Who Sees, Who Writes, Who Tells What Stories?

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source: broadway.com

What if ‘Hamilton: The Musical’ is a satirical sociopolitical commentary on the ways in which we tend to remember and retell American history?

I’ll be the first to admit it. For the last year I’ve been a bit preoccupied, distracted. I’ve been having trouble concentrating at work and when I sit down to write. The truth of the matter is that I’ve fallen in love. Deeply in love. The kind of love that gets you out of bed in the morning and gives you butterflies throughout the day. Am I referring to the fact that I got married this past October and I couldn’t be happier or more in love with my husband? No. (Even though the first six months of marriage have been the best of my life and he still gives me butterflies every day.)

The spectacular love affair I’m referring to is the one I’ve been having with Hamilton: The Musical, Broadway’s newest, hottest show. I’ve had the privilege (something it so clearly has become) of seeing the show at The Public Theater last spring and again in September after it opened on Broadway.

The love that I have for this show–this living cultural artifact, this multimodal text–is as intellectual as it is also overwhelmingly visceral. When I saw Hamilton at the Public, goosebumps consistently rippled across the terrains of my skin and when the show ended and I joined in the standing ovation, I couldn’t hold back the tears welling up and threatening to drop. And drop they did. Hamilton is not just a musical, it’s an experience. The music, the lyrics–all infused with hip-hop rhythms, elements, and culture–moves you. I was moved, changed.

As an educator, all I could think about was the potential of this [show as] text to engage young people (particularly young people of color in New York City) academically, emotionally, intellectually, critically. My standing ovation tears weren’t Dangerous Minds-Freedom Writers-Blind Side-kinda tears full of wishes to save urban youth. They were tears of energy, excitement, and urgency. This show embodies the tenants of culturally relevant and reality pedagogies as it uses music, visuals, and aspects of urban culture to create a multimodal platform that presents history as something other than dry and boring.

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source: publictheater.org/hamilton

I think I’ve come across a total of three constructive critiques of Hamilton: The Musical over the last six months or so. Three. That’s it. Granted, this also may be due to the fact that I’ve fallen so head over heels for this show and it’s soundtrack that I haven’t actively gone searching for any negative criticisms whatsoever either.

One of the few critiques to come across my desk was from Gene Demby, of NPR’s Code Switch, who aptly noticed and subsequently wrote about the disconnect between Hamilton the musical, the cast of color, and the overwhelmingly old, white and presumably wealthy audience packing the Richard Rogers Theater at every performance. Demby writes,

“…This is of course an unscientific study, based on me craning my neck and looking around the room, but three other folks who’ve seen the show recently tell me the audience was overwhelmingly white when they went, too. Yesterday, I asked folks on Twitter who’ve seen the show to share their experience, and many of them told me the same thing.”

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source: nytix.com

Overlooking the orchestra seats, I too was hyper-aware of the sea of white hair and wrinkled white hands paging through the Playbill waiting for the show to begin. I counted less than 20 people of color (who presented/I read as POCs) in the audience, the gravity of which felt heavier knowing that one of the most celebrated aspects of the show was that the cast was comprised entirely of people of color (except for one white man playing King George).

My first thought was, Damn, these are the only people who can afford tickets. And while yes, there is definitely truth in the fact that ticket prices are astronomically expensive and few people have or want to spend anywhere from $175 to $600 per seat, Demby attributes the overwhelming racial homogeneity of the audience to the historical construct of “the theater” as a white experience. He explains,

Theater has a long history of segregated seating and plays chock full of racist caricatures that meant black folks, in particular, never warmed to Broadway…It’s hard enough getting comfortable in a social space when you’re unfamiliar with its rules and conventions. It’s even harder when you’re aware of how much you stand out…

Although I come to the issue from a different position, and I will only ever know what it’s like to occupy (and presumably belong in) a Broadway theater as a white person, I thought Demby’s criticism was on point and I accepted it because he was critically pulling apart the experience of seeing Hamilton, not the content itself nor the intentions of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And then I went back to singing “My Shot” as soon as my alarm went off in the morning, “The Schuyler Sisters” when doing my hair and makeup as my feminist pump-up ballad (Work!), and “Alexander Hamilton”, “Satisfied”, and “Aaron Burr” as tounge-twister challenges when cooking dinner and getting ready for bed.

Last week, however, I came across a string of critical pieces breaking Hamilton down in ways that I admittedly had not really considered, which automatically put me in defense mode, how dare you attack my beloved! The first was a Slate interview with Lyra D. Monteiro, whose review essay of Hamilton entitled, “Race-conscious casting and the erasure of the black past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton” was recently published in The Public Historian (February 2016).

…it is concerning that the play adopts the old bootstrap ideology of the ‘‘American Dream,’’ with the second line in the play hailing how Hamilton, despite his humble origins, ‘‘got a lot farther by working a lot harder, / by being a lot smarter, / by being a self-starter.’’ This may account for the universal acclaim Hamilton has received from conservative commentators. Such a narrative is particularly problematic in this case, as it belies the ways in which structural inequalities block many people of color from achieving the American Dream today. It is also historically inappropriate, given that the play is set in a world in which, no matter how much harder they worked, the direct ancestors of the black and brown actors who populate the stage and sing these lines would never have been able to get as far as a white man like Alexander Hamilton could.

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source: nytimes.com

And then yesterday, the New York Times published,  “Hamilton’ and history: Are they in sync?” prompted by Harvard professor of history and law, Annette Gordon-Reed’s response to Monteiro’s essay. In her piece Gordon-Reed notes,

One of the most interesting things about the Hamilton phenomenon is just how little serious criticism the play has received. Indeed, it has played to near universal acclaim from points all along the political spectrum. How could this be? How could a work that so unabashedly celebrates the founding fathers, and has no storyline for black characters, not take some hits from academic historians who have spent the past several decades arguing against unrealistically heroic portrayals of the founders and arguing for including people of color in the story of America’s creation? 

As she explains, “It’s complicated.”

I too have wondered about the lack of serious criticism that Hamilton has received. As a scholar and educator rooted in antiracist and social justice pedagogies, media literacy education, and pop culture, I tend to take a critical stance (sometimes to a fault) and often seek out other critical responses to popular culture and media texts especially when they involve issues of social identity. But I was so smitten that any critical thoughts I had of the show were fleeting and, when I didn’t come across any reviews or think pieces that really sunk their teeth deep into the show’s flesh once it hit Broadway, I continued on in my content bubble.

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source: vogue.com

It’s interesting, in and of itself, that these solid critiques of Hamilton are just coming out now; but, perhaps people needed time to digest the show (and it’s many unprecedented and unconventional components), or to let the hype dust settle (if only a tiny bit). I engage this series of critical reviews not because they’ve necessarily changed my mind or swayed my love for Hamilton; rather, I do so in service of walking the walk, if you will.

As an emerging scholar engaged in race and identity work, I’m committed to transparency, honesty, and most importantly, critical humility. And as a scholar of critical media literacy education as well, I hold myself accountable for taking a questioning stance when engaging with a text’s constructed images and messages. While I tried to identify shortcomings of the show or Miranda, nothing immediately stood out, and so again, I chose to simply bask in its wonderfulness.

This set of critiques has served as a vital reminder of the importance of asking questions, of breaking through a text’s epidermis and analyzing the systems that allow it to function, grow, and thrive. Like any other artifact or piece of media Hamilton should be questioned, not taken as gospel truth; and should not stand alone, but rather be put into conversation with other texts in a given canon–whether it be in English Language Arts, history, social studies, performance arts, etc. Work to find the embellishments, the inconsistencies, the omissions, while also celebrating what the text does well. Sharpen your critical stance and your comparative lenses.

My other takeaway after facing the music (yes, pun intended) is this: What if the absence of historical figures of color, the silence around slavery, the two-dimensional female characters–what if this was intentional? 

What if Hamilton: The Musical is a satirical sociopolitical commentary on the ways in which we tend to remember and retell American history, that is, through a myopic, white-washed, male-dominated, heteronormative lens?

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source: amazon.com

Miranda uses hip-hop in Hamilton in ways that no doubt push further and deeper than In the Heights, a groundbreaking show that used the urban art form and culture to tell the “universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music.” Miranda’s use of hip-hop as the heart and soul of this show was powerful, authentic, and a game changer in Broadway musical history. But it also ‘worked’ because it was used to tell a familiar story about life in an “ethnic neighborhood,” a place where hip-hop belongs. It was “safe”non-threatening, and a “cultural experience” for predominantly older, wealthy white audiences because it, in many ways, reinforced the “Other” narrative of a different world, a different life, a different culture. 

Using hip-hop as a platform, cadence, and context in Hamilton, however, blurs the boundaries of ‘belonging’ that In the Heights fundamentally maintained.

What if Miranda knew that fully infusing a Broadway musical about a racially, economically, and politically tumultuous period of early American history with hip-hop (telling the story through hip-hop) and casting almost all people of color to play the roles of an all-white set of characters was not only unprecedented, but quite radical in and of itself?

What if he also had his audience in mind, assuming they would be predominantly middle-aged, wealthy, white people (based on the longstanding historical and sociocultural constructions of “the theater” as a white experience) that simply challenging an older generation (and really every audience demographic) to readjust their ears and eyes–to see different people playing roles that white people would “normally” fill, to hear history spit over 46 tracks of hip-hop beats, to rethink how we remember as a collective and a country–“would that be enough”

After all, the question we are left with at the end of the show is: who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Who made the final decisions about the content that made it into the final version and what got cut? (Apparently there was a third cabinet battle, “Where Ham, Mad, and Jeff go IN on slavery,” Miranda tweeted. In a Billboard interview with Questlove and Black Thought, he provided further explanation:  

Yeah, that we cut, and it was sort of our homage to ‘Hail Mary’ [by Tupac Shakur]. There was a moment when there were two Quakers from, I think it was Pennsylvania, who tried to ban the importation of slaves and brought it to the house floor. And [James] Madison let them talk about it for two days and then set a gag rule–‘We’re not talking about slavery until 1808’–basically saying, like, ‘We don’t know how to solve it.’ They knew it was a problem. Even from the racist perspective, it was, ‘There’s going to be more of them than us!’ But no one knew what to do about it, and they all kicked it down the field. And while, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.

Many scholars in the field of critical studies would agree that you have to be in the system to disrupt the system. Perhaps Miranda is just getting started. Or perhaps he is opening an entry point, a space, a platform for others to continue pushing against hegemonic powers, systemic inequalities, and traditional structures and expectations.

I’ll continue questioning all of this…

And in the meantime, I’m gonna go listen to Track 19 again.