Daveed Diggs discusses identity, ‘Hamilton’ in Hillel annual speaker event

Assem Belhadj, Reporter

Actor Daveed Diggs spoke about his identity and his role in the Broadway musical “Hamilton” on Sunday as part of Northwestern Hillel’s annual speaker event.

Maddie Burton, the event moderator and the artistic director of the Jewish Theatre Ensemble, said JTE coordinated with Hillel to select Diggs as their speaker.

“He cares a lot about representing the Black community in his work,” the Communication senior said. “I think that his work tends to be super identity-focused — that it’s not just a part of him but part of the work that he makes — was pretty integral to our decision.”

Burton asked Diggs about his upbringing and identity. Diggs, who was born and raised in Oakland, Calif. to a Jewish mother and African American father, said the most important part of his development as an artist was the “casual virtuosity” of the Bay Area.

“I grew up surrounded by a bunch of amazing artists and thinkers and writers and mathematicians and scientists … if you were doing something, you were really good at it,” Diggs said. “For me, as I try to translate that into the way that I make art, I like underplaying things that are virtuosic.”

Diggs’ also discussed his Jewish upbringing, with Diggs describing his “laissez-faire” Judaism as a “very casual way of being Jewish”.

Burton then asked Diggs how he navigates his Jewish and Black identities in his work. Diggs said identity politics plays out in his life in a personal and nuanced way. He described identity as fluid and dynamic, and not composed of “labels and boxes.”

“Being Black in college is a very different thing than being Black not in college,” Diggs said. “Eventually you realize that’s because you’re an endangered species … and that part of my identity that was Blackness became a lot more important to me.”

Burton later asked Diggs whether there was a moment when he knew “Hamilton” would reach its popularity of today. Diggs said he did not expect the level of success considering “Hamilton” was not only his first Broadway show, but also his first professional musical.

“I’ve never seen a Broadway show. So I had no frame of reference,” Diggs said. “But I think the second time the Obamas came was a good barometer.”

Diggs also wrote, produced and starred in the 2018 film “Blindspotting,” set in his hometown of Oakland. He recounted the genesis of a movie about Oakland: on Jan. 1, 2009, Oscar Grant was murdered by police. Diggs said his grief prompted the need to tell a story illustrating experiences around the city that were affected by the tragedy.

“It was an opportunity for us to try a whole bunch of shit that might work,” said Diggs. “And a lot of it worked.”

Communication sophomore Natalie Daninhirsch asked Diggs if he had any advice for young actors — especially people of color — trying to break into acting.

“I think my biggest piece of advice for POC or otherwise, but particularly POC is don’t wait for someone to put you in something. You should be making things,” Diggs said. “When you make it yourself, you can put yourself in positions that no one else will put you in.”

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