At 4 a.m. Saturday, Daveed Diggs left the party celebrating his last performance in the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” threw some clothes in a bag, and jumped on a train for Washington.
A little over 12 hours later, he was at the Kennedy Center, emceeing the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals. “It’s not hyperbole when I say, I need this so bad right now,” he announced to deafening cheers from the audience.
The poetry slam is an annual competition for teenagers run by Youth Speaks, a nonprofit organization focused on youth education and the oral art of spoken word, or poetry recitation. This year’s event was huge, drawing more than 500 teens from all over the world. But when Youth Speaks was founded in 1996, it mostly touched kids living in the Bay Area, including one Oakland native named Daveed Diggs.
“I had to make this happen,” Diggs said in an interview before taking the stage. “They would have loved me to finish out the weekend at ‘Hamilton,’ but I wanted to do this.”
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, with a baseball cap taming his mass of curly hair, he spoke thoughtfully about his youth and his artistic path, frequently flashing his signature wide grin.
Diggs was a student at Berkeley High School just as Youth Speaks was planting its roots in the neighborhood. The group, Diggs said, made poetry and spoken word just another teen activity, as common as parties or football games.
“It was a part of what you did growing up,” he said. “It was woven in the fabric of the community. I don’t think I realized how special that was until I left. I didn’t know that it wasn’t part of what everyone did when they were teenagers, which was to go watch your friends spit poems.”
As a result, Diggs ended up with a group of friends who all write and perform. When the 34-year-old accepted a Tony Award this year for his dual roles as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton,” he gave a shout-out to Rafael Casal and Chinaka Hodge, two Youth Speaks veterans he has been close with since his youth. Both also had roles in the festival.
In high school, Diggs participated in poetry slams co-organized by Youth Speaks. The group’s founder and executive director, James Kass, still remembers the first time he saw Diggs perform.
“I remember the intelligent nature of his work,” Kass said. “On the stage, he was dynamic. The same energy you see in ‘Hamilton’ now, that was evident when he was a young person.”
Diggs used to write his poems 10 minutes before a show on a notecard scribbled with thoughts and arrows connecting ideas. It wasn’t until Youth Speaks that he learned how to get organized, he said, and think about structure and word choice.
“I was a very good performer, but not a great writer,” he said. “Then Youth Speaks came in, and I got to see the poets they were working with, and they started working with the poets at Berkeley High School. I became very aware that the way they were teaching writing was great.”
Shortly after, he started to write rap songs using the techniques he had learned, forming and joining multiple hip-hop groups that eventually led to his meeting “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in Miranda’s freestyle group, Freestyle Love Supreme.
After graduating from Brown University in 2004, Diggs worked for Youth Speaks as a teacher, imparting the same lessons he had absorbed when he was a budding artist.
“I was really aware, even while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life sort of saved my life,” Diggs said. “As a kid, you don’t have a ton of spaces where you are honored, where what you think is honored, and what you say is revered.”
The personal, political and intimate nature of spoken-word performance translated to his acting as well.
“Acting is about finding truth and finding the way to convey the truth,” he said. “These kids writing their own stories have such easy access to that. I do try to access what I learned from watching them when I’m acting. What are the ways to feel really honest? If it feels forced, it’s not going to work. It doesn’t matter if you wrote the words or not.”
Diggs hoped his presence at Brave New Voices would show the teens that they, too, could make a life from the world of poetry, hip-hop and performance.
“Maybe I can make them a little less stressed out about the future,” he said. “I was so stressed, man. When I was 17, I was so worried about what the hell was going to happen. Maybe it’ll take some of that stress away.”
Youth Speaks’s goal, Kass said, is to create a new generation of people who will define the culture of the future — just as Diggs is doing.
“Here’s a young person we’ve known who is now one of the hottest people in American theater,” Kass said. “Now he is speaking to an entire audience of people that could be him in 15 to 20 years.”
Diggs’s appearance at the festival wasn’t entirely selfless, however. He’s been in a “Hamilton” bubble for two years, and now he needs to recharge. For that, it made sense to return to where he came from, even if he was tired from pulling an all-nighter.
“The energy in the room is crazy,” he said, laughing. “It’s crazy. Every time I come to one of these things, I’m sweating and crying and laughing and screaming. It’s been a while since I was just in a room where kids were being brilliant and honest. I need this for myself. I really wanted to make sure I had the space to come here, and be inspired, and remember what this is like.”