My wife Azalea and I were fortunate to get tickets to see the hit musical Hamilton in March. The show is sold out for months in advance and tickets are going for over a $1,000 each on the secondary market. My goal was to see if the show is an example of US Latina/o theatre so I can use it in classes I teach on the subject. After all, the book, music, and lyrics are composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Watching the show, the most striking aspect for me was the mostly Black and Latina/o cast who play dead white founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson (an exuberant Daveed Diggs), James Aaron Burr (brooding Leslie Odom, Jr), and George Washington (Christopher Jackson, with the commanding presence of a Mohammed Ali). I had the same experience when Mexico City in the early 1970’s, when I was visiting a museum full of portraits of Mexicans who looked like me dressed in 18th century colonial attire. It was the first time in my life that I “identified” with the fashion.
There’s no mistaking that the show was written by a Latino. Miranda, New York-born of Puerto Rican parents from the island, plays the lead and the chorus asks: “how does a bastard, orphan and son of a whore, and Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
One of the important themes in the show is the immigrant experience, since both Hamilton and the Marques de Lafayette came from abroad to join the revolutionary cause. Does that make it a “Latina/o” play? Missing are 18th century Hispanic characters like Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish governor of the Louisiana territories, or Jorge Farragut, who fathered the future hero Admiral David Farragut. The cast at one point sings, “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” and later, “Immigrants, we get the job done!”
Miranda’s 2008 hit musical In the Heights featured a rainbow of characters from the Caribbean and Latin America—Miranda played the lead role of “Usnavi,” so named by his parents after seeing a US Navy ship in San Juan harbor and Hispanized it by pronouncing it (US-NAVI). It’s a bilingual phrase like “Nuyorican,” a combination of Spanish Nuyorquino and English “Rican.” The famous Nuyorican Poet’s Café is located in the Loisaida, which is how you pronounce “Lower East Side” in Nuyorican.
I recently interviewed Luis Miranda, Lin-Manuel’s father, who said, “When Luz was pregnant with Lin-Manuel, we had to leave the Nuyorican Poet’s Café because the music was loud and baby was moving around making Luz too uncomfortable.” Luis Miranda worked as a political advisor to then-Mayor Ed Koch while attending New York University on a Post Doc and learning English as a second language. He and Luz married in 1967, had Lucesita in 1973, Lin Manuel in 1980, and settled in the mostly Latina/o Washington Heights. They took their children to see Les Miserables, shows at Repertorio Español, and The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre.
Luz lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and told me in an interview they were “one of the very few Latino families in the neighborhood.” “My mother spoke Spanish, which allowed me to keep knowledge of language. My dad and our summer road to trips to visit the Mexican side of my family in Eagle Pass, Texas expanded my horizons.”
According to an article Miranda wrote in Broadway Buzz, “If in the Heights has any particular genesis, it's growing up in Northern Manhattan, and if you've ever even driven through the neighborhood, you know that music comes out of every corner. Salsa horn lines wail from fire escape windows; bachata guitar lines blare from pimped-out car stereos.”
I would argue that In The Heights is a play about the Latino experience, while Hamilton is more of a hybrid. Most people wouldn’t call the original West Side Story composed by Leonard Bernstein and cast with mostly Anglo actors, a Latina/o play. However, the same play translated into Spanish by Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2011, cast with Latina/os, should be considered an expression of the Latina/o experience.
As Suzan-Lori Park writes in her provocative essay “An Equation for Black People Onstage,” “For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas? Can a White person be present on stage and not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed?” By casting mostly Black and Latina/o actors as the founding fathers, director Thomas Kail subverts the roles and places audiences squarely in the heart of “Obama’s America.” Was this a directorial choice, or the authors’ vision? I would wager it was a collaboration between the two.
So, is Hamilton a work that fits within the canon of US Latina/o literature? Yes, it’s conceived and written by Miranda, with Music Director Alex Lacamoire who is Cuban, but the music is mostly rap and a mixture of Broadway shows tunes and other styles. Some argue the music is influenced by Latina/o rhythms. The immigrant theme is salient, but not specifically Latina/o. Does it really matter?
María Irene Fornés wrote dozens of plays that didn’t have anything to do with the Cuban experience (with the exception of Sarita and Conduct of Life), but we still recognize her as one of our own. Venezuelan-born author Moisés Kaufman is the guiding force behind The Laramie Project and said in an interview, "I am Venezuelan, I am Jewish, I am gay, I live in New York. I am the sum of all my cultures. I couldn’t write anything that didn’t incorporate all that.” Isn’t hybridity in action what Obama’s America is all about? Let us celebrate Hamilton for the wonderful work of art that it is: a veritable mestizaje.