Hamilton, Democracy, and Theatre in America

Pedagogy Notebook is a monthly blog series that serves as a pedagogical resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latina/o theatre into the classroom. In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, plus overall reflections on their pedagogy. This series offers a glimpse into different methods of engaging with and teaching Latina/o theatre at the university level.

I, along with University of Richmond professors Lázaro Lima and Laura Browder, received an National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association Latino Americans grant this year to organize the Latinos in Richmond program, which coincided with two classes that we taught this spring: the Tocqueville Seminar “Performing Latino USA: Democracy, Demography, and Equality” and the First-Year Seminar “Telling Richmond’s Latino Stories: A Community Documentary Project.” Since the goal of both courses was to explore how Latinos—the nation’s largest “minority” group in a representative democracy like America­—is also the most underrepresented, I was interested in understanding Hamilton through a democratic lens.

Weaving a hip hop sensibility into the fabric of the American musical tradition means threading through Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American musical, oral, visual, and dance forms and practices. 'Hamilton' makes visible the Afro-diasporic significance in American history in the face of a larger society that rarely recognizes it.

To offer different forms of democratic practice, we drew from law, literature, theatre, and performance studies to examine how Latina/os have creatively engaged the politics of national belonging. For us, democratic practice was not limited to the engagement of citizens in electoral politics, but rather it paid attention to the ways communities spotlighted non-majoritarian histories and created new knowledge to advance a democratic project. In our second week of class we showed video clips of In the Heights and Hamilton and read excerpts from Harvey C. Mansfield’s Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction (2005) alongside Cristina Beltran’s The Trouble with Unity (2010) to understand Miranda’s work. With Mansfield, we learned about Alexis de Tocqueville’s estimation of the United States as the most advanced example of democracy in the nineteenth-century. In juxtaposition, we turned to political theorist Beltrán who focuses on the role of Latina/os in the democratic system historically perceived as the “sleeping giant,” referring to an artificial person constituting many parts that come together, but who is politically passive. Activists in the seventies combatted this stereotype through rallies, teatro, and poetry readings, public performances that foster an open inclusive, participatory democracy of racial unity among Chicanos and Puerto Ricans. The physical claiming of public space produced a shared sense of belonging, and even political will. Though Tocqueville and Beltrán are far from the minds of contemporary theatre practitioners, it was useful to understand the potentiality of Hamilton as an embodied action of citizenship.

Among the many ways Hamilton breaks new ground, Jonathan Mandell noted that Miranda revolutionizes the American musical tradition with hip hop beats, polysyllabic rhymes, R&B, clave rhythms, and a tinge of opera and ballads. This was the most captivating aspect of Hamilton for my students: how Miranda could possibly use hip-hop to narrate the story of Alexander Hamilton. Hearing the opening song of Hamilton, students bopped their head, enamored by the flow of the rap and the beat of the song. Others mouthed the lyrics attempting to perfect the delivery of the rap. Hamilton is the most highly acclaimed product of a generation that positions hip hop as a cultural art form.

Weaving a hip hop sensibility into the fabric of the American musical tradition means threading through Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American musical, oral, visual, and dance forms and practices. Hamilton makes visible the Afro-diasporic significance in American history in the face of a larger society that rarely recognizes it. Thinking about hip hop as a democratic practice opens up the conversation for discussing Latina/os in hip hop, particularly Nuyoricans, or Puerto Ricans from New York City. As evidenced in Juan Flores’s From Bomba to Hip Hop (2000) and Raquel Rivera’s New York Ricans in the Hip Hop Zone, Puerto Ricans impressed their own cultural artistic expression into hip hop from its inception.

students posing for a photo
Students from the University of Richmond waiting for the screening of Foreigners in their Own Land (1565-1880), episode one of the NEH-supported documentary film Latino Americans to start at Sacred Heart Center. Photo by Michael K. Lease.

While we give a nod to hip hop, we also want to call attention to the development of a Nuyorican aesthetic coming into being at virtually the same time. The founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the publication of their first poetry anthology popularized the term Nuyorican. Miranda’s work is a by-product of this Nuyorican tradition that recognizes Afro-diasporic interconnections. Like hip hop, the Nuyorican aesthetic implements a democratic practice by supporting diverse artists and providing an open mic to any and all. Connecting the hip hop and Nuyorican traditions to Hamilton brings the presence of enslaved people from Africa to the forefront.

Miranda himself is a Nuyorican, and the cast playing the Founding Fathers are largely Black and Latina/o performers. In media, people of color are often times on the other side of the judicial paradigm—behind bars—but Miranda places them in the center as lawmakers. This racially-conscious casting tells a story bound by race, infuses afro-diasporic practices, references hip hop songs and samples, and ultimately shifts the way we understand musical theatre. This shift was definitely experienced by an Afro-Latino student who remarked how important it was for his whole family to see the production of Manuel’s In the Heights. They shed tears because the musical gave voice to their community, their struggles, and their joys. For the first time they saw themselves on that stage.

What remains audibly silent in Hamilton is the violent history of slavery. While hip hop revolutionizes Broadway, Miranda is still working within a genre that limits how deep one can delve into an uncomfortable history. Though the impact of slavery is not addressed head on, with Hamilton getting so much attention, Miranda is poised to leverage a democratic project. He has recently called on Congress to solve the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. He parallels his request with Hamilton’s plea to support relief efforts after a hurricane destroyed St. Croix. In so doing, he wittingly brings his performance of the past in conversation with the present.

As we reach the end of the semester, there is much to reflect on. Our students attended the Latinos in Richmond programs and witnessed first hand how Richmond’s dichotomous black and white divide has often neglected the interconnected stories of Latinos. Our conversation about Hamilton resonated throughout the semester, reminding us of the function of historical memory and the work needed to restore forgotten histories. It brought us closer to re-imagining Virginia and Richmond Latina/o history, from the “Capitol of the Old South” to one of the capitols of the Global South.

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In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, as a resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latinx theatre.

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Hamilton ignores the 800 lb monster of slavery. Miranda's verbal pyrotechnics are employed to be celebratory and to glorify the tired Republican idea of American Exceptionalism. When Miranda as Hamilton says that immigrants can do the job, we are lulled into believing that we can do it too. But young persons of color watching the show are listening to a White man filtered through a brown man. It becomes a minstrel show not in black face and not to criticize but to celebrate the white man.

There is little in Miranda's show that is original other than his music - and even that is debatable. The book is borrowed from Ron Chernow; the set is uber Les Miz with its revolving stage; its balcony is straight out of Rent; and actually it is not much different than the other musical of the founding fathers 1776.

Additionally, the much heralded blind casting of blacks and Latinos as the founding fathers isn’t any different than an all-Black cast in a Tennessee Williams play. (When the play goes on tour and becomes available for tony high school productions, the casting will have Whites playing the roles – and does any proud person of color aspire to play Hamilton?). And forget about the inclusion of any gender reversal roles? Miranda had a chance to consider all of the above after the musical's Public Theater run. He chose not to make any of those changes. And that is why both Dick Cheney and Michelle Obama can both see the play and rave about how wonderfully accurate and ground-breaking it is.

An aside: Both critics and scholars keep referring to Miranda as Puerto Rican. Actually his mother is part Mexican American. And Miranda has proudly acknowledged he is part RAZA on Facebook*. But as the saying goes, when legend becomes fact, print the legend. Wasn’t that the motto of Hamilton’s own newspaper The New York Post?

* https://www.facebook.com/pe...

I took the Tocqueville section of the class and I most enjoyed discussing Latinos in Richmond. Our course was community based so we interacted with the Latino community in Richmond. The Latino community is very much present but at the same time has been rendered invisible due to the black and white binary in Richmond. In engaging with the community, we were encouraged to think of democratic practices as a methods of performance. Additionally, we got to hear the stories of various Latinos in Richmond, which for me, was the best part. Being that mainstream media often tells the wrong stories about Latinos --and all other historically marginalized groups for that media for that matter, it was refreshing to hear community leaders and personal citizens telling their own stories. I think the aspect story-telling and who tells one story is crucial. As Patricia points out, in Hamilton the violent history of slavery is left out yet at the same time the Founding Fathers, who were white, are played by black and brown actors. While I think that having black and brown actors play the roles of the Founding Fathers certainly serves to make a point, addressing slavery outright would alienate mainstream audiences due to the larger body politic's discomfort to discussing race (racism) and slavery. While I do not think that that reason is sufficient enough to not discuss slavery, I think Miranda was very conscious this when creating Hamilton.

Great read! As a student in the Tocqueville section of the class, one thing that stuck with me most from the class experience was an expanded view of what democratic practice can be. This class blurred the lines between what is theatrical and what is democratic practice, emphasizing the unifying force that the arts can be. We learned about how pleasurable forms of protest, such as theatre, can be crucial in unifying a body politic that might otherwise find only differences when using more linear, policy-oriented forms of protest. This was definitely one of the most explorative classes I have taken at the University of Richmond, and the combination of the arts, community involvement, and democratic practice created an experience that emphasized the joy in community cohesion.

So much to be debated about this musical. I would start a convo but I don't want to stir the sancocho of the Latina/o/X scholars on this site. Patricia, as always, you rock da house!

There are a lot of layers to peel. While slavery is certainly mentioned, the violent history is eradicated. The very same diversity on the Great White Way that is groundbreaking and should be celebrated, sanitizes history and promotes a historical amnesia, especially to those young folks sitting in the audience, but let's get real–that story is not palatable for the Broadway stage. Who tells your/our story?

"What remains audibly silent in Hamilton is the violent history of slavery. While hip hop revolutionizes Broadway, Miranda is still working within a genre that limits how deep one can delve into an uncomfortable history." So refreshing to read this truth. And to see how you are using Hamilton as a learning moment. This piece is critical and celebratory of the work, and I really appreciate the attention to how we can-- and NEED-- to do both.

I am very interested in the "fandom" related to this musical. Who is this piece appealing to? Why are scholars who have historically been turned off by Hamilton's representations of queer, non-hypermasculine men and overtly-sexualized costumed female bodied actors, so "gung ho" about this play? But again, to question this, in recent academic discussions, has proven highly argumentative and insulting.