By Marc R. Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing
Whether he’s playing George Washington in “Hamilton,” performing in an opera or writing for “The Daily Show,” actor-singer-writer-producer Jonathan Kirkland, who spoke — and sang — during an appearance at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus on Monday, said it’s vital he knows his part, that he has done his research, when he takes a stage to entertain an audience.
For example, while reading up on Washington after being cast in 2016 in the Chicago Company’s production of “Hamilton,” the hit musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, Kirkland said he learned that the general was energized by battle, which Kirkland said he used to inform his performance.
So, when Kirkland, as Washington, sang “Right-Hand Man,” which takes place during a battle scene, he said he could “envision bullets whizzing by my ears because I did my research.”
Kirkland offered this and other insights about his artistic career during a presentation at the Selby Auditorium sponsored by the Florida Center for Partnerships in Arts-Integrated Teaching, or PAInT. The next day, Kirkland, who got his start in show business as an opera singer, answered more questions about his life and career during a second virtual presentation sponsored by PAInT.
“It’s super important to have actors like Jonathan here because students seeing people who are doing it, is the way they can become it, and that experience is invaluable,” said Chris Garvin, dean of USF’s College of the Arts, who came from Tampa to listen to Kirkland. “As great as our professors are here, they can never simulate what Jonathan does.”
Several campus faculty and staff were in attendance Monday, but the highlight of Kirkland’s appearance was his interactions with theater students from Rowlett Middle Academy, a charter school in Bradenton. The students were welcomed to campus but Sarasota-Manatee Regional Chancellor Karen Holbrook.
Several of the Rowlett students recited monologues and poems, and Kirkland offered praise and some coaching on how they could improve their performances. He suggested that Ash Hernandez, a seventh-grader, shift her attention to different places in the audience as she performed the three distinct chapters in “Clique Quilt,” a monologue she wrote about the social castes that make up middle school life.
“His advice was very useful,” Ash said.
During a conversation with PAInT Director Denise Davis-Cotton, Kirkland said it was vital for performers, regardless of their age or experience level, to own their stage, to give their audiences the best they have to give. Just as important, he said, is to pursue any and all interests you might have, which Kirkland said has been key to his success in varied artistic fields.
“I always had the confidence to go against the grain. None of us is monolithic,” Kirkland said. “It’s important to invest yourself in all of your interests.”
Kirkland demonstrated his versatility during the presentation. He and Davis-Cotton performed a scene from a film script he is writing, and Kirkland sang the jazz standard, “Misty,” “Make Them Hear You,” from the musical “Ragtime,” and from “Hamilton,” “Right-Hand Man,” a song he has performed more than 500 times on stage.
Kirkland acknowledged that George Washington is his best-known role to date, but he also said he has been “blessed” to have a consistent career on stage, as well as in TV and film. He also writes and produces his own work, and despite the ups and downs of show business, he always aims to find his own peace. He is that confident in his talent.
“I know that I am dope,” Kirkland said. “I know that what I do on this planet, no one else can do. … I let my work speak for me.”