Will We Ever Be Satisfied? Hamilton’s Diversity in a #SoWhite Industry
It is awards show season, which may bring you glee or gagging, but the talk of the town is my current obsession: ”Hamilton,” a musical about American founding father Alexander Hamilton’s life; the musical was written by the acclaimed Lin-Manuel Miranda, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, and played by a refreshingly colorful cast. You may have glimpsed their greatness during the Grammys, where they took the stage in colonial-era frocks and frills and began rapping over a robust musical theatre soundtrack.
Miranda holds the golden trinity of Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards, and even a “Genius” Award (there is apparently a MacArthur “Genius” Award). Anyone who has been converted to the ”Hamilton” way of life will agree that Miranda is a genius for his amazing lyrics, storytelling and music that transforms the biography of George Washington’s right-hand man, Alexander Hamilton, into an intellectual and entertaining hip-hop manifesto, of all things. Miranda himself plays the ten dollar founding father and follows his quest for legacy, rising from an immigrant with nothing to a national hero.
Finally, something in pop culture that can’t be hashtagged with “SoWhite,” has real substance and relevance, and respects its roots musically and historically. America’s founding leaders did not include people of color (I hate to break it to you), but “Hamilton’s” cast is almost entirely non-white and tells the story with an array of musical genres including hip hop and rap that demonstrates a new way to tell and interpret history. It is one of the least problematic productions in recent years, and has had an extremely popular reception on Broadway and for its scheduled shows in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.
Hamilton was a bastard, orphan and immigrant (a frequent refrain from the musical), and telling his story in light of this is important because his identities are what constitute most of America’s past. Everyone was an immigrant! Everyone came from different places and tried to make a name for themselves. That is what we celebrate about America and, by that end, it makes sense to cast characters with such a wide ethnic makeup. It represents the diversity of America, even when people of color weren’t granted the right to celebrate that diversity for another two hundred years after Hamilton’s time.
“Hamilton” not only celebrates this diversity, but also makes a point to highlight the glaring injustices of this era. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are some of our most problematic favorite presidents because they had such amazing democratic ideals, but still held slaves while in office. Instead of ignoring the hypocrisy, it is pointed out by non-white actors that the South’s wealth ran on slave labor and that abolitionism was stirring even in the Revolutionary days.
But from today’s perspective, “Hamilton” revels in the power of modern storytelling, and how history is informed by a certain lens. Miranda recognizes that it is up to future generations to interpret what was true and what was not. History is told by the victors and then simplified in order to be told over the years.
Aaron Burr is the other main protagonist alongside Hamilton; they’re friends united by the commonality of being orphans but have different politics that ultimately divide them (spoiler). If you took the required American history classes in K-12, the only thing you’ll remember about Burr is that he killed Hamilton: an example of the simplification of history that Miranda combats in his telling of their story.
Now, a slight problem: although I love the female characters, Miranda threw away his shot with the feminist agenda. The main female characters are the Schuyler sisters, Angelica and Eliza (and Peggy), who love Hamilton for his top-notch brain. Eliza marries him and Angelica carries on an emotional affair with him via letters over the years. Although you might expect them to be pitted against each other over a man, they’re not! They’re totally supportive of each other. But…they don’t pass the Bechdel Test (a test of female representation, in which passing means two female characters in a work of fiction talk about something other than a man) and don’t have much relevance besides their affiliation with Hamilton.
But don’t fear! Angelica is just as intelligent as any of the male intellectuals of the time, but by the gender constraints of her time, her only job is to marry rich. And Eliza is the true hero of the story who puts up with Hamilton’s antics, affairs and accidents, and she is the one who tells his story and gets the final song. She survives and plays perhaps the most important role as the preserver of Alexander Hamilton’s legacy in America’s history. I understand that, historically, women were not valued beyond their marital status, but it’s still a little sad that these characters don’t exist beyond the confines of their romantic involvements.
Considering the kind of girl power that was present at the Grammys, “Hamilton” comes off a little weak on that front. But in representing racial minorities, “Hamilton” holds its own against the #SoWhite controversy, and sets a great standard for the very possible way to cast non-white actors in traditionally white roles. I mean, how much more can you aggravate narrow-minded Hollywood bigwigs than by casting a group of people of color rapping as America’s founding fathers?