“Look around…Look around…how lucky we are to be alive right now…” lyrics from the song “The Schuyler Sisters” from the Broadway musical “Hamilton”
Since there’s a New Moon in Cancer conjunct both Venus and Mercury, I am going to take a lovely break from our news turmoil and focus instead on culture. I am a “Hamilton” freak. Since I have yet to see it, (it’s too damn expensive to see it on Broadway), I bought the original cast soundtrack the minute it came out, and know most of its lyrics by heart. It is the soundtrack to my life.
Over a year ago, the moment I first read about Hamilton getting raves at its debut in New York’s Public Theater, I knew that this modern-day musical re-imagining of America’s Revolutionary founding fathers as people of color — written in the cadence and language of hip-hop — was headed straight to Broadway. I also knew it was going to be something profound. I wasn’t wrong. When were we ever going to see a Broadway musical about the creators of the Declaration of Independence and leaders of the American Revolution played by African Americans and Puerto Ricans?
On first glance Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and based on Ron Chernow’s biography of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, was an odd mix for me — a denizen of the Bay Area’s multicultural theater community. With the true story of Hamilton’s life — a bastard orphan from the Caribbean looking to rise above the station of his lowly birth in a new country — the casting of people of color in principal roles would not be new. It is what I’ve known in theater since I became an actor in the 1980s. It is what immigrants to America have known for generations.
Casting men of color as Jefferson, Adams, Monroe, Washington and Hamilton in this play opened the door to re-examine the mythology made of our past, bringing multi-ethnic casting to a new level of meaning, asking provocative ‘what ifs?’
“What if our nation’s independence relied on the cunning, intelligence and ambition of people of color? What if that was the real story of our independence instead of our imagined one? The play’s casting asks us to disembark from a 240-year-old history pounded into our heads. It asks us to use our imagination to dismiss the unassailable whiteness of the fathers of the country and see our history as no longer belonging to one ethnic group from its beginnings.
Hamilton re-interpreted our history by extrapolating it to include our multi-cultural present and future. Which is why, in the 21st century, this play about our 18th century revolution works. The similarities of rebels fomenting revolution in the streets of 18th century Boston, present day Oakland and New York are striking.
Even as its characters are costumed and bewigged in the fashions of that time, their words belong to our present day multi-ethnic America. The show’s hip-hop cadence is as global and modern a musical art form as jazz, another American art form born from struggle. The music is fresh, danceable, accessible.
But more than that, Hamilton asks us to remember and imagine our actual forefathers and revolutionaries as men and women on the exhilarating cusp of creating something new and vast: a new country. That a leap as large as revolution was something many had to believe they could die for in order to be successful. Some people of that time were in comfortable economic positions but most were not. Slavery was a primary engine of our economy and slaves and masters fought together in the revolution, though freedom from slavery had to wait a bloody century and more to come to pass.
With all our faults going in against King George, we had come to resent having no say over our personal and collective destiny — which is what colonization will do. And even with some present day theorizing that we were too early in leaving the crown, we lived in a place that offered us expanse and possibility, and an ability to be generous if we wanted to. But we needed to be the ones to create it and could not stand another day without finally making our stand to revolt in order to achieve it. We had to destroy old ties in order to create something new.
We’re not an easy country to live in and with. Our bloody history and current events definitely prove that. But we keep on struggling to create, to dream and to build — hopefully more positive things than walls. This is who and what we hope we are, based on the history that has happened and the history we continue to write with our very lives in this experiment called America. All of us.
I leave you here with a few lines from one of Hamilton‘s ballads, sung by Hamilton’s wife Eliza, pleading for him to stay alive and create his future:
“Look around…look around
I can’t begin to know
The challenges you’re facing
The worlds you keep erasing
And creating in your mind
But I am not afraid…”
Happy Holiday to all of us!