The Broadway sensation “Hamilton” is coming to Richmond Nov. 19 through Dec. 8. I have seen the play with my Dutch American friend and his Swedish American wife, with my Jamaican immigrant parents and sister and American-born nephew, and with my Arab American partner.
“Hamilton” projects today’s America onto its past. I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the play’s layering of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey of the 18th and 19th centuries is dazzling and deeply evocative. Virginia figures prominently as well, given the centrality of George Washington and his Mount Vernon plantation, and the role of Thomas Jefferson during the early 1800s. The popularity of the musical provides an opportunity for reflection. Embedded in the catchy songs and smart dialogue are important and ongoing lessons about American society.
Staging America’s founding dramas and original places alongside contemporary music and timeless themes, the play remains a sensation four years after its off-Broadway premiere in 2015, when its creator and writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, starred in the lead role. The fact that Miranda is of Puerto Rican descent is not incidental to how he brings Alexander Hamilton to life. Indeed, the cast is a multihued representation of 21st-century American demographics.
In addition to Miranda, an actor of Jewish and African American progeny played both Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the original production, and the role of Eliza Hamilton was initially inhabited by Phillipa Soo, a Chinese American actress. Rather than a race-baiting challenge to American excellence, the diversity of the cast underpins the show’s approach to merit and creativity. “Hamilton” is tomorrow’s America, reckoning with yesterday and today. Indeed, the Brookings Institution released a study in March 2018 that projects a 50.3 percent minority majority population in the United States by 2045.
Of course, these transitions are not happening without significant growing pains. “Hamilton” is extremely aware of the provocation it offers, within the current political climate, although it nudges more delicately than many other contemporary theatrical works. For example, “Immigrants, We Get the Job Done” is a refrain that was introduced only later in the play’s creative process, during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign (BuzzFeed June 28, 2017). By calling back to the past, the play echoes forward three fundamental lessons.
First, the mission matters. “Hamilton” is a commentary on our country’s foundational myths and its longstanding aims and virtues. Values of freedom and collaboration, even when we fail to live up to them, continue to form the basis of how we imagine ourselves, at our best. Critics of “Hamilton” (Ishmael Reed, for example) have focused on its idealization of characters like the play’s lead, or Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson, whose “Notes on the State of Virginia” make it exceptionally clear that he thought blacks were not capable of higher intellect.
The contradictions inherent in these characters is precisely the point, however. The tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Jefferson, himself now African American, allows contemporary engagement with the values of freedom and democracy. We can see how far we have come since the early 1800s. We know that we still have many rivers to cross, right here in Virginia, but layering these characters in time and place sharply focuses in on our values.
Secondly, emotions matter. Living life is messy business. As one colleague recently put it in a lecture to students, “being a person is hard.” Even our heroes are flawed, emotionally complicated people. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are rivals not only regarding tactics and policies. They also represent mutual jealousies. Opponents become vindictive to the point of working against their own vested interests. All of this is to say there is no mission without the complicated emotional work that comes with it. Rather than thinking that we can always control these emotions, being aware of them is important. In Hamilton’s case, the desire that rises to the surface destroys his political career.
A third lesson, after mission and emotions, is that we, as individual human beings and collectively, are in a constant process of writing and revision. The focus in “Hamilton” on this process of writing and revision flattens time, making contemporary personalities of the “founding fathers.” America had back then, and we still have now, the opportunity to “write our way out” of whatever ugliness we find ourselves in.
By setting the scene before the nation’s foundation, Lin-Manuel Miranda heightens our awareness of the extent to which things could have gone otherwise. America was and remains an incomplete essay. The play is ours to write and rewrite our own way. We look to our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, and even to ourselves, for the stories yet to be written, and we see in these faces reflections of a complex past.
Patrice Rankine, Ph.D., is dean of the University of Richmond School of Arts & Sciences and is a professor of classics.