knit Hamilton cast after performances, or captivating theater-going audiences, Darnell looks for ways to use the gift of his voice for good.