Six years ago, Phillip Johnson-Richardson had no home. Now he alternates happily between Chicago’s Gold Coast and the colonial United States.
When he entered Northwest School of the Arts, he saw no path to follow. After a celebrated production of “The Color Purple,” he knew his destiny and sprinted toward it. He rolled through college, into professional summer gigs and onto the stage of CIBC Theatre in “Hamilton” at 22.
Johnson-Richardson snared that Chicago job within weeks of graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music this spring. Most days, he joins the ensemble. But the actor playing the title role does seven shows a week, and two understudies take turns sharing the eighth.
So the first time the Charlotte native donned the white frock coat, he wasn’t just in “Hamilton.” He was Hamilton.
“It was a Saturday matinee in July,” he recalls. “The opening number is built up with everybody talking about you, and then it’s just you at center stage, standing on the red X in the spotlight. Everyone turns to you, and you sing ‘Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.’ It was surreal.”
It must’ve been, especially for a guy who didn’t initially foresee a theatrical career at NWSA.
“I first auditioned as a musician, because I played clarinet in middle school,” he says. “I would’ve gone to Vance, my home school, but I was figuring out who I was. Not who I was in (the arts), but who I was.”
Circumstances made that tough. By the end of his sophomore year, Phillip, his mother and sisters had lost their home and were sleeping in his aunt’s garage.
“I’ve sort of blocked out that period,” he says. “It was really small, with all those people there, but we didn’t have anywhere to go for a couple of weeks. Then my grandma went to stay with my uncle, and we stayed at her house awhile. I went to ITF (International Thespian Festival), and when I came back, we had a house. But that whole time I was prepping for ITF, I was trying not to think about what was happening, because it affects everything you do.”
By then, he’d seen the future. In 2012, he and his NWSA classmates mounted the first high school production of “The Color Purple” – on campus, then at Halton Theater – and ultimately took it to Lincoln, Neb., where ITF honors exceptional academic ensembles.
“When we did ‘Color Purple’ at Halton,’ we were all sobbing at the curtain call,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is the thing I’m going to do with my life.’ I had figured out what I was here for.”
“I knew when I met Phillip that he had a presence, an aura and personal magnetism that was special for someone that young,” she says. “He was funny, endearing and crazy talented. He didn’t know it, but (I) did.
“He worked hard and was dedicated to the craft…. With the encouragement of (Corey) Mitchell and his faith in God, he was able to deal with some of life’s biggest upsets. I followed him with my camera for over three years and watched him evolve in front of the lens from a teenager to a man.”
Mitchell, the Tony-winning educator who directed the show at NWSA, offers independent testimony to charisma – from his own mom. She’d been in Presbyterian Hospital during “Purple” and hadn’t seen Johnson-Richardson onstage until the school’s “Godspell.”
Says Mitchell, “About a third of the way through the show, she leaned over and whispered, ‘Your Jesus is as cool as Barack Obama.’
“I had the tremendous pleasure of going to Chicago to see Phillip in ‘Hamilton.’ One of the roles he played was the cuckold, James Reynolds. His costume was a wide-brimmed hat and a fly brown leather jacket. When he ambled onto the stage with the swagger of Cam Newton after he’s thrown a perfect touchdown pass, I thought about how true my mother’s words were.”
The actor’s maturity comes partly from family responsibilities. On his website, he thanks “Mom, Grandma and three mischievous yet beautiful little sisters (who) had a huge part in the man he has become today and is striving to be on a daily basis.”
Ask about that, and he laughs. “My first sister was born when I was 13. I had been an only child -- my mom and I were alone until I was 11, when my stepdad came – and all the attention had been on me. Now everything was about the baby, because it had to be. I had to understand it wasn’t always going to be about me.
“I had a good part in helping to raise my sisters. My mom and stepdad had jobs and would ask me to watch them. I wanted to go out and be a teenager with my friends, but I learned how much I cared about my family. I see them now, growing and interacting with each other, and they’re the reason I want a family.”
Johnson-Richardson has prepared for a major career, whether learning rapier-and-dagger combat (for a college “Taming of the Shrew” where Petruchio dueled with Katherine) or belting to the back rows of St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre in summer repertory. (The nation’s largest outdoor venue holds 11,000 seats.)
Now he hip-hops through “Hamilton” and wonders where his next leap will take him.
“All the people in the original cast have gone on to film and TV, and their lives are skyrocketing,” he says. “I’m in a position to take my career to the next level, too. Casting directors ask, ‘What have you done?’ If you say, ‘Hamilton,’ then it’s ‘Oh – we can take a chance on this guy.’ ”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.