While television audiences have grown to love Dule Hill over the years with his memorable roles in long-running shows such as The West Wing and USA’s slapstick detective comedy drama Psych, the Great White Way was where he first cut his teeth. At age 10 he served as Savion Glover’s understudy in the Broadway production of The Tap Dance Kid (and later starred in the show’s national tour) and in 1996 he came back to the stage in the George C. Wolfe masterpiece Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.
The East Brunswick, New Jersey native is now back on the boards yet again in Broadway’s After Midnight, which pays homage to the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance and includes the prose of legendary poet Langston Hughes’ and the music of the great Duke Ellington. Co-produced by modern jazz icon Wynton Marsalis and featuring the musical direction of his Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, After Midnight has earned its right to be the must-see musical tour-de-force of the season.
“For me, it’s just a thrill,” Hill, 38, tells NewYork.com. “I started out doing musical theater at the age of 10 here in New York, doing The Tap Dance Kid [and] to be back … especially with this level of talent … I’m in awe every time I walk through the stage door.”
Below, Hill shares insights on his distinctive name, his Caribbean heritage, his favorite soul food dish and lessons learned from the late poet laureate and playwright Amiri Baraka.
I use my middle name
My parents wanted to name me Karim Hill. My aunt always liked the name Dule, from this actor Keir Dullea, who was in 2001: Space Odyssey. That’s how I got the name Karim Dule Hill. Growing up, I never liked the name Karim because people would ask me could you dunk like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
I have deep Caribbean roots
I go back five generations in Jamaica. My dad grew up in Port Royal and my mom grew up in Kingston. My family is from the country like West Moreland and also in Manchester. I’ve been there countless times. As far as cuisine, there’s not really much that comes out of Jamaica that’s on a plate that I don’t like.
I’m a union man
The [Screen Actors Guild] union has done a great job in protecting actors and artists. I am a member of the board even though I’ve been traveling so much I haven’t been as engaged. I’m also a member of the SAG Foundation, which has reading programs for children; it helps artists in need; it has labs for different artists to work on their craft. When I was first asked to be a part, and once I really took the time to look at how I could help, I said “Sure. Why not?” My thing is I think I’ve been a vet of this industry for all of these years, I think I joined SAG when I was maybe 13, I think I can do a little something to help. I don’t think that we should all be just receiving what the union and the foundation does without giving back some and paying it forward.
I found the islands in New York
I’m an island boy, so I love my reggae and soca music. I’m always down at Negril Village, drinking a rum punch or a Guinness. These cats I know do parties all over the place where I get my soca vibes, especially at this party called The Vice on Thursday. I love my southern food, so I go over to SoCo in Brooklyn and eat some chicken and red velvet waffles. I kill that spot.
I’m always tapping
I’m a tap dancer. Once you’re a tap dancer, you’re always a tap dancer. In After Midnight, I get to dance but I don’t do a full tap number. But I dance pretty much every day before the show. [The show’s dancers and I] have our cipher going on right before the show onstage and we trade bits. I love the art form and I believe I’ll be a tap dancer until the day I die.
I’m planning on going back to college
I loved going to Seton Hall [University]. My grandmother used to live right down the block from there back in 1989, when they went to the [NCAA men’s basketball] finals against Michigan. So I’ve always been big into Seton Hall and it was one of the top schools on my list. When I got accepted, it was a no brainer. I still have to go back because I have a year and a half to go to finish my degree because I left when Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk went to Broadway. Some of my best friends are from my time there in college. Go Pirates!
I love “Psychos”
The fans of the television show Psych are called “Psychos,” but they’re surprisingly not psycho. They are generally good-hearted people who have formed a community of love around the show. They have formed friendships with other Psychos and they travel and do things together and travel to Comic Con, they come to see us on stage when we’re doing our shows. They come from all over.
I can sing (almost) as well as I dance
One of the most consistent comments I’ve received from people after the show is “I had no idea you could sing.” And a lot of times my response is “neither did I.” When I did theater when I was younger, I could act, sing and dance, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve been on stage singing. But to be on stage singing with Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Carmen Ruby Floyd, the great Fantasia, and you don’t sound right, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. Of course I took singing lessons. To me, I would be an idiot to try to sing on the same stage that Fantasia sings on and not take some lessons. I’m no idiot (laughs).
I learned acting from a poet laureate
In 2006, I did [poet laureate] Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The main thing I learned is to really challenge yourself to the core of what’s going on. It’s so easy to gloss over something or just stick to the surface. And it will work and the audience will applaud it but dig deep, really take the time… you gotta really connect … go deeper, go deeper, go deeper, go deeper. He was pretty much at every show and to have the playwright there seeing you do the work, it challenges you to go deeper and then in the end and when he shared with me how much he appreciated how deep I went in with it, it made me realize why I enjoy being an artist. He’s a true artist, he was a brilliant mind.
I’m a social media entrepreneur
I’m a big fan of social media, since I got on [Twitter] three years ago I’ve been a Tweetaholic. I am also one of the founders of my own social media app. It’s in the Apple store right now. It’s called Nomino. What makes it special is that it pretty much gamifies Instagram — that’s what I say. It engages the audience to play games with pictures and it adds a trivia element to social media. One of my good friends had the idea and three of us got together and started working together maybe about a year ago and it’s finally coming to market.