By: Jillian Fuller
When Hamilton first debuted I wasn’t as excited as everyone else. It felt like one of those musicals for people who don’t like musicals or “urban music” for people who don’t like urban music. The show was well-written and I was excited about the prospect of a diverse cast. You normally see white people playing BIPOC and never the other way around (because it’s glaringly obvious and for a long time…ya know…blackface was okay for a long time – and people still get away with it, but I digress) but I noticed that Hamilton brought people together in a way that not many other things do.
In its summary of Hamilton, Disney+ describes the show as a “revolutionary moment in theater is the story of America then, told by America now.” It’s weird to think that a diverse cast with diverse musical influences is considered revolutionary in the year 2020, but at the same time it’s not. Whiteness is still the norm especially when we consider our history and those who are typically in positions of power.
Hamilton is praised for being a show that showcases a diverse cast in positions of power and influences. For the original Broadway production, Lin Manuel Miranda cast a group of people that looked like the melting pot that Americans constantly wax poetic about but refuse to accept. Audience members are able to imagine a time long ago where people who looked like them were able to shape the trajectory of the nation we know today. There are actors that represent most ethnic or racial identities that are present in modern-day America. The goal of Hamilton seems to be to make the American revolution less white-washed than we know that it is. By inserting a diverse cast into the story of our nation’s creation, Lin Manuel Miranda attempts to give modern day audiences’ a sense of belonging that their ancestors did not necessarily have during the Revolutionary War.
Considering the timing of the creation of Hamilton, the intentional diversity of the cast seems fitting for social changes that occurred during its 8 year development. In 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow. In 2009 he visited the White House and performed the song ‘Alexander Hamilton’ at a poetry slam for President Obama and other audience members, where he received a standing ovation. The election of Barack Obama led many to believe that we had suddenly entered into a post-racial society. As time progressed, the call for more representation was pressing and Lin Manuel Miranda delivered. He delivered not just through the cast but through the style of the music as well. The combination of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B seamlessly blended with Broadway theatrics is another tangible representation of racial influence on our culture.
I was never lucky enough to see Hamilton on Broadway. Tickets were far too expensive for a college student and I was never lucky enough to win the lottery that some theaters used to give audience members discounted ticket prices. But, when Hamilton became available on streaming this summer, watching it in the midst of everything that’s happened in 2020 felt different than it probably would have in preceding years. While there have been great strides in terms of minority representation it falls flat for me. Especially considering this was released on Fourth of July weekend. Something about watching a show that glorifies the creation of a nation that still treats my identity as a threat and kills BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ recklessly was unsettling.
With each “progressive” statement made throughout the show, I caught myself questioning the integrity of said statements. I acknowledge that I would have found something like Angelica’s desire for gender equality to be amazing and groundbreaking in 2016, but now it feels like White Feminism™. I constantly find that I’m reminding myself that these are Black, Asian and Latinx people playing white people. What they are fighting for and discussing is the bare minimum in terms of freedom and equality.
I will say that it was refreshing to see women play a large role in this show and aren’t cast in the shadows like they historically were. The Schulyer sisters explicitly state that they look forward to gender equality in the future. They allude to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s famous words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” which we know only really applied to white men and excluded minority men and all women. The sisters’ desire to bel=ong to this new nation is clear and both Angelica and Eliza work hard to support Alexander out of love and a hopeful vision of a new nation.
Like gender, race plays a big role in how we view the life of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution. King George’s character is usually the sole white actor in the cast. His whiteness makes him a clear and distinct enemy to everything that Hamilton and his peers are fighting for. He is present three times in performance. But his presence still feels as overbearing as the colonies felt it was. In today’s society it’s easy to see a white monarch as a threat to freedom – especially when he is contrasted by such a diverse group of people who are willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight for America. Unfortunately, I think that however well-intentioned the diversity of Hamilton is, it simplifies the successes Alexander Hamilton experienced in his life. A cast as diverse as this allows us to not question chattel slavery as much as we should be whilst watching a show about the beginning of our country. America was built not just by men who were courageous enough to fight back against a ruling class they saw as corrupt and tyrannical but also on the backs of slaves stolen from their homelands in Africa and the Caribbean.
Hamilton is often criticized for glorifying slave owners (as many of the Founding Fathers did own slaves, not just Jefferson as the musical would lead us to believe). Yet, I was only able to catch three times in the entire performance were slavery is mentioned…in passing. The first time we are confronted with the reality of inequality in the colonies is when John Laurens sings: “And but we’ll never be truly free/ Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me/ You and I Do or die/ Wait ’til I sally in on a stallion/ With the first black battalion/ Have another shot” in the song “My Shot” and we here it again alluded to during “Cabinet #1” when Hamilton himself confronts Jefferson about his participation in chattel slavery. Finally, Eliza mentions that she continues to tell Hamilton’s story by raising money for the Washington Monument whilst also speaking out against slavery.
This lack of attention towards chattel slavery is problematic because it feels as though there is a cognitive dissonance we experience watching people who look like ourselves sweep slavery under the rug or mention in passing as though it is a goal but its not the most pressing goal to achieve. It hits differently when your own people are seemingly lackadaisical about your emancipation compared to a white man. While I understand why Disney made Hamilton available for streaming during Independence Day weekend. A story about American independence during Independence Day weekend is excellent marketing. But, it ultimately felt like a slap in the face and a very blatant statement in regards to social unrest this summer. The Founding Fathers spoke of equality for all men and while they obviously were initially referring to white men, we are still working towards creating an America where that truth is actually self-evident and all men (women, children, and gender nonconforming) are created equal.
The final performance is entitled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” which I think is an apt culmination of everything viewers experience in the almost three hour performance. What we do during our lives is going to be subject to the storytelling abilities and editing decisions of those who come after us. How we influence those around us determines how our story will be told. The social and political climate influences how and when your story is retold as well. You can influence people long past your death in a multitude of ways.
There is a reason why Obama said that this musical was one the one thing that he and Dick Cheney agree on. It provides us necessary artistic representation without completely vilifying and exposing the dark underbelly of American history. Lin Manuel-Miranda essentially pulled Alexander Hamilton out of historical obscurity whilst maintaining the prestige of the other Founding Fathers. On a larger scale, I think that this skipped over conversation regarding race relations in Revolutionary America is an act of attempting to belong as well. Miranda’s play assuages growing demands for minority representation on a larger scale but also plays into the status quo of revering America and the Founding Fathers without villainizing them completely.
Ultimately, we will never be completely satisfied with any retelling of American history. But it’s important to keep telling these stories in any way that we can so that we can continue to have dialogue and see the growth and progress that continues to be made.