7/3/2020 1 Comment
Why I Hate Hamilton
Okay, I don't *hate* Hamilton, but this is a touchy subject and, as with a lot of what I've posted recently, I'm betting I'm not the only one who feels this way. There are industry-wide issues, as well as some deep personal pain associated with this, so bear with me.
Let's start out with why I love the show because that part's easy to explain: it's fucking amazing on, like, six hundred levels. I'm not going to spend a ton of time on this bit, but suffice to say, Hamilton is a bomb-ass musical and it has revolutionized the way theatre can be done in this country, and who's allowed to do it. There is no denying the positive impact that the show has had and will, I'm sure, continue to have.
That said, here's the reality for us musical theatre makers of color:
Karen: [Knows or finds out we do musical theatre] "Oh, really? I just loved Hamilton! Why aren't you in that?"
Even well-meaning family and friends do this. A lot.
Let's start with the surface annoyance...
PART 1: MUSICAL THEATRE HISTORY
Back in the early 2000s and 2010s if you were a musical theatre person (MTP), and a non-musical theatre person (NMTP) wanted to talk musical theatre with you, the conversation would go like this:
NMTP: "Oh, I love musicals!"
MTP: "Really? What's your favorite?"
NMTP: "Wicked! And CATS!"
MTP: "Any others?"
Having your entire career field reduced to the most palatable, crowd-pleasing shows is obnoxious all on its own. It strips away any sense of nuance and detail from the entire genre and turns it into a CW Wednesday night version of itself.
So, already, most people are NMTPs (which is absolutely fine). So, most people have a very limited knowledge of what exists out there, which means that they have likely absolutely no idea of the *belligerently* racist history of the industry, which can be boiled down like this:
All the roles are for white people, mostly white men.
In the Heights. Hamilton. Allegiance. Hadestown. There are specific shows that are starting to pop up, many off the back of Hamilton's success with white audiences, but historically, characters of color have been A. often played by white people either doing or not even bothering to do brown face, and B. historically stereotyped roles with little to no impact (certainly not positive impact) on the story (you wanna talk about Bloody Mary and Liat in South Pacific?).
So, immediately, all MTPs of color (MTPOCs*) are relegated to a handful of roles, mostly offensive bit parts, and even those can be taken by white performers. Of course, there are exceptions, like when a director decides to make a "bold choice with casting" (which sometimes works, but often is just offensive in a new way. And we're not even going to go into "colorblind casting" because none of y'all can afford my consultant rate to hand-tutor anybody on that issue), but for the most part, there are a couple of shows amid the vast pantheon of white-white-white-white musicals that are ours and that's it.
Now, along comes Hamilton and it blows the doors off of the American Theatre community. Here's a show where producers are contractually disallowed from casting white performers in any but one of the roles. And all the characters are historically white! The show, in and of itself, is an act of revolution.
But it's an act of revolution that has caused exclusion on a scale heretofore unheard of.
PART 2: AT WHAT LITERAL COST?
First of all, "Hamilton tickets" as a phrase has become synonymous with "prohibitively expensive." I was fortunate enough to win the Hamilton ticket lottery here in LA a couple of years ago (which made me feel stupidly lucky for a day), so I have had the chance to see it. But I only got that chance because the tickets were $20 apiece and I had a phone and a cellular plan at my disposal, plus the scheduling freedom to clear a night to go to the show. That's a lot of privilege to get the most-discounted-as-possible tickets that exist to see a show for which people were paying upwards of $800 (one CNN report shows even as high as $9,997) per seat.
This is not a show for people of color, it's a show for white people, *starring* people of color. And anybody working or middle class, and obviously anyone living paycheck to paycheck, is excluded from admission simply by the price of the ticket.
So, this brings us around to another frequent experience for us MTPOCs: voyeurism.
Karen: [Having just seen a show with an all- or mostly-POC cast] "Oh, I just love seeing you people's culture up there!" (Or something along those lines. I've been told I was "spicy" by old white people in lobbies more times than I can count.)
I'm all for increasing the number of shows that we MTPOCs can do, but you have to understand that there is a very real and very painful emotional cost to enduring these conversations over and over and over. It feels very much like we're on display and it's not a fun feeling.
Obviously, this is not what all white theatregoers do. But it is what *a lot* of white theatregoers do, and it is dehumanizing and exhausting to deal with.
And that exhaustion brings us to:
PART 3: WHY I HATE HAMILTON
To reiterate... Karen: "Why aren't you in Hamilton [or In the Heights, or the West Side Story movie, or insert-any-other-high-profile-brown-thing-here]?"
Look, I'm in the business of being rejected. It's 99% of what I do. And 99% of said rejection rolls right off my back. I'm a big fan of the "submit and forget" mentality. I submit for a role, maybe one-in-a hundred turn into an audition, I prepare like a madman, I do the thing, and maybe one-in-a hundred of those turn into a callback. That's how the process goes. And 99% of the time, I never hear back from them again and I forget that the entire experience even happened.
But when you really want it...
And when there are only a handful of shows that would be a safe haven for MTPOCs the way that Hamilton and Heights are...
When you get shot down...
Or, more often, when you can't even get seen...
And then when well-meaning Karen dismissively asks, "Well, why aren't you in it?" or says, "If you want a thing badly enough, don't let anyone tell you no," guess what?
It reinforces all of the second-guessing and the "othering" and the "you're just not good enough" that's already happening inside our heads and, meanwhile, it has absolutely no impact on Karen. We take all of the pain and emotional labor on ourselves, and we try our best not to internalize it, but sometimes, we just can't help it. Sometimes it gets in there and it sticks. And it turns something that ought to be unabashedly wonderful, like Hamilton, into a source and reminder of that pain.
So, yes, I am elated that Hamilton is being released on Disney+. It means that, at last, Part 2 is being circumvented for a lot of people. And it really is a fantastic show, so if you haven't seen it, it's well worth a watch and, particularly, a listen. It's a remarkably important show, and it's just plain good to boot.
And I obviously love that the show exists and all of the positive changes it has helped to usher into our theatre community.
However, for me, and I imagine for many MTPOCs, it's charged. Heavily.
When everyone's favorite show is one of only a small handful of shows that racially and ethnically reflect so many performers of color, there are a very limited number of seats at that table, and the rest of us can't get one (yet).
You better believe that I'm going to keep auditioning for the show. Just like I'm going to with Heights. And just like I'm going to with Man of La Mancha, Little Shop of Horrors, Avenue Q, and Frozen. Because we MTPOCs never give up, and we never surrender.
But remember: there is an injury to our sense of self-worth from the constant rejection from shows like Hamilton and Heights, and to reduce it to something dismissible with a "Why aren't you in that?" only rubs salt in the wound.
Am I going to watch the Disney+ recording? I haven't decided. If I do, it won't be just yet. But I have decided this: I am going to go out for the show the very next time auditions are being held. You better believe it. Because like the titular character, I am not throwing away my shot, not this time, or the next time, or the time after that.
*I made up all those initialisms. They just made life easier. They're not real things.
7/4/2020 03:53:26 pm
Good read. Posting.
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