written by reggie allen
“Is the Books-a-Million gone now?”
Broadway actor and Huntsville Native Michael Luwoye asks me in a phone interview. He’s referring to the former University Drive location that relocated to the far end of Memorial Parkway. I catch him relaxing on a sunny day in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. Visits home are few and far in between, so naturally he’s curious about his old stomping grounds.
A lot has changed in Huntsville, but the same can be said for Luwoye. An alumnus of Lee High School, the young thespian honed his craft at the University of Alabama. After graduating, Luwoye catapulted in the regional theatre scene with breakout performances in “The Invisible Thread”, “Cardboard Piano”, “Tick…Tick BOOM”, and “Marley.”
Not only has Luwoye played his share of historical figures, but he’s also made history himself. In 2017, he became the first Black, Nigerian actor to take on the mantle of Alexander Hamilton, the lead in Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit “Hamilton”.
His most recent feat? Taking on the titular role of Nelson Mandela for the Young Vic Theatre’s production of “Mandela: A New Musical” in London.
In addition to his work onstage, the New York-based performer has racked up an impressive amount on-screen credits including “She’s Gotta Have It”, “The Gilded Age”, “The Magicians”, “Emancipation”, “Waco” and “Baby Shark”, which recently landed him an Emmy nomination.
HM: You’re fresh off your run as Mandela. What did you learn from the role?
ML: Mandela helped to put language to a lot of feelings I’ve had throughout my life concerning what we as humans fight for, and how our past pains inform the way we attempt to protect what we see as valuable in order to live in this world. I wasn’t aware of a lot of specifics about him or his family outside of an Oprah interview I’ve seen replayed since I was younger. Having now read through his autobiography, his letters, and portraying a characterization of him in the musical, I’ve learned a great deal about the sacrifices and difficult nuances that come with the commitment to a humanist mission.
Mandela’s persona – and the myths projected onto him – depict an icon which can be inaccessible and difficult to relate to. While I cannot be the man himself – or the various men, women, and children who fought in the struggle for a democratic South Africa – the lessons of maintaining a practice of self-empowerment, holding compassion for self and others in the face of viscous propaganda aiming to dehumanize, and committing to the ideal he spoke of in the Rivonia Trial continues to inform the way I consume prejudicial information about people whose full stories I’ve yet to learn about and leads me towards listening to my loved ones and strangers slowly and with even more depth.
HM: Coming from a mostly theatre background, what’s the transition from theatre to film roles been like?
ML: It’s been a trip. It’s so much more involved. It’s a different type of playground because it’s not as ephemeral as theater is. It’s not often recorded when you’re doing theater. And so going into the television film world to where there’s a camera there, you’re able to see what you just did. If the director allows you to look at the monitors afterwards, just see the take. There are so many things that are in view that you would never see if you’re on stage. Usually, you’re just facing the audience, but there is technically no audience there. But you’ll see the people that are working. You’ll see people just off screen that you never see in a theatrical way or avenue. So, it’s a very different thing. It’s a lot more that’s added to your perspective, which, at first was very distracting, but now it just feels a lot more intriguing.
HM: With the writer’s strike going on, what has that experience been like as an actor?
ML: For me, personally, it’s just personally me not involved with it. This type of career path is precarious in so many ways. Nothing is ever really guaranteed. And I remember the writer’s strike that happened so many years ago just watching it on television. So, in the middle of it now, the experience of it, talking to different friends in different departments and everything like that and checking things around.
Personally, having worked over the years, this, like any downtime or rest period is useful in a way of like being able to rest and being able to exercise or read things that you haven’t really been able to read, like enriching your own personal life and just try to learn different things as much as I can. I know having done television and film work, it’s a completely different medium for me. There’s a lot of things that I haven’t that even being on set for things, there’s a lot of things that I didn’t know. So, this time is the time where I’m taking the time to learn about different departments and different ways that camera work develops and all that stuff.
HM: In your career, you’ve worked with a few powerhouses. What’s been the most influential piece of advice that’s you’ve been given by someone in the industry?
ML: When I was doing “Emancipation”, the director, Antoine Fuqua. The last time that we spoke on that set, like my last day on set, we had a long conversation. And one of the things that he told me was to trust my instinct, particularly because he’s very accomplished. He works with and knows a lot of different people inside of the industry and everything. But those people are his actual friends. They’re not just business colleague things. But he was just advising me that when you continue to do this type of work, there are a lot of people that may try to influence you out of your instinct and try to position you in a way that you’re more so making decisions based off their vision as opposed to the vision that you might have. And being an actor alone doesn’t necessarily prompt a lot of encouragement for autonomy. And understandably so, you are a piece of the collaboration in the community. You’re the conduit for an audience to navigate, like to portray and to navigate process different feelings, which is an important part.
HM: Was there ever a moment where it clicked that your work was the first time a person saw “someone that looked like them”?
ML: Yeah. I would meet young kids with “Hamilton” because I was the first Nigerian, first Black American to be Hamilton. So that was a big thing there. I would meet people there. I would have conversations with people then. With that, I’ll still get random messages from Nigerians about just seeing me in different things and also just other Black people about that in my messages as well and try to interact with them as much as I can. Again, this is coming from a person who had a flip phone up until 2017, so social media is odd for me. But I try to engage with it in that way. I’m aware that I’ve been a first for a lot of different people. I try to model it with my quirkiness and my introspection as much as I can because I feel like that’s more true to me than grandstanding with things that may not be fully representative to a lot of different people.
HM: When you get a chance to visit Huntsville, what is your go-to place?
ML: My go-to place no longer exists. It was off Oakwood Avenue. It’s this place called Golden Stars. It’s a Chinese spot that I miss so much now. I would go there so much when I was growing up, but it’s gone. I think it’s like a crab place now or something. It’s right off Oakwood Avenue, just before you turn on Meridian. That used to be the place for me. And the last time I was home, I learned that it was gone and that hurt my heart. I missed that place so much. There’s a lot of memories there.