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The theatre must always be a safe and special place

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“The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

So read Donald Trump’s recent early morning tweet, adding the cast of “Hamilton: An American Musical” to his increasingly long list of foes after calls of #BoycottHamilton flooded social media. The tweet and social media posts responded to the Hamilton cast’s plea, delivered by cast member Brandon Victor Dixon after the show’s conclusion, to Mike Pence that he and Trump  ought to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us,” for they are one of the many within American that are frightened as to what Trump’s Administration would bring.” Trump’s condemnation of the cast’s peaceful words and willing communication serves as a threat to the dialogue that art and theatre have always offered society.  

The theatre has always been an arena of political criticism. Aristophanes, regarded as one of the greatest Athenian comic dramatists, served as one of the earliest records of political satire as he satirized the Peloponnesian War and made passionate pleas for peace. His plays, though lighthearted on the outside, held his grief over the thousands of Athenians who had died at their defeat at Syracuse. The Bard, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was renowned for his political theater as he charted the inner workings of bureaucracy and power, studying its moral and political problems through humor, satire, and tragedy.

And the theatre has most definitely never been “safe.” Five days after the conclusion of the American Civil War, famous actor and Confederacy supporter John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln during a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. On May 15 1800 George III of the United Kingdom was nearly assassinated when James Hadfield fired a pistol at the King but missed. As revealed in a tweet by former cast member Daveed Diggs, “Clinton was boo’d [at Hamilton] during primaries.”

But it is the danger, the outrage, the grief, and the criticism that makes theatre so great. Theatre is purely for entertainment. Like all art, there is a message that is delivered, and sometimes that message takes place before or after the curtain call. When you walk into a theatre, the cast owns the stage, the audience owns their seats, and everyone participates in the discourse.

Critiques of both the left and right have attacked Hamilton the musical. Some have found that its call for minorities only for the key roles to be unfair, despite every other musical on Broadway having a predominantly white cast with white leads. Some from the far left have argued that the use of Hamilton as the main figure of the play seems to advocate for the capitalism and elitism they so despise. But neither side has looked at the true meaning of the musical or have likely seen the musical first hand.

Hamilton does what Clinton and Trump’s respective campaigns could not: Show people of color and the white majority that we share the same world. Lin-Manuel Miranda uses Hamilton, one of our founding fathers and the brain behind our economy, as a vessel. He takes a classic history name and gives minorities a person to relate to: an orphan immigrant who shoulders “ev’ry burden” and “ev’ry disadvantage,” coming to America in hopes to accomplish something great. As the daughter of two immigrants, the musical personally reads as a love song to the future. Hamilton stands as an immigrant navigating a world that could have crushed him: Where he comes from, some got “half as many” years than he did to live, and he operates in a world post-revolution where “blood shed” threatens to “begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants.” It is our own modern world. The musical is not an autobiography of Hamilton. Yes, he is a leading character, and yes, we see elements of his life, but the musical is not bound by historical accuracies and is often narrated by Aaron Burr. Hamilton is set up as a passionate but flawed character: Jefferson and Madison point out his bourgeoisie leanings, James Reynolds reveals his adultery and Washington continually pushes him to operate through the people instead of by force. And ultimately, Hamilton dies wondering whether his legacy will be undone. This legacy lives through his wife, Eliza, who goes out of her way to make sure everything her husband had worked on for years did not die with him, a message that echoes the cast’s statement and the world’s thoughts: “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.” It is Trump who shall now “tell our story,” and who knows what pages will be torn out, what lines or characters will be erased, and what the next few pages will entail. We need musicals like Hamilton now more than ever.

The theatre will and ought to go on speaking out, criticizing the world from on and off stage, and documenting our past. Trump, the theatre will always be an special open place for all to partake, but it will never be a place of ignorant refuge or mindless spectacle for anyone to hide from the world.

Contact Juliet Okwara at jokwara ‘at’ stanford.edu.