06 July 2020

Okay... Let's Talk About Hamilton

I am of the belief that if you want to learn history, you must stick with historical texts... The moment you step into the realm of the Arts, you must put on the skeptical gaze that makes you question whether your narrator is reliable; debate whether those who say, or sing, that the story told is their own might be wrong, to whatever extent and whether intentionally or unintentionally, in that assertion; and study the "surface" narrative for the "true" story bubbling underneath. These, I invite you to consider along with me, are essential in the "reading" of one of America's favorite musicals: Hamilton.

"Hamilton" cast performs in the East Room of the 
White House, March 14, 2016. (Official White 
House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
(I will also admit right now that I think much of my ''read" of Hamilton gives more credit to the production and subtext than I might ever naturally prescribe to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even he admits to some extent having stumbled across this story. And I would argue that just as no storyteller can fully claim the story others "read" in their own work... Once the narrative leaves the hands of the author, it is the audience who gives it merit and works to find its truths.)

(Miranda, whether wittingly or unwittingly, points us to this truth numerous times. Early in the first act we're told that when the players' children tell not their history but their STORY, "they'll tell the story of tonight." Toward the end of the first act we're reminded "You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story." The entire narrative ends with the haunting question: "Have I done enough? Will they tell your story?" What we're watching is not history. What we're watching is story. And every story has hidden truths.)

So the question I ask as I witness the Story of Hamilton is: Whose, and what, story is being told?

In case you haven't figured it out, I don't believe it is the story of the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.

One reason for this is the very opening song, which tells us far more than any other in terms of "factual" narrative. This arguably is the most history we are to receive in the entire production, and the reason is that, once again, HISTORY is not the point. And neither is the subject of the song. 

Let me say that again. Alexander Hamilton is not the point of Hamilton.

There are two dueling narrative points of the play that I would say are instead THE points, THE story, of the play: A shifting of perspective from the white historical narrative to that of black and brown people and immigrants, and Eliza. 

Let's start with Eliza. Eliza is the one character who truly gets the opportunity throughout the production to choose and shape her own narrative. Eliza's is the narrative of choice, and perhaps the most important of the entire production. She, and Angelica to a lesser extent, provides both context and speculative meaning to the narratives into which they enter. She is among the few characters to maintain the same character role throughout the production, and among those one of the only (if not the only) figures whose narrative does not rely on the perspectives or definitions of others.

We shift from Alexander's boasts and brags to the narrative of Eliza falling in love and choosing both her and his story going forward. Later, upon Alexander's betrayal, we witness her speculative story in which she literally erases herself from the narrative, despite in that moment being central to it: "I'm erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted..." She also, in the midst of this same moment, very plainly states the narrative of the alleged "hero," signaling the fact that this may not be who or what he really is: "You and your words obsessed with your legacy / Your sentences border on senseless / And you are paranoid in every paragraph / How they perceive you / You, you, you!" His legacy, his right to the narrative, and his centralized place in the story, are "forfeit" through her choice, her writing (and unwriting) of their, and through it his, story.

Arguably from this point forward we have little choice but to not only question the picture of Alexander that is painted (as we see his image crumble before our eyes), but also to shift attention each time Eliza steps back into the narrative. Hers is the perspective that matters most at the end of the song "It's Quiet Uptown" as the Chorus guides our focus to "Forgiveness. Can you imagine?" with forgiveness as the essential culminating "unimaginable" act of the song. Despite the narrative of the song initially lingering on Alexander... In the end, it is her action, her narrative, that matters most.

And ultimately the production ends with the focus still on Eliza, as the storyteller, wondering what storied legacy she leaves and gasping as both her narrative ends and the third wall breaking new narrative begins... an invitation, I suggest to you, to ponder and continue to unravel the true story. 

It is this invitation that forces our spectator gaze back to the other key narrative: the choice to cast literal shade on the "Founder" narrative. Despite the problematic nature of revisionist history if we look at Hamilton and company as "heroes" throughout the play (I suggest to you now that at no time are they presented as absolute heroes, though some of their deeds are as heroic), one cannot deny that there is a head turning, thought provoking shift that takes place in centering the narrative on figures of color. There is a question there--one curiously (and somewhat astonishingly, when it first hits you) emphasized by the "protagonists" being black and brown and the simpering antagonist King George remaining white--that slips its way into the narrative. 

What happens to our perception of history when our picture of the shapers of our nation's history is shifted from white to brown, from "Founding Father" to "Immigrants [who] get the job done"? 

The answer to, and presentation of, this question is certainly not without problems, and it would be just as problematic to pretend they are small problems as to pretend they aren't there at all. There is a full narrative of slaves and atrocities against the Native/Indigenous populace of the "newborn nation" that is erased from the stage. Where it is inserted, as with Jefferson's calling upon the winked-at name of "Sally" ("What Did I Miss?"), it is just that: a wink, a chuckled nudge... A joke. And that's a problem. And perhaps we could debate if it is an unavoidable one. ("How," you might ask, "could they have lyrically distinguished between the black and brown rewritten figures and Black slaves?" I don't know. Maybe they couldn't have. Then again, maybe they could have. And then yet again, that doesn't make it any less a problem for them to simply not be there.) 

That said, I will allow that here the question is more "important," artistically, than the problem. A Puerto Rican Alexander, a Black Aaron Burr, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson (historical slave owners all), all but beg us to see the value in black and brown narratives. It is not meant to be easy to hear Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan singing without (yet somehow full of) irony, "Raise a glass to freedom / Something they can never take away / No matter what they tell you." They, and the full cast, beseech us throughout the story: If we can celebrate with them on stage, can we not celebrate them, full stop, off it? Just as we are invited into the question through the framing of the story itself, I believe we are invited to live the answer in the final refrain, through Eliza's haunting gaze, as we exit--and, by living beyond the theatre doors, are dared to continue--the Story of Tonight. 

Hamilton the production is no less problematic than Hamilton the man. It is just as imperfect as the figures represented in its story. Yet in it we are essentially plagued by an enduring, haunting refrain, one that hopefully lingers long after the final curtain call: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? This question is no less important now than it has been throughout the troubled history of America. Perhaps it's even more important now. As we settle into a necessarily troubled indulgence in the theatrical arts through the lens and narrative questions of Hamilton, let us do so with this refrain always in mind, and one more: History has its eyes on you. 


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