Hamilton actor Gabriel Mokake on how Norfolk played a part in his path to the West End
PUBLISHED: 14:58 30 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:24 30 May 2018
From fighting for the right to stay in the UK to starring in one of the West End’s biggest shows, Hamilton actor Gabriel Mokake has an inspiring story to tell both on stage and off. He speaks to arts correspondent Emma Knights.
Hamilton is one of the hottest tickets in London’s West End at the moment, with the groundbreaking show telling the story of one of America’s founding fathers through a mash-up of hip hop and musical theatre scooping Olivier Awards galore and rave reviews.
And one of the cast members playing a part in its success is Gabriel Mokake who first honed his acting skills as a schoolboy here in Norfolk.
“It’s unfathomable and very insane to be part of such a big, big show,” said Gabriel, 26, who is in the ensemble and first cover for the part of America’s first president, George Washington, and the dual role of Irish-American tailor and spy Hercules Mulligan and fourth US president James Madison.
“Seeing how the show impacts on the audience every night is incredible, it’s just a fantastic show to be a part of,” he said, adding how he loved how the show breaks the rules, from its eclectic mix of music to its diverse casting.
And just as the show tells the incredible story of how Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies, defied the odds to become one of America’s founding fathers and George Washington’s right-hand man, so too does Gabriel have his own inspiring tale to tell of achievement in the face of adversity.
As he takes to the Victoria Palace Theatre stage for each performance, he is keenly aware of some parallels between his own story and that of the show’s title character.
“The moment I found out I had an audition I went away and researched the whole show and listened to it over and over and I was so gobsmacked because this story resonated so much with me. I am a Hamilton of some sort,” he said, reflecting on both their experiences as immigrants.
While Alexander Hamilton travelled from the West Indies to make a new life for himself in America, Gabriel’s own family moved from their home in Keko - in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - to Norfolk where from the age of nine he grew up and pursued his love of acting.
“Obviously he (Alexander Hamilton) moved away to make a better life for himself and took every opportunity that was given to him and met the right people and made his way up, and I feel I have done exactly that,” Gabriel said.
For Gabriel some of those right people were his “incredible” teachers at the then Hewett School, in Norwich, and they included head of drama Cordelia Spence and head of dance Sarah Powell.
“They saw this boy who had a lot of energy and was very creative and let me fly with that,” he said.
“One of my proudest moments recently was when the two of them came and saw the show and saw me as a principal role for the first time, playing Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.”
It was a moment that must have also had added poignancy because it could so easily have never happened.
For just as Gabriel was on the cusp of realising his dreams at aged 18 in 2010, with offers of scholarships at two top drama schools, he faced having his ambitions dashed as he and his family, including his mother Scholastica Kazidi and his younger brother Severin, were threatened with deportation back to Tanzania despite Norwich having been their home for nine years.
But the local community rallied around, a concert was held to raise awareness of their plight and more than 3,000 people signed a petition calling for them to be allowed to stay - and thankfully they won their fight.
At the time, Gabriel, who went on to study musical theatre at Guildford School of Acting, said: “It’s great relief to know that there is still justice in the world. I increase my faith immensely and would like to thank everybody that supported me through these terrible times.”
And looking back now, he is philosophical about how what happened helped him become who he is today.
“It was a very difficult time having all that happen but I am a strong believer that things happen to make you the person you are, and it made me a stronger person,” he said.
Since then Gabriel has launched an impressive stage career with highlights prior to Hamilton including roles in The Colour Purple, Hairspray, Dreamgirls and Porgy and Bess.
He still stays connected to Norwich, where his mother and brother continue to live, and alongside his Hewett School teachers he also credits many Norfolk organisations with helping helping him on the path to his West End career - including Norwich arts venue The Garage, City College Norwich and Michala Jane School of Dance.
In the future he hopes to use his own experiences to give something back and inspire the next generation to follow their dreams, but for now he is having a great time telling the story of Alexander Hamilton.
“I feel like the show Hamilton, it’s a testament to life really and what you can make happen out of nothing almost,” he said.
“The world that we are in at the moment, it’s a bit dreary and personally I feel very uncertain of what’s to come...but it’s great to know there are a lot of pieces of theatre now that highlight that we as people are incredible, we can write our own stories and change our narratives.
“That is what Hamilton did.”
• Hamilton is at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.hamiltonmusical.com/london