Rick Negron, who plays a Trumpish King George III in the hit musical, strolls the plazas of his home town.
A report by Michael Schulman for The New Yorker.
Two Fridays ago, Puerto Rico, like New York before it, had a serious case of “Hamilton” fever. A touring production of the hip-hop musical was about to open at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré, San Juan’s main performing-arts complex, with the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, back in the title role. It was Alexander Hamilton’s birthday, and Miranda, whose father grew up in Puerto Rico, was using the seventeen-day engagement to bring funds and attention to the island, sixteen months after it was pummelled by Hurricane Maria. Jimmy Fallon was coming down to film a live episode. Hours before opening night, workers at Bellas Artes were installing plants and ironing carpets outside the theatre.
Down the street, the actor Rick Negron found some shade outside the Plaza del Mercado, a covered fruit market in the neighborhood of Santurce. Negron, who is fifty-seven and has salt-and-pepper hair and a dancer’s physique, plays King George III in the San Juan production. He is the only cast member native to Puerto Rico. “I was born about two blocks from here, at the Doctors’ Center Hospital,” Negron said, pointing past a plaza full of pigeons. “This was my world for my first eighteen years.”
As Hamilton’s haughty, Britpop-singing comic foil, Negron appears in a resplendent crown and cape. For now, he was in jeans and sandals, with sunglasses dangling from the collar of a purple shirt. His grandfather used to live five blocks from the market. “We’d walk here and buy our fresh fruits,” Negron said. “There’s a meat shop there, and you can get fresh eggs.” His father is Puerto Rican, and his mother, who came to the island from small-town Ohio, taught drama on an Army base. Negron made his theatrical début at age ten, in a San Juan production of the musical “The Me Nobody Knows.” “I drove by the theatre the other day,” he said. “It’s been abandoned for many years.”
He kept performing throughout his teens, including as a backup dancer for Iris Chacón, known as the Puerto Rican Bombshell, who hosted a Saturday-night TV variety show. “Life would stop in Puerto Rico, and everybody would watch ‘The Iris Chacón Show’—especially all the men, because she was very curvy and wore very little clothing,” Negron said. “I wasn’t one of her regulars, because I was still going to school. But, if they needed another dancer, they’d call me. I was sixteen.”
He moved to the mainland for college and then worked on Broadway. In 1986, he was cast in the music video for “Bad,” as part of Michael Jackson’s dancing street gang. In one take, Negron spontaneously did the Funky Chicken. “The minute I did it, I regretted it,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, dear God, please don’t use that take.’ Well, of course they did.” Decades later, in 2005, he was cast in a workshop of “In the Heights,” Miranda’s breakout musical, about Washington Heights. “When he found out that I was in the ‘Bad’ video,” Negron said of Miranda, “he drove to Target and bought the DVD box set, then came back and said, ‘Show me where you are.’ ” Negron later joined the show’s Broadway cast, as the owner of a taxi company. His first night onstage, Miranda did the Funky Chicken during their opening scene together. “Internally, I went, You son of a bitch,” he said.
Negron ducked into the market and pointed out favorite items: passion fruits, mangoes. He said, “I was trying to see if we can find the little baby bananas”—niños. He inquired in Spanish, but a fruit seller told him that she was all out. During Hurricane Maria, Negron was in L.A., where he lives with his wife, an interior designer. He recalled “feeling very helpless” and using WhatsApp to contact relatives on the island who’d lost power. He rallied Stateside friends to donate to repair efforts. “But my biggest bit is now,” he said, “bringing the spotlight here.” Just after Christmas, while “Hamilton” was rehearsing in San Juan, Negron went chinchorreando—barhopping in the countryside—and witnessed the lagging recovery. “I went to a small town, and they said, ‘We didn’t get help, so we put up the lights ourselves.’ By the time the infrastructure rebuilding got to them, they had already solved a lot of their own problems.”
In Puerto Rico, King George’s scenes in “Hamilton” carry a Trumpian whiff—you half expect him to toss out paper towels from under his robe. Negron acknowledged the irony of playing a colonialist monarch in a U.S. territory without voting privileges. “There’s been some controversy about ‘Hamilton,’ this big juggernaut, coming to Puerto Rico,” he said. “Like, ‘Yankee capitalists, go home!’ You are missing the point. This show is about revolution! This show is about the little guy standing up to the imperialist. Not that Puerto Rico has to fight the United States. We just need to be recognized.”