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From a Dream to Broadway - Alumnus Aaron Harrington '15 is Now at Center Stage

Aaron HarringtonThree months after her son’s May 2015 graduation from Shaw University, Renee Harrington told him, point-blank, “I’m packing your bags and sending you to New York.” Sure, like any mother, she wanted him with her, back home in Durham. More than that, though, she wanted him to do with his passion and talent for song and stage as she’s told all of her children: “take a chance.” If they fail the first time, or even the next try, she said she would urge them, “Keep going.”

“I told him, bigger opportunities and more chances are for you are in New York.”  Renee Harrington recalls, “I know you’re happy here, but it’s time for you to go.” And she added, “Aaron, you have to step out there and take a leap of faith. Believe things are going to happen for you and things will happen for you.”

Aaron Harrington’s mother knew best.  Seven months after he moved to New Jersey to live with his uncle, the closest relative to New York, Harrington landed his first audition in New York. That was February.

Last month, Harrington hit the stage as Tom Collins in the yearlong National 20th Anniversary Tour of RENT, a Broadway show by Jonathan Larson that originally debuted in 1996. The show makes a stop in Harrington’s hometown with shows at the Durham Performing Arts Center October 11-16. The tour continues nationwide through June 2017 with performances in Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, West Virginia, Vermont, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Michigan and New Hampshire.

“I’m not sure I have the words yet to describe the feeling,” said Harrington, 23, a few hours before shows in Dallas, Texas. “I’m just blessed beyond measure. This is something I never thought I would be doing, and when it became a dream, I was fully prepared to leave it as just a dream. Now, I’m actually doing it and it’s a feeling I’ve never had before. It’s still new; just definitely a blessing beyond all measure.”

Harrington is a Shaw family legacy. He follows the footsteps of his older brother; his sister’s Godmother, renowned gospel legend Shirley Caesar; and his grandmother, a graduate of Shaw’s Divinity School. Harrington’s sister, Angelica, currently is a student in Shaw’s C.A.P.E. program. “We have strong family ties to Shaw University,” Harrington said, proudly, adding he especially wanted Shaw’s HBCU experience to balance roots grown at the all-boys Durham Nativity School and the private Cary Academy.

As a Shaw junior, Harrington switched his major from music to Mass Communications; awed, he said, by the career possibilities. But he kept “that fire burning for music,” thanks to the University Choir, band and other avenues to music at the university. In fact, Harrington rattles off names of Shaw music department faculty he credits with teaching him to understand and nurture the music in him first born as an 11-year-old drummer at church, and blossomed into singing as a high school junior. “I was able to continue to define my love for music, and get more involved with my newfound passions, as well,” Harrington said.   

Dr. Lonieta Cornwall isn’t surprised by Harrington’s accomplishment. Not only is he armed with the personality, intellect and a “true bass voice” that’s rare to find, she said, Harrington has the drive and work ethic it takes to accept the challenges inherent in success. Talent, she said, must be buttressed by knowledge; everything from how to read music and research the composer, to understanding music’s intent to how it transformed the art.

“Aaron had the willingness to get out there and stick with it,” said Cornwall, noting Harrington sang many solos during his time at Shaw. “He did what he was supposed to do. He would rise to the occasion. He worked hard. He puts everything in it.”  Cornwall is proud of Harrington and pleased his example is there for those following in his footsteps. “I want them to see what Shaw can do,” she said.

Although acting has been on his bucket-list for years, Harrington’s first foray into theater came less than two years ago when he landed roles as a Ghostie and Ensemble Cast of Theater in the Park’s annual production of “A Christmas Carole.” The show was performed at Raleigh’s Duke Progress Energy and at DPAC. Last year, Harrington played Tom Collins in the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theater’s production of RENT. A preview of that show was performed at Shaw.

Harrington’s move north was challenging. But every time he questioned his decision, his passion stepped in. So did the memory of his father, who died at the age of 56 the year before Harrington finished his studies at Shaw. He’d tell himself, “Just go for it. Life is short.”

“I encourage people not to wait until it’s too late,” Harrington said. “With men, some things are possible; with God, all things are possible. Never be afraid to reach for the stars, as cliché as it is. I was afraid with the big move up north to one of the biggest, busiest cities in the country, but it worked out. I’m living a dream. Keep God first.”

Harrington said he was prepared both for the audition process and various stages of preparation.  Like at Shaw, he said, the tour team of choreographers and creative teams “only expected the best and they pulled it out of us.”  Shaw professor of music Dr. Bradley Hunnicutt understands.

“At Shaw University, we have a serious curriculum that emphasizes practical musicianship, and we’re delighted when our students go on to achieve big things,” said Hunnicutt, who taught Harrington music theory. “It’s a big risk to pack up and move to New York and make it, but some people do.”