Helpless: My Complex Relationship with Hamilton

I ain’t even gonna lie. I love Hamilton. I have downloaded the Original Broadway Cast recording, the Hamilton Mixtape, and the entire instrumental accompaniment, just in case I want to perform the entire musical by myself in my house or on my way to work. I bought Ron Chernow’s book. And when I learned that my stepdad-in-law is a direct descendant of the “ten dollar founding father,” I flexed that HARD. And while my initial reason for getting on Disney+ was to watch The Mandalorian, I’m keeping it so I can watch Hamilton as many times as possible. I have a reputation for consuming something I like over and over again until I can’t stand it. As such, I have seen The Wire in its entirety at least eight times, my day comes to a halt when Remember the Titans comes on, and then there was that summer that my mom and I made gazpacho like every day. I’m sure there’s a word for this condition, but I haven’t learned it as of this writing.

Suffice it to say, when I like something, I like it to excess. It’s all I want to do. This was my experience with the Black Star album, as well as Illmatic and ELE albums. For this reason, I know the entire musical.

Over the next few paragraphs, I’m gonna lay out why I love Hamilton and why I hate Hamilton all at the same time. I’ll come to a conclusion of sorts by the time this is over.

Those of you who have known me for long enough know that I was a theater kid from 7th grade to my first year in college. I was serious about it. I was in rehearsals 4-5 days a week, along with playing sports and trying to keep some semblance of a GPA. I liked being onstage. I really liked the possibility of a stage kiss (not as many as I had hoped, if I’m being honest). I liked attention (still do). But more than anything, I loved the freedom to literally become someone else for a set period of time every day. To leave behind this awkward, skinny, thick-lipped, brown-skinned kid from the East Side and just be someone else for a while. When I acted in Grease, I could pretend to be a tough-guy love interest; acting Shakespeare I joined the ranks of classically trained legends who had done the same. And considering my profound identity issues, I needed to escape in order to survive.

In high school, we didn’t do very many shows that featured characters of color. There was Ain’t No Grave, a musical about Denver’s own Dr. Justina Ford, the first Black woman doctor in our state, who delivered over 7000 babies for free in Five Points, when I was in 9th grade, and then there was The Colored Museum, a satirical piece for which I served as student director under legendary stage king donnie l. betts, during my junior year. Otherwise, it was a lot of White shows with White characters. Of course, the Shakespearean shows we did every year offered some ways for actors of color to get roles, and I have to say that our theater department often took a colorblind approach to casting. In Brighton Beach Memoirs, a young Black woman played my aunt, and I don’t remember anyone being weirded out by it.

However, even though the stage saved me–and continues to save me, especially when I don’t have a good lesson plan, or my technology fails–on a subconscious level, I felt that there was no future for me in acting. Never mind that my favorite actors, rappers, and athletes had incredible performative qualities. Watching Tupac take on a persona that moved between the gangster and the conscious was a masterclass in character development, and the legendary lyricist Rakim writes in his memoirs that creating your rapper persona is almost as important as the lyrics you spit. But I never made the connection between that lived world of mine and the world that existed for me in the school drama club. I did have moments, though. What if we did Zoot Suit? (I was quickly reminded that we didn’t have Brown kids in the drama dept, besides me) What if we did A Soldier’s Play? In my mind and in my journals I would cast these shows with all my neighborhood friends. Those goofball dudes who made jokes, entertained each other; I was dying to see them all on stage. It never really materialized. I didn’t have an intellectual or well-articulated reason to get these kids on stage with me; I suppose on some level, I wanted to bring my worlds together. Why did I join drama? Mainly it was because as a Chicano growing up on the East Side, but not the Mexican side of the East Side, I didn’t really have a home where I belonged. All of my friends, classmates, and peers on the block were Black, and though they accepted me, welcomed me, let me be a part of the culture in some ways, especially rap and basketball, it never felt like me. Drama club was a place where I could be myself, or, failing that, I could be someone else. The sponsor of drama club, who we affectionately called CV, recruited me. That’s all it takes for some of us. Tell us you could see us in a play. Tell us when auditions are. Invite us to an audition workshop at lunch, since most of us have never done that before. See us.

I went so far as to fly to Chicago in the fall of 1993 to audition for the Theater School at DePaul University. I prepared a monologue, from the David Rabe play Streamers. And before and after the audition, I wandered the streets of Chicago’s Loop district, awash in the fantasy of what this life could be. The Steppenwolf Theater started here, where the likes of Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, and Gary Sinise got their starts. Glengarry Glen Ross takes place here, the play, eventually adapted to a hyper-masculine film by Chicago’s own David Mamet, is all things Chicago. I remembered a quote from Hollywood legend Michael Douglas: “I love Chicago. New York is hype, LA is fake, but Chicago? Chicago is work.” I got into DePaul. 

Then I got scared off. So few roles in film and on stage. So many fears of not being able to support myself–my dad didn’t come here from Mexico so that I could fail. My mom didn’t toil with multiple jobs, some of them revealing humanity’s worst failures and tendencies, grinding her way to a college degree, so that I could be swallowed up by a ruthless profession. And besides, what roles were really out there for me? What I want you to understand is that no one talked me out of this. Because of a lack of representation in the arts, I talked myself out of this. That world did not appear to understand or need me. I bailed. I cited a lack of financial aid as my reason (okay, I’m mostly glad I wasn’t saddled with a suffocating amount of student debt), but really, I just needed a reason to quit, give in to the blaringly loud message that I would hit a critical glass ceiling sooner, rather than later.

Hamilton would have saved my acting life. What if Hamilton had been released in 1993? At the height of hip hop’s golden age, when I needed it the most? If you have watched it, the music is catchy, Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Okieriete Onaodowan can spit, the slang is seamlessly woven into the history of the United States, touching on important issues like slavery and patriarchy (okay, not in a way that satisfies me) and most of all, sending the important message that the United States should be everyone. I am definitely not one for jingoistic nationalist declarations, but the line “Ay yo I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” might be the first time I thought I could see myself as an American. seventeen-year -old me would have seen this show and immediately set about brainstorming other shows to put people of color on stage in powerful ways. And honestly, it is hard NOT to imagine George Washington as the broad-shouldered and charismatic Christopher Jackson. To be able to see that people of color could be cast in a Broadway smash that allowed them to be themselves would have absolutely been a game-changer for me.

Now. 

OK, most importantly, let’s get this out of the way: THERE IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH BREAKDANCING. This is offensive. Borderline unforgivable. 

Moving on.

The more I consumed the musical and talked about it in every aspect of my life, singing the songs with my daughter in the car, the more some uncomfortable realities emerged. The first was the cost. Originally, the show was pretty accessible. Tickets as low as $70. But as it grew in popularity, the market kicked in, and was nearly impossible to see the play for less than $1000 a pop. While it is true that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the producers of the show did multiple screenings for students from low-income areas, it remained a bourgeoise recreational activity for people with money, most of then White. When we finally saw an abridged version of the show in Chicago in 2018, it set us back enough that we had to spend the next couple of months recovering financially. And hearing all the White folx around me excitedly talk about “I saw Hamilton, you should really see it!!” was just upsetting. How dare you! You don’t even like musicals, hip hop, or history! Pearls before swine, I would grumble.

The second aspect of Hamilton that enrages me is the erasure of the original people of North America. This, obviously, is not unique to this play, but considering that Miranda is viewed as one of the “wokest” artists in the industry, this erasure is impossible to stomach. As detailed in the 500 Nations documentary series, Native American people have been a part of the history of this place long before it was called the United States of America. When Ben Franklin traveled among the Haudennossaunee (who we more often call the ‘Iroquois’) in 1754, he was so taken by an innovative system of governance and representation that he wrote the Albany Plan of Union, arguing that the Six Nations had figured out the complicated matter of governing free people. And when the Revolutionary War broke out, the Six Nations Confederacy found itself in the crossfire of what historian Alvin Josephy calls “a cauldron of war” in their own homelands. Emissaries from the British and colonists’ sides pressure the Six Nations to take a side in the war. When spokesmen of the Six Nations declared that they would remain neutral, George Washington authorized the “total destruction and devastation” of the Iroquois settlements across upstate New York so “that country may not merely be overrun but destroyed.” He was given the nickname Conotocaurius, or “town destroyer.” Before long, the Six Nations were plunged into a war which would bring them no positive outcome, whoever the victor. Joseph Brant, the chief of the Mohawk, felt that Indian life under the British would be more tolerable than it would be under the colonists, and so sided with the crown.

Certainly, all stories cannot be told in one musical and who knows, maybe a musical about the American Revolution from the Native American perspective, with music and lyrics by Tribe Called Red is coming together as we speak, but it is so typical of cinema and stage to eliminate Indigenous Americans from the story when it gets too long, or too complicated. 

Finally, there is the sanitizing of the institution of slavery. Both Miranda and Chernow overstate Hamilton’s antislavery position and John Laurens, the only character who places enslaved people at the center of any freedom movement, is portrayed as something of an unbalanced fanatic, both in the musical itself and the book that was published later. There are tongue-in-cheek references to slavery, like Thomas Jefferson’s request that Sally Hemmings “be a doll” and open a letter for him, or Hamilton’s diss at the first cabinet meeting “we know who’s really doing the planting,” but there is a real lack of visibility of Black soldiers or the real role that slavery played in the American Revolution. I know I shouldn’t cite a meme as sound historical evidence, but give me a break, this is a blog post. The meme shows John Trumbull’s  iconic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, noting that a red dot indicated which of the founders owned enslaved people, and like everyone in the room has a dot. The invisible and coy way in which Miranda discusses slavery is made worse when you look at this “colorblind” cast. The idea of Black and Brown actors playing slaveowners is…I dunno, gross! The thought that the sassy Daveed Diggs or the regal Christopher Jackson went home, offstage, and assaulted Black women, presided over the whippings of Black bodies that got out of line is imagery that none of us needs right now, and in order to full stan for the musical, you have to be able to turn off that realization.

So yo, here is the deal. Hamilton does everything that art is supposed to. It puts a story in front of us. It tells us a story in ways that are both expected and surprising. It crosses linguistic boundaries of space and time. It re-imagines what the so-called Founders looked like, and forces us to reckon with how we might move past whitewashed (literally) versions of history. Hamilton screams at the crestfallen seventeen year old inside of me that HELL YES YOU CAN PLAY ALEXANDER HAMILTON, WHO CARES WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE?? Miranda, who is four years younger than me and a million years more successful, decided to follow a vision of a story that he found impossible to set aside. He created a thing, and saw that thing come to life. It is important that not all of us detractors are radical progressives or leftists. Conservatives hate this version of the show. They don’t appreciate how the Founders are mocked and how the establishment of the United States can be portrayed in such a cavalier way. Some have caled it disrespectful. Others call it dangerous revisionism that is going to further erode our national memory. Some just think Hamilton was a prick, and unworthy of a whole musical.

So at the end of the day, Hamilton is exactly what art is supposed to be. It is from a place of deep knowledge and study. It is the result of an immutable dream that lived in the heart of the artist, if you watch interviews with Miranda, he himself struggles to explain why this story, which this format, why this staging. It’s because true artistic vision is ephemeral, wonderfully spiritual and ambiguous, and the artist often does not feel that they are creating alone, that there are muses acting through us to make something new. I will never become a “Hamilton-is-the-greatest-thing-ever-created-onstage-period” guy, and I will sit in my critiques and keep them. However, I will also still see parallels between the life of Hamilton and my own, I will still remind myself that cishetero men are trash every time I hear Phillippa Soo sing “Burn” and I will still always want a squad like the one that included Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens. I will also be suspicious of the Aaron Burrs.As a friend flatly stated about Hamilton, “more than one thing can be true” regarding this phenomenon that sprung from the pen of a Puerto Rican kid from NYC. Hamilton cannot be seen as the apex of BIPOC art. It is a critical step. What happens, the next creation, next is up to us.

4 comments on “Helpless: My Complex Relationship with Hamilton

  1. Orah says:

    There is so much in here I love. Made me think on many levels and made me wonder how I never knew you were a theatre kid! Thank you!

    1. Gerardo Munoz says:

      It’s funny, I so abruptly moved on from Theater that I have let it slip out of my life–although every time I attended a show at the school, I missed the stage. My stage experiences really were preparation for almost everything I’ve accomplished in life, though!

  2. Xochitl Gaytan says:

    “Hamilton cannot be seen as the apex of BIPOC art. It is a critical step. What happens, the next creation, next is up to us.” AGREED. I really enjoyed the creativity and the process behind the making of this play. It’s not the ultimate, most “best” BIPOC piece of art out there but it certainly is one that encompasses what BIPOC actors can do to “take you away”, make you believe they are this person in history and into the story. One of my dreams is to own a theater company that allows for a centering of BIPOC stories and actors. Not just latino, or just black or anything that feels exclusive. A creative space that is completely inclusive and centered to BIPOC communities, that they can relate to and enjoy.

    1. Gerardo Munoz says:

      Thank you so much for this! What an amazing dream! Let me know if I can support!

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