Daveed Diggs is holed up in a hotel room in New York, hoping for the future but thinking about the past. It’s election day in America. As the country decides its fate, the actor best-known for playing the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton is reflecting on a speech he’s made it his tradition to listen to each year on Independence Day. First heard in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ ‘What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?’ address is a barnstorming attack on the “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy” of America, delivered by a man who had himself escaped a slave plantation.
“I think that speech is so important in terms of not forgetting the history of the country,” says Diggs, speaking over Zoom. “So much of it still scans as very true today, so getting to perform it was incredible.”
Diggs’ charismatic version of Douglass is in the middle of that fiery sermon when we meet him in The Good Lord Bird, a new historical drama premiering on Sky Atlantic this month. Based on James McBride’s award-winning 2013 novel, it tells the story of Onion, a young slave who tags along with a motley crew of abolitionist soldiers led by John Brown, a swivel-eyed man of God played with mouth-foaming intensity by Ethan Hawke. Think Robin Hood and his band of merry men, but instead of mugging off the Sheriff of Nottingham, they’re trying to provoke the civil war that will end slavery.
“Not letting our foot off the throat of slavery is probably a good idea”
It’s an exhilarating ride, but also one Diggs says helped him understand a critical period of history he wasn’t taught much about in school. “I knew who John Brown was vaguely,” he says, “But I didn’t know all the little details about Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. They’re real, and they’re wrapped up in this totally incredible story. Anything that brings to the forefront the American legacy of slavery is good. Not letting our foot off the throat of that institution is probably a good idea.”
Diggs, of course, is no stranger to playing giants of American history. He made his name with those scene-stealing turns as Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton, during which his rapid-fire rhyming sometimes exceeded six-words-a-second. The show’s runaway success changed his life beyond all recognition, putting a Tony and a Grammy on his mantelpiece and helping him land high-profile roles in Netflix series Black-ish, musical cartoon sitcom Central Park and the TV adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. In a sign Diggs has truly reached the A list, he’ll be providing the voice of Sebastian the crab in Disney’s forthcoming remake of The Little Mermaid.
Like most overnight successes, Diggs’ was a long time coming. He was born in 1982 in Oakland, California, the son of social worker Barbara and bus driver Dountes. He went to high school in Berkeley and won a place at the Ivy League Brown University thanks to the fact he can hurdle about as fast as he can rap (he completed the 110-metre hurdles in 14.21 seconds, a school record). Growing up, it wasn’t athletics that were his first love though, but slam poetry. “It’s seen as a niche thing, but for folks my age in the Bay Area it wasn’t,” he says. “Poetry just exists around there. In high school our football team wasn’t very good, but we had a lot of well-attended poetry slams! Rap music affected me the same way, because everybody I knew was writing rap songs. In the Bay Area, we pride ourselves on being good with words. We grew up with poetry around us and didn’t realise that was strange until we left.”
After graduating from Brown in 2004 with a degree in theatre arts, Diggs moved back to the Bay Area and began working as a substitute teacher to pay the bills while struggling to establish himself as a performer. By a strange twist of fate it was a screw-up at his teaching job in 2012, when Diggs was 30, that led him to meet Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. A clerical error sent both Diggs and another teacher, Anthony Veneziale, to cover the same classroom. They decided to teach it together, and quickly hit it off. “It was a fourth grade class, which means every 10 minutes you’ve got to come up with some new way to entertain them,” remembers Diggs with a laugh. “We just started freestyling at some point, and I was like: ‘Oh, okay, you do this too?’ At the end of the day he said: ‘Hey, I’m part of this group, Freestyle Love Supreme, you should join it!’ and that’s the weird coincidence by which I would meet Lin.”
In February 2013, Freestyle Love Supreme were booked to perform as part of ESPN’s Super Bowl coverage in New Orleans. It was there that Miranda first told Diggs he was working on a rap musical about the life of 18th Century statesman Alexander Hamilton, which at the time didn’t necessarily sound like a guaranteed path to fame and fortune. Diggs was part of the original Hamilton cast at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 and went with the show when it moved to Broadway to start breaking all sorts of records that same year. It was the hottest of hot tickets. Steve Martin, Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee and Selena Gomez were all in the audience – and that was just one night. The Obamas saw it twice.
For Diggs, though, no celebrity encounter could compete with meeting his very own childhood idol: MC Hammer. “That was the most starstruck I’ve ever been,” he says, breaking out into a grin all over again. “I grew up obsessed with that guy, and now we text occasionally! Every time we see each other do something we text ‘OAKLAND’ and a little fist. When I was a kid he was the ambassador for Oakland. He was such a megastar for a while, but you would still see him walking down the street. That’s the kind of thing I aspire to. I want to always be able to walk down the street in my hometown.”
“Every time MC Hammer sees me do something, he texts ‘OAKLAND’ and a little fist”
Although Diggs made his final stage performance in 2016, he experienced a whole new wave of Hamilton mania this July when a long-awaited filmed version of the Broadway production finally arrived on Disney+. He says he’s still coming to terms with all the ways the Hamilton experience has changed his life. “
“It feels pretty surreal,” he says, taking a breath. “It’s a little more stabilised now, because at least there are other things that exist [that I’ve worked on] that some people know too, so I don’t only have to talk about Hamilton! That was probably the most surreal part: being an artist your whole life and then having one thing that people want to talk about. It was the smallest part of my life but the biggest thing for anyone else. It gave me access to an industry that I didn’t have before.”
Diggs’ experiences with fame proved instructive when he began figuring out how to resurrect Frederick Douglass for The Good Lord Bird. Reading through Douglass’ speeches and three autobiographies, which made him famous around the world when they were widely distributed by slavery abolitionists, Diggs began to see how the great reformer would adapt stories about his life to suit whichever audience he happened to be addressing. “There’s an element of celebrity I’ve come into contact with recently that does force you, or at least encourage you, to fictionalise parts of your life,” he explains. “Not necessarily to lie about them, but to turn them into stories that you can tell 100 times, adjusting them based on who your audience is. To read all these Douglass texts and see him do that was a real hook into the character for me, because I was like: ‘Oh, that’s someone who is struggling with being very well known’.”
“It’s surreal being an artist your whole life and then having one thing that people want to talk about”
For his next project, Diggs will be heading back home to Oakland. He’s spent lockdown writing a TV series based on the 2018 film Blindspotting, which he co-wrote and co-starred in alongside his close friend and collaborator Rafael Casal. The film is at once a critique of race and gentrification and something of a love letter to the slam poetry tradition that the pair came up in. As Casal’s character Miles points out – in a line that Fredrick Douglass would have surely approved of: “Everybody listens more when you make it sound pretty.”
“We decided we wanted to tell a story about Oakland in a way that felt true to the city and to the Bay Area at large,” says Diggs. “As artists there you tend to grow up with a bit of a chip on your shoulder because you look around and you realise how dope you are, but nobody else seems to realise that! You’ve got to say it yourself. We were like: If we ever get the chance to make a movie, let’s show off this area and show it right. There are so many stories, so turning it into a TV show is a great opportunity to tell more of them.”
“Humans invented theatre because we need it”
While Diggs says 2020’s enforced slowdown has been a welcome one, allowing him a reprieve from his whirlwind introduction to celebrity, he worries about the devastating impact lockdown has had on live theatres like the ones he made his career in. “I’m concerned for the community of friends I have who made their living on Broadway,” he says. “That’s done for quite a while, in the best case scenario. That part is sad, and difficult, and everybody’s sort of struggling to figure out what to do.”
What he’d like to see happen is for this shock to the system to hasten the arrival of some long-overdue changes. “We’re all hopeful that we’ll come out of this quarantine better than we were before, and I think the popular American theatres should feel the same way,” he argues. “There is a lack of accountability and representation in theatre, particularly on Broadway. I hope this is an opportunity to sort of reset.”
Diggs’ dream that we’re all going to come out of lockdown better than we were when it started seems to chime with the optimism that has since rippled out from the news of Joe Biden’s election victory and some promising vaccine trials. When it comes to telling stories, Diggs says once more that his hope for the future comes from thinking about the past. “Humans invented theatre because we need it,” he says. “We need to tell stories and to be entertained. If we get rid of all the bells and whistles, theatre will still exist. I remember early on [in lockdown] seeing all the videos popping up of people doing workout classes in the middle of their courtyards and everybody around watching. That’s theatre. That’s literally all it takes.”
‘The Good Lord Bird’ is on Stan