'Cork reminds me of San Francisco': Hamilton musical star speaks about his love for Leeside

'Cork reminds me of San Francisco': Hamilton musical star speaks about his love for Leeside

Paul Oakley Stovall, actor and activist, star of the musical Hamilton, pictured at Nano Nagle Place, who are hosting the Museum of Literature Ireland's 'Douglass in Ireland' exhibition as part of #DouglassWeek, a weeklong creative commemoration of Frederick Douglass in Ireland from 8th - 14th February. Picture: Clare Keogh

CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED writer and actor Paul Oakley Stovall who starred in the smash-hit musical Hamilton has spoken about his love for Cork while visiting the city researching and developing a new television series centred on Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland over 175 years ago.

Mr Stovall, who played George Washington in the first national tour of Hamilton, is also taking part in Douglass Week, a major transatlantic online festival this week celebrating the legacy of the abolitionist leader.

Born a slave in Maryland in 1818 before escaping at the age of 20, Frederick Douglass visited Cork in 1845 as part of a two-year lecture tour of Britain and Ireland.

He spent three weeks in Cork giving numerous public speeches against slavery.

Speaking to The Echo, Mr Stovall, from Chicago, said it was through an online mentoring project for new writers alongside Wicklow-based writer, director and public speaker, Nadia Ramoutar, that he first learned about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland.

“Nadia said I think there’s a story that you could write about this. She said I just don’t think it’s my story to write and I think that you could do it.” 

It was then that Mr Stovall decided to travel to Ireland to research his new programme, an eight-episode limited series, which he describes as a “fictional dramatic representation of Frederick in Ireland”.

He is working with Douglass’ great-great-grandson Ken Morris on the project.

“Frederick Douglass’ great-great-grandson Ken Morris has signed on in a formal partnership.

“He read my pilot episode and he loved it so much that he said I want to partner with you on this.

“That’s pretty cool because, as you can imagine, a lot of people come to him saying I want to write a Frederick Douglass biography or this and that and he just said no one knows about this Ireland part and no one is writing this and the way you’re going about this is the way I think about my great-great-grandfather,” he said.

“I’m really taking a fantastical swing at this [the series].

“History books are great but history is always told by old white men.” 

In December, Mr Stovall arrived in Dublin, where he first took up a three-week residency at the Irish Institute of Music and Song.

There he wrote five original songs with his colleague Nikhil Saboo, who also starred in Hamilton.

“They’re all fictional imaginings of Frederick’s life in Cork.

“I imagined what would it be like for him to have sung a duet with Isabelle Jennings of the Jennings family who lived over on Brown Street here in Cork where Frederick stayed.

“We got brave enough to let Ken Morris hear the song in a demo version and we suggested that his daughter sing the role of Isabelle so now Frederick Douglass’ actual bloodline is going to be singing in Cork,” he explained.

Now in Cork, working on his new television series and participating in Douglass Week, Mr Stovall said he was instantly charmed by the city.

“I get it why Cork wants to be the capital. To me, it reminds me of San Francisco, it’s so picturesque.” 

Indeed, Mr Stovall is no stranger to exploring new cities.

The demanding Hamilton tour saw him visit 20 cities in the US in 18 months.

“That was interesting because I had kind of left the business and gone into politics,” he said, speaking about how he landed the coveted role.

“I went into politics in the spring of 2008 to work as a volunteer on Senator Obama’s campaign.

“That turned into a full-time position as an advance associate so I was on a team of people that would set up the events for the senator or his wife or his running mate back then, Joe Biden.

“Once they won then you continue to do that work through the first administration so I ended up doing that for seven years.

“I wouldn’t say I got to know them or anything like that – I worked almost exclusively for Mrs Obama’s team – but I at least got to observe from my vantage point what it was like for them to be not the first president and first lady, but they were a first in their own way.

“When I went back into acting, I let my agent know. The Hamilton audition came up, I did the callback, I got through it.” 

Mr Stovall credits his experience working in politics for helping him to remain composed during the audition process.

“Nothing can rattle you when you’ve been on that rollercoaster ride that I’d been on.

“I didn’t feel like if I didn’t get it my world was going to crumble and I think that it carried over into my performance.

“George Washington was known to be quite calm in the eye of a storm – he had a bad temper but he tried to keep it behind closed doors.” 

Hamilton: An American Musical is a sung-and-rapped-through musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda which tells the story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The production became famed for its diverse casting – an element which Mr Stovall said proved controversial.

“It was nuts, especially on the tour. We went to some cities, such as Boston or Philadelphia where people welcome you with open arms and other places where people don’t want to see a black man playing George Washington.” 

In participating in Douglass Week and creating his new television series, Mr Stovall is hoping to inspire a new generation about Douglass’ vision of unity and tolerance.

“Frederick Douglass is not only significant for black people in America, he has continued to bring people together for nearly 200 years.” 

Speaking about Douglass Week, UCC-based researcher and project manager of the event series, Dr Caroline Schroeter, explains that Douglass Week “aims to connect people who share an interest and passion for Frederick Douglass, but also offers a platform for people to discuss contemporary issues related to his life and legacy: racism and racial justice, human and civil rights activism, social activism, refugee crises, American-Irish relations, creative forms of commemoration, and other related topics that remain relevant in the 21st century”.

To find out about the remainder of the Douglass Week events visit www.douglassincork.com

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