Hamilton is the hottest show on Broadway.
When I first heard of the show’s production, I remember all the the hubbub over the “white people need not apply” casting call. But art has a way of finding transcendence. I always try to remember that. So I reserved judgement.
Now, months later, I was in New York, and got an unexpected ticket (thanks to a good friend) to witness this juggernaut first hand. And I was going to see what this phenomenon was all about.
Curtain up …
As a music artist, I was dazzled by the hip-hop style lyrical flourish. I’ve never seen that on a Broadway stage. Bravo. But the craft of the show (which is second to none) wasn’t what really grabbed me. I found the deeper concept coursing through the bloodline of the work itself, more important than the rhythms and the rhymes.
As the story and artistic expression unfolded, I began smiling to myself. This was genius. And by the first song in, I realized why it was so important for this piece to be performed by people of different races …not white. This wasn’t an exclusionary move against white people. It wasn’t “reverse racism.” This was a re-imagining of true, historical events in a way that allowed us ALL to participate …in the 21st century …without the ever-present distraction of race.
The brilliance of watching George Washington being re-interpreted as a black man allows you to examine what the man actually DID …rather than being constantly halted by what he LOOKED like.
And as I watched the two dark-skinned men next to me and the asian couple in front of me and the Muslim woman behind me all mesmerized by this re-telling of the birth of the American experiment, I realized they were seeing this through different eyes than mine. Now THEY got to feel a part of something extraordinary based solely on its merits, rather than feeling excluded from it because of powder wigs, harpsichord music, the King’s english …and pasty whiteness.
One might say, while watching Hamilton, that we get to judge the people who formed this country based on the content of their character …rather than the color of their skin. Seems like another great American might think that’s a good idea.
Alexander Hamilton (the actual man) was all the things the musical says he was: Bastard child of a (probable) whore, orphaned at 12; wayward immigrant to the new world; self-educated nobody from nowhere special. And yet he literally helped change the world as it had been known to that point, and created the one in which we all live today.
That is the very essence of individualism: the idea that no one has to be bound by their background or standing or the shade of their meat suit. THIS, my friends, IS what America is supposed to be about. And Hamilton makes that point over and over again.
Before I got on the plane for New York, a day earlier, my father and I had lunch together. He was recounting his involvement with some civil rights events in the 60s. But he also spoke about how confusing it could be for people at times.
One of his best (white) friends worked behind one of those infamous, segregated lunch counters. He was just a teenage kid with a job, not realizing the moment he was living in. A black woman walked in to protest. Then, she pulled out a pistol and shot his friend right between the eyes …at point-blank range.
Those types of things don’t fit easily into the “peaceful protest” narrative.
My father got a far-away stare and said, “son, these things aren’t always as cut and dried as people think they are. My involvement with the civil rights movement sometimes leaves me with mixed emotions. People are people and they can be bad OR good …no matter what their skin looks like. That’s why you have to take them all one at a time.”
Three hours later, I was in a city that is literally engulfed in surface diversity …meaning it is diverse in how it LOOKS.
But is visual diversity really the only kind of diversity we need?
I think there are three stages to racial freedom:
1. Classic racism.
You start out your life with people who look and act like you. And sometimes (not always …but sometimes) you’re taught that “other” is like this or like that. “They” do this and “they” do that. “They” are better runners or “they” are better at math or are “they” are horrible drivers. I mean come on …you know how “THEY” are. And so you become a racist on some level …probably without even knowing it.
2. Apologetic racism.
This is where most white people (who think they have achieved true racial enlightenment) get stuck …and stay. You decide that there is inherent VIRTUE in “other” just because it’s “other.” You want to right the wrongs, now. You believe “those poor people” NEED you to help them. You want to embrace all races (except your own) and celebrate diversity …of skin only. You’re still kind of a racist …you’re just really, REALLY sorry for it.
But the final and most important stage is this:
Once you realize that anyone from any background or race can rise or fall, kill or nurture, cut or heal, help or hurt, create or destroy – only then are you truly post racial.
Once you see a person as an individual …not just part of a group …they are harder to hate. THAT is true racial equality.
These days we seem to be more interested in what someone looks like than we are in what they THINK like. And if we’re not careful we’re going to have a society of different LOOKING people who all think the same way. And that is dangerous. Group-think is where everything falls apart …no matter what color it’s packaged in.
Hamilton takes us to stage 3 of racial enlightenment, whether it knows it or not. And we get to see INDIVIDUALS arguing and fighting over how to form a nation. And how a diversity of opinions and personalities can create something beautiful and strong.
Did that nation commit sins based on race and color? You bet. Is it still trying to get it right? Absolutely.
But as I landed in back in Nashville, on a plane full of white and black and brown men and women, and took my Chinese daughter to a prom for people with special needs – people of all different shapes, sizes, colors and races – it just felt like we might be moving in the right direction. Forward …not backward. Forward to the place where absolutely nothing about the exterior matters …except that smoking dress or dope tux you’ve got on.
The true diversity of Hamilton isn’t just the color of the skin on the stage. It’s the diversity of thought that is represented in the story. That story goes on …
And THAT kind of diversity …diversity of thought …is the most important of all.