For any actor, a role in a Broadway show is the – almost cliche – dream. To have a role in a Broadway show that’s not simply successful, but a cultural touchstone for theatre around the world? That’s something not all actors get to experience. For Jimmie ‘J.J.’ Jeter though, he doesn’t have just one role – he has four.
As a principal standby actor in the Australian company of Hamilton, the American performer brings over three years’ experience with him from seasons in both New York and Chicago to Sydney. For the Australian run, Jeter is a standby for actors cast in the roles of Aaron Burr, Lafayette/Jefferson, Laurens/Philip and the role made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, Alexander Hamilton.
Having already completed a months-long stint as Hamilton in New York in early 2020, Jeter is comfortable filling large boots. However being able to stretch himself as a performer across multiple roles is a whole other talent.
Talking to Jeter about his experiences with this theatrical juggernaut though, his remains genuinely humbled and stoked by it all.
“It’s wild,” he says via Zoom from the Sydney apartment he shares with a fellow castmate.
“Success is interesting, right – what is it? In some ways I’m like, “I’m on top of it,” and in other ways I feel like I’m not really doing the work. What I’m finding, through all of it, I ask the universe: I don’t want success, I just want to be creative. In whatever situation I’m in, I just want to be creative. I have so many interests, it’s such a blessing.”
Those interests extend beyond the stage too. Outside of Hamilton, Jeter is a musician and producer, podcast host, keen photographer and has a history of running successful events of his own back in Chicago. Feeding a constant desire to be creative and expressive through different mediums has given Jeter a natural confidence in the work he puts out.
Even since relocating to Australia with the company, Jeter is working on new music of his own. And though lockdown has obviously been limiting in many ways, Jeter notes that being more or less stranded, geographically, has only bred more creativity.
“It felt like I have no choice now, but to do the thing.” he says.
“My roommate is one of the other guys from America; we were joking a couple of days ago about how he bought suitcases of clothes and I bought suitcases full of studio equipment! I knew from the get go that I wanted to really, really take a step forward in making some music.”
Since being in Sydney, he’s been discovering local artists and immersing himself in the local scene (as much as possible, given current restrictions).
“I’ve been able to check out a couple of jam sessions, one was at the Civic Underground and the other was at The Vanguard,” he says. “I sat in on a session and checked out some people and it was super fun to get on the mic.“
Inspired by a range of artists from the likes of J. Cole and The Alchemist, through to current names pushing the U.K. R&B / jazz fusion movement forward like Tom Misch and Oscar Jerome, Jeter’s own music exists in a space driven by soulful arrangements and butter vocals.
“I’m really into Jordan Rakei, he’s fire. My best friend and I joined his Patreon a couple of months ago and submitted our music, to see what he’d say. He wrote back some really fire words of encouragement, he’s so cool.”
“I didn’t have the distractions of what’s happening in America right now, at least in terms of it being firsthand. There’s no way to get around it, we’re still dealing with it everyday; I’m still connected with my family everyday, hearing what’s happening, but it gives me a different perspective to work through.”
And speaking of perspectives, Jeter has found himself with a unique one being part of the first-ever Australian production of Hamilton. The Australian company has been praised for its diverse casting; a first for Australian theatre in many ways. Through the success of Hamilton in Australia, a massive platform has been given to many talented Australian and New Zealander performers of colour, who have been able to flex and demonstrate a renewed level of strength on stage.
The importance of Hamilton within the Australian arts’ landscape hasn’t escaped Jeter at all.
“If I zoom out a little bit, I had to realise that I’m so used to certain things, doing theatre in America.” he explains.
“There are certain conversations that we are just always having, therefore our work looks a particular way. Coming here, I didn’t realise that there are a lot of people on the ground doing the work, like in America, but in a new way. In a way that people are actually starting to listen to and take notice of, in terms of creating space for all people in the arts.”
“What’s cool is Hamilton has this way of going, “We can put anybody in any position, it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from.” Anybody can play George Washington, anybody can play Hamilton; anybody can play Eliza, anybody can play Angelica. At the end of the day, it’s about people and it’s also about representation.”
The impact the production has had on American culture since its debut in 2015 is significant. 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize…the list of accolades Hamilton has received in the U.S. and the U.K. go on. Miranda’s early description of ‘America then, as told by America now’, couldn’t have been more apt.
And though the American history Hamilton references is a completely different one to the Australian history many of us know, similar social and political threads remain. Hamilton exists as a moment of cultural evolution and a social progression that Americans are still working their way through.
Jeter hopes that in some way, it can provide a similar moment in Australia.
“In our day to day at work, we’re still finding moments where we’re unearthing things,” he admits.
“Where we would be like, ‘Oh we’re still overlooking this,’ in terms of making space for people. We’re no longer working in that way, we’re actually creating space for folk. We’re having really tough conversations, ‘What does this mean? Who is this story for? What do we bring to the story and how do we honour culture? How do we honour ourselves and disenfranchised voices?’”
“I’m excited to see, in the coming years, if everything that we’ve dreamed and everything that we’ve hoped for the show to do, will happen. I really think that it will, because we can see it happening in America. …Sometimes you have to see it first; sometimes progress works in that way. That’s what my experience has been, coming and doing the show here.”