An Interview with Daveed Diggs
Seven or so years ago, I was in San Francisco, in the audience of a play I had come to review called Mirrors in Every Corner, written by Chinaka Hodge. The play was brilliant, and one performer really stood out for me—stood out in that play, and from any actor I’d seen in any other play in years. I wrote the theater to arrange an interview with the actor, Daveed Diggs. This was long before his acclaimed performance as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, first off and then on Broadway.
What stood out? Diggs’s stage manner felt casual, natural beyond the “naturalness” of a dramatic actor who has absorbed the Method. It was like he wasn’t acting at all, just helping someone, say, paint their house. The role—Watts, the protective older brother of a white girl who’s mysteriously born into a black family—demanded intensity, and his performance had this, and yet it never suggested the strain of craft that one detects in some actors. I was reminded of the title of that Kierkegaard book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. In his performance one sensed a goodness, a purity of heart; could it be simply that he willed one thing? But what?
We spoke over the phone for forty-five minutes, in 2010, about his love of “table work” (when actors sit at a table and discuss the play); his work as a musician with his experimental hip-hop group, clipping, and his days as a theater major at Brown, where he claimed not to have learned much, especially from other students: “I was a little bit too self-centered to examine the work that other people were doing.”
THE BELIEVER: It’s funny to hear you say that you were self-centered at Brown, because when I saw you onstage, I felt the opposite: a deep casualness in your performance which reads as the self-assurance of someone doing a genuine favor for someone else.
DAVEED DIGGS: It was less like a favor and more like I thought the purpose of the show and the artistic merit of the show were worth more than I could ever give. First of all, Chinaka [Hodge, the playwright], who is one of my best friends, wrote this part for me. She is also, apart from being one of my best friends, one of my favorite artists in existence, so that was very humbling. Then, it was a show about Oakland, which is the place in the world I care about the most. It’s where I was born and raised. So to get to do a theater piece about Oakland, California, was also very humbling.
BLVR: Playing a character that’s written for you—did you have more confidence because not only were you the first person to play it, but you’re the ideal person to play it?
DD: Actually, it was way scarier. I was really nervous, because I cared so much. I’d been reading that part for years, and I really wanted everybody who saw the show to know it was as beautiful as I knew it was. The success of the play itself mattered so much to me—which maybe also contributes a little to the kind of nonchalance you were talking about in the performance.
BLVR: So to try to do this “brilliant” performance somehow would clash with that?
DD: It was more just about making sure that the play did what it was supposed to do. The great thing about Chinaka’s work is that if you say the words she wrote, it’s going to work. She’s very careful. You don’t have to do much to it. It was really about getting out of the way of the play.
BLVR: The audience seemed very engaged in the show when I was there.
DD: Yeah, it was like doing a very small-cast play but with a very large ensemble, like everybody in that building was contributing, so the energy exchanged was really important—I mean, the energy exchanged between the folks in the audience and all of the ghosts that exist in the space. It was an experience that opened itself up.
BLVR: How do you think the audience was brought in?
DD: First of all, we performed it in San Francisco, so to have a play that is really about people who live next door to everybody in your audience is kind of a special thing. Also, I’ve been acting professionally for, what, six years now, and you rarely get to do a play that has such a multicultural audience, and I honestly mean multicultural, as opposed to just a black audience. It was a super-diverse group that was really representative of this area. And having it be a play that deals with race, in a space like this, in front of an audience who’s really smart and really interested in the topics that are being discussed—it becomes more of a dialogue already. Over the course of the whole thing there was so much response, like real visceral and vocal responses during the play to what we were doing and to what the play was saying.
BLVR: If you’re part of a small cast that is part of a large ensemble, that makes acting sound less like this ego thing than like something more humble.
DD: It was even more difficult than usual in this play to listen to people compliment me afterward, ’cause it didn’t feel like I did anything.
BLVR: So how could you tell whether you were doing a good job as an actor?
DD: Normally the way I gauge my own performance is I think back to how many moments I had where I didn’t feel connected. With this play, it never felt like a problem bringing a lot of myself to Watts. It wasn’t about the moments I felt connected—because I always felt connected. It became a much more technical thing, like, This part should have been faster. It was a lot more like playing music than most plays I’ve done.
BLVR: Playing music?
DD: Like rehearsing for a show with my band or something, that’s so much about this energetic exchange. You have these pieces you’re playing, but when you’re doing a concert, it’s about audience involvement, and it’s about creating this moment as opposed to creating this specific story.
BLVR: You and Chinaka are also in this… Is it a band, the Getback? Or you do lots of different art projects together? It’s kind of mysterious to me.
DD: That’s something we are struggling with in terms of presentation right now [laughs], but what that is essentially is these artists who are all doing different art, but we are also a band, and we also make music together. The Getback is actually an umbrella for all of the art that we do, so Mirrors was technically a Getback production. It’s something we’re using to keep all of our art sort of associated with each other, because I think I would always like anything I do to be associated with Chinaka Hodge, and anything I do to be associated with Rafael Casal and Lauren Nagel, and anybody else who ends up being part of the Getback, for sure.
BLVR: What do you mean, “associated with” these people? If you’re the one who makes it, what does it mean to be associated with other people?
DD: Even though I’m the one who makes it, it’s still something [that’s] in conversation with all of these folks. I don’t release any music without those people hearing it, and they are intimately involved with every aspect of performance that I do. I talk to them constantly about plays that I’m in and the struggles that I’m having, and aside from being really good friends of mine, they’re also artists whose opinions I really value, so I feel like any artistic work I do is as much theirs as it is mine.
BLVR: A more old-fashioned model is when there’s an artist alone and they do whatever they can to further their career—like move wherever they have to move—and that’s the most important thing, versus this other model, where you’re part of a community, you collaborate, you create things together out of this place and for this place. That seems more contemporary.
DD: I think so, particularly in a time when support for the artists in general is being cut all over the place, so we don’t have much besides each other, you know. If you find a group of people that you really click with and that you really trust, it’s good to keep that around.