WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange has a new superstar and his name is Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who is currently starring in the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton.” Already a Grammy winner as “Best Musical Theater” album and a recipient of seven Drama Desk Awards, “Hamilton” received a Pulitzer Prize on April 18 and is poised to garner Tony recognition as well.
Onaodowan stars as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the musical that tells the tale of orphan immigrant Alexander Hamilton and his rise to founding father. “Hamilton” also features a diverse cast and a hip-hop score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a previous award-winner for “In the Heights.”
Onaodowan, 28, grew up in West Orange with his parents and five sisters and attended Gregory Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle School and West Orange High School, graduating in 2005. He set his sights on theater following a football injury and never looked back. He was a member of the Thespian Troupe at the high school, worked as a stagehand and performed in several productions.
While at West Orange High School, Onaodowan was a member of the jubilee choir, directed by William Farley.
“Mr. Farley helped encourage me and nurture my musical expression,” Onaodowan said in a press release. “I admired Mr. Farley and appreciated the guidance and support he gave me.”
Farley, who also directed Onaodowan on the award-winning boys’ step team, was generous in his praise.
“Okieriete was a very talented vocalist who was selected for the New Jersey School Music Association Region Choir,” Farley said in the release. “When he performed in the school musical I saw that he had an impressive stage presence, and I recall that he expressed the desire to excel in the field. I’m really glad to see that his hard work and drive paid off. I am very proud of him. He was absolutely one of my favorite students.”
WOHS language arts teacher Craig Champagne taught Onaodowan as well and stays in touch with his former student.
“I taught Okieriete when he was a senior and I’m proud to say we’ve maintained a friendship to this day,” Champagne said in the release. “As a teenager, it was apparent that he loved to perform. He’s always been his own person while remaining true to himself and being humble at the same time.”
Following graduation Onaodowan worked in local and regional theater, performing in musicals like “Ragtime” with Theater Under the Stars at the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center. During that time, he formed a friendship with director Leslie Potashner.
“Besides being enormously talented, Okieriete is incredibly hardworking and dedicated,” she said in the release, “and he made a lot of sacrifices to pursue his career.
“Okieriete is also incredibly kind and generous with his time,” she continued. “I have a son who is on the autism spectrum. Visiting him backstage after his performances of ‘Rocky’ and ‘Hamilton,’ Okieriete went out of his way to welcome my son, and to give him great big hugs. I will always appreciate that gesture. The greatest honor I have ever received is when Okieriete introduced me to his friends as his ‘aunt.’”
A series of off- and off-off-Broadway productions followed, with his big break coming in 2012 in the Broadway production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Roles in “Rocky,” “Luce” off-Broadway, a national tour of “American Idiot,” and “Hamilton” followed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
When Onaodowan was asked what advice he would give aspiring actors, he said, “Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t be afraid to take time out of your life to live your life. Work hard to change the world with the gift you were given. Speak truth always, even to yourself.”
It appears that Onaodowan has done that, and a whole lot more.