CHICAGO — Joseph Morales remembers the last phone call he had with the man he called “Dad.” Command Sgt. Major James Blankenbecler was calling from Fort Hood to let Joseph know he was on his way to Iraq.
“It was a rushed phone call,” Joseph said. “I regret that our last call was so short.”
Blankenbecler served with the 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment. It was September 2003, and Joseph, 20, had recently relocated to New York City, where he was hoping to make a name for himself in the bright lights. He was in the theater, excited to watch “Rent,” to experience his first Broadway show, when the phone call came. He stepped out to answer it.
Like most kids raised up military, Joseph was used to his father’s deployments. He didn’t have any particular concerns about his dad going off to Iraq. He had deployed to war zones before. They spoke briefly, but before they hung up Blankenbecler made sure to tell the son he’d raised as his own how proud he was of him.
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“It was as if he wanted me to remember that most of all,” Joseph says.
Only a few weeks later, Joseph was again in the theater when his phone exploded with text messages urging him to call family members right away. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.”
He reached his 14-year-old sister Jessie first: “She blurted out — ‘Daddy is dead!’”
Blankenbecler had been in a vehicle in a convoy in Samarra on October 1 when it was hit by an improvised explosive device and rocket-propelled grenade. At the time of his death, Blankenbecler had only been in-country 18 days.
The rest of that evening is a blur for Joseph. He remembers how strange it was taking the subway back to his apartment. He remembers someone hugging him, but can’t recall if it was a friend or just someone nearby. He remembers the tears and the mind-numbing disbelief that his dad was dead. Gone. Never again would he step out of the theater to take a phone call from his father. Nor would he be able to call him and share the news of landing what is unquestionably one of the biggest roles of an actor’s lifetime. Joseph Morales is “Hamilton.”
It is an electrifying moment when Joseph steps into the spotlight at Chicago’s Majestic Theater during Sunday’s matinee and declares himself to be Alexander Hamilton. The crowd, some of whom have been waiting months for this opportunity, bursts into thundering applause. Joseph Morales’ mother, Linnie Blankenbecler, has flown from Texas for the week, celebrating her birthday and celebrating her son.
Fans can’t help but notice how much Joseph resembles playwright-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in stature and in the cut of his jaw. Auditioning for the Chicago production was a months-long, nerve-wracking process. Joseph was not an unknown entity to Miranda. He had taken over the previous part of Usnavi in Miranda’s Tony-winning “In the Heights.” Joseph garnered glowing reviews with the national tour. Reviewers, who can be particularly harsh when a star is replaced, referred to Joseph as “charming” and noted his rapping abilities were both “coherent” and “fast flowing.”
Never are those skills more evident than when Joseph engages the audience with the Yorktown scene in “Hamilton,” currently Joseph’s favorite scene in the production (although his favorite scene changes at a rapid-fire pace, too, depending upon his mood and that day’s performance).
Oddly enough, neither Joseph nor his mother Linnie thought much of their own immigrant background before his work in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hits. They both laugh as Linnie notes that whenever she answers the question of nationality, she always checks the box “White.” For many years, Joseph did so as well, despite the fact that his maternal grandmother, Linnie’s mom, was full-blooded Japanese and a war-time bride. And Joseph’s biological father is Hispanic.
It was while he was in Japan on tour with “In the Heights” that Joseph was awakened to his own family’s stories of immigrating. His grandmother’s silence on the subject only undergirded for him and for Linnie how difficult it must have been for her mother to leave behind the only life she’d ever known and make her way in the new world. A world in which Japanese were being interned for no other reason than they were different.
Relaxing on a couch in Chicago’s SOHO club, a cup of cappuccino cooling before him, Joseph says that he’s grown accustomed to being different. He’s embraced it, even. He credits his soldier father for that. The military lifestyle afforded Joseph the opportunity to see the world from a lot of different perspectives. Even so, that drive for military service on the front lines that Alexander Hamilton had, that his own father possessed, escaped Joseph. Yet his father never made a fuss over having a son who would rather play a soldier than be one.
“He always supported me,” Joseph says.
That’s why their last phone call continues to echo over the years. Even if Joseph didn’t have a premonition of the danger ahead, perhaps his father did.
“It’s like he needed me to know how proud he was,” Joseph said. “I mean, I knew that but he didn’t say it in every phone call. This time he made a point of saying it.”
Perhaps that is why when Joseph Morales steps into the spotlight as Alexander Hamilton, it’s not an ache he feels but rather an ethereal calm.
“I feel like my dad is with me always, and that he sees me.”
Joseph Morales isn’t just the star of “Hamilton” — he’s the Gold Star son of Command Sgt. Major James Blankenbecler. That’s a role that he strives to live up to every day, on and off center stage. His father’s pride in him carries him through the hard days and inspires him to lead an honorable life. A life of kindness and excellence. The kind of life his soldier father led. A life that welcomes immigrants to the land of the free and the brave.
Karen Spears Zacharias, Columbus native and former Ledger-Enquirer staff writer, is an independent essayist, blogger and author of several popularly and critically acclaimed books, the first of which, “Mother of Rain,” was adapted for the stage at the Springer Opera House. www.karenzach.com.