Bryan Terrell Clark — actor, artist and storyteller — recently asked his mom when she knew he was going to be a performer. “Before you could talk,” she responded.
The young Clark, not even a year old, would hear his favorite song on the TV, walk up to the screen and start to bounce, he recalled at a forum hosted by Scripps College in Garrison Theater this past weekend. While Clark’s performances nowadays require more skill than just jumping to music, he attributed his career to those first moments of childish joy.
“It’s our job as parents and teachers and mentors to observe the natural proclivities of our children and guide them, as opposed to imposing what we want them to be and do,” he said.
A seasoned actor, Clark is best known on the stage for playing George Washington in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” as well as Marvin Gaye in “Motown: The Musical” and Cory in “Fences” opposite Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett at the Pasadena Playhouse.
He has also appeared in award winning shows on television such as Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” which tells the story of the Central Park Five, the five Black and Latino teens wrongly accused for the rape of a white Central Park jogger in 1989.
“I am probably more excited to be here than you,” Clark joked. “I have a lot of life to share and I’m standing in the middle of a dream.”
It seems that dreams are daily becoming reality for Clark, who in 2017 landed the role of a lifetime in “Hamilton,” working with Lin Manuel Miranda, whom he described as a “very inspiring, strange, weird little guy.” Clark, who believes in the power of artistic authenticity, used Washington’s identity as a farmer to develop his portrayal of the role.
“Washington had this idea that he shouldn’t rule and reign like a king in Europe, but that we should give the power back to the people. He’s actually aggressively trying to run back to be a farmer,” Clark said. “It’s an authentic idea, a new idea and stepping into your authenticity will always produce why you are here. Your passions will lead you to your purpose.”
Clark loves the premise behind “Hamilton” — viewing the United States through the lens of what its people look like today — and he’s seen its impact first hand. He described an angry letter he received from a parent whose kid got in trouble at school for shouting that “George Washington is Black!” after having seen the show.
“The conversation that mother got a chance to have with her child about what the show was and why it was presented that way is so important,” Clark said.
Actors in “Hamilton” constantly felt the relevance of their work, Clark explained, as the show continues to speak to today’s political climates and debates. He took over the role of Washington just weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“I’m singing ‘One Last Time’ and all of a sudden I realize this is George Washington’s goodbye letter to the nation and I’m singing this song at the exact same moment that Barack Obama is giving his one-last-time speech and quoting the show in Chicago right now. As I got to the end of the song and I got to the end of the stage, I burst out in tears.”
“I’m singing ‘One Last Time’ and all of a sudden I realize this is George Washington’s goodbye letter to the nation and I’m singing this song at the exact same moment that Barack Obama is giving his one-last-time speech and quoting the show in Chicago right now,” Clark said. “As I got to the end of the song and I got to the end of the stage, I burst out in tears.”
Clark regularly speaks to young artists on college campuses and describes his life story as “from Baltimore to Broadway.” He sees his past, including his mother’s perfectionism, his father’s struggle with addiction and his parents’ eventual divorce, as life lessons: tools that have helped him achieve his current success.
Attending Temple University for his undergraduate education, he described how an advisor discouraged him from applying to top graduate programs because “those programs just don’t accept a lot of people of color.” Clark ignored this advice and was accepted into renowned drama programs at Yale University and New York University. But he says he couldn’t have made that leap of faith without his parents.
“I realized in my adulthood that the endurance, resilience and all those foundational things my parents taught me were about survival,” he said. “My dad was integral to that story because part of this profession that I did not understand yet is resilience, after being told no after no you cannot because of your race or your economic status or whatever it is.”
Clark also developed personal ways for combatting the mental toll of such discouragement — for example, everyday he writes three affirmations, three declarations, three people he needs to forgive, ten things he’s grateful for and meditates.
The audience appeared to be deeply moved by Clark’s inspirational talk.
“I just want you to know that you will definitely make it into my gratitude journal this week,” one audience member commented during the event’s Q&A.
“His idea of putting yourself first and your authentic self first while also living in community and supporting communities … it’s your personal joy, but also the joy of the world,” Emma Rosenberg SC ’25 said.
After the official talk at Garrison Theater, Clark met a small group of students to extend the dialogue in a classroom nearby. Here students had the chance to ask more focused questions about the industry, such as “How do you handle constant rejection?” and even philosophical questions like “How do you find time to really get to know yourself?”
In his responses, Clark emphasized the importance of not being hung up on specific opportunities, as even dream jobs aren’t always what they seem, and to remain open to possibilities not yet imagined. He also stressed the importance of doing one thing to make yourself happy everyday to help find what motivates you and what is meaningful to you.
Marissa Chung SC ’25 appreciated this additional opportunity to learn from Clark.
“I think the whole concept of choosing to be happy just really spoke to me,” she said.