This article was originally written for my Narrative Non-Fiction class at The King’s College. Photos are borrowed from darnellabraham.com.
Thousands of people stream past in the Oculus below the World Trade Center. The clock ticks and ticks, 1:05 p.m. then 1:10 p.m. This interview has already been rescheduled three times.
Finally, the man himself walks up. He is unassuming, well built, six feet flat with a healthy physique and a corny smile. He wears a black dress shirt, black slacks, black sneakers and red headphones. His face is instantly recognizable even though it belongs to several characters.
Darnell Abraham is a man of many faces. One night he is on stage in front of thousands and just weeks later, he is working a temp job. However, unlike most temps, he is not seeking a job from it. He is not down on his luck nor is he running out of money. He works as a temp because it keeps him preoccupied, a side hustle.
“I’ve come to value the importance of schedule. I used to fight it. I would go wherever the wind blew,” Darnell said. “That’s the life of the actor, we go where the work is. It’s always fun and exciting, there’s never a dull moment.”
Darnell, 32, moved to New York in 2011, two years after graduating from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. For those two years in between graduating and moving to the opposite side of the country, he stayed at APU, working in the university advancement office. He gave up a secure job to pursue his dream of becoming a Broadway actor, accompanied by his wife Wanda.
Wanda and Darnell started dating in college, getting married the day before they graduated. While Abraham began his professional acting career, Wanda started working at The King’s College in Manhattan. She continued working there, serving as the assistant director of admissions, until 2017.
At the beginning of 2017, Darnell was booked for a nationwide tour of the Tony winning show, The Color Purple. He performed as “Mister” across the country, including shows in his native California. Wanda left her job to come with him, working as the merchandise manager for the tour. For them, this tour was a big opportunity, the biggest job Darnell had booked yet. However, he has his mind set on something bigger.
“My next goal is to get on Broadway. People ask, ‘Why Broadway? What’s so special about Broadway,” Darnell said. “For me, it’s kind of like athletics. You have college division I sports, then major league sports, and then there’s the Olympics. I like to think of Broadway as the Olympics. I’ve had chances to do division I shows and now some major league shows. I want to get the chance to compete at the Olympic level.”
Darnell thinks he’s almost there. In fact, in the past three weeks, he’s had eight separate auditions for a Broadway show. Due to the prominence of the show and the secrecy of Broadway, he asked the name of the show to be kept off the record.
While he hasn’t made it to the Olympic level yet, he’s doing everything he can to prepare for it. In between shows, he takes classes and reads as much material as he can to become a more well rounded actor. He has also built an impressive repertoire of roles in the minor or major leagues, as it were.
Aside from The Color Purple, Darnell has performed as “Coalhouse” in Ragtime, as “Martin Luther King Jr.” in I dream, as “Jake” in Sideshow, and “Nakawa” in Festival of the Lion King. He said each role brings a unique set of challenges and it’s hard to determine which one has been a favorite. After some consideration, he determines it’s a tie between “Coalhouse” and “MLK Jr.”
Darnell has played the role of “Coalhouse” four separate times. His performance has drawn rave reviews, including this one from The Boston Globe, “Darnell Abraham delivers a powerhouse performance as Coalhouse, communicating the character’s joyous embrace of life at the start and his icy, resolute fury when events spur him on to a quest for revenge.”
The role was originally written for one of Darnell’s role models, Bryan Stokes Mitchell. However, in his extensive experience performing this role, Darnell may have surpassed Mitchell’s performance. Carla Maria Verdino-Sullwold wrote, “Darnell Abraham is a riveting Coalhouse Walker, who makes the character’s transition from dignified gentleman to embittered terrorist both believable and empathetic. He delivers his big vocal numbers in a creamy baritone capable of stabbing intensity.”
Darnell said one of his favorite moments of acting came after a Ragtime performance in North Carolina.
“That was a very sensitive time for our nation, for our audience members and cast members alike. The message of the show seemed more poignant than ever,” Darnell said. “To be able to connect with the audience members after that show was special. I got to see them recognize their privilege and to see them want to change. The performance spoke to them. Those are the moments that are really special.”
However, an even more special moment for him might have been in his I Dream performance in Grand Rapids, MI. Darnell said he learned a lot about himself and MLK Jr. while studying for his role.
“I learned that we’re not too different. He puts his pants one leg at a time too, literally,” Darnell said. “I feel like if MLK can do it, then so can I. It may not look the same. MLK allowed himself to be used by God. I, as an artist, can allow myself to be used by God as well.”
This sentiment takes him back to his home, to California. Darnell was born and raised in Bakersfield, CA. His family is still all back there and to them, he’s still Tyree (he goes by his middle name, Darnell). One of the things he misses the most about home is the food. Darnell loves Mexican food and he says he can’t find any authentic Mexican cuisine in New York.
Darnell envisions moving back someday, or potentially having a home in both New York and L.A. However, for now, he and Wanda are just focused on saving up to purchase their first home here. They’re thinking about starting a family. They take it one day at a time, but set goals for themselves each year. Darnell’s current goal is just to get booked again for a show, but the goal for his Olympics seems closer than ever.