May 17, 2018
The National Theatre | Washington, DC
April 24, 2017
When I first decided to write you a letter, I figured I would craft it in your favorite meter. After all, if you are writing a love letter to William Shakespeare, iambic pentameter feels like the right choice to make.
But here’s a reality check: I am terrible at it, though I will admit I really like saying the phrase because it sounds like something out of the Jabberwocky — familiar, yet completely made up.
(Jabberwocky is an amazing poem, the things you miss when you die in 1616.)
Happy birthday (a day late)! For being just over 450 years old you’re still breaking hearts, causing drama, and encouraging laughter around the world. As we wrap up marking the 400th year of your death (sorry!) I wanted to tell you how I felt.
Whew. I’m a little nervous, as I’ve never expressed my love to a dead playwright before. Continue reading “Dear William Shakespeare”
Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. – Excerpt from Executive Order 9066. Signed February 19, 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When I was in graduate school I was assigned Only What We Could Carry for a course on visual and material culture. This text used objects, poetry, photography, and art to reveal the wide ranging experiences of Japanese Americans (and permanent residents) that were forced, seventy-five years ago, from their homes into internment camps.
One of the first artifacts photographed is an evacuation tag. At first glance looks like a label you would place on an inanimate object with basic reference information. For the evacuees forced to leave their homes, this tag removed identities paring individuals down to a name, family number, and a time and a place to report.
Continue reading “75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066”
afraid. Folded in by the weight
of postcards and calls
links and 140 characters.
Always thinking about the invisible scales of equality
between the unborn, the refugee, the immigrant, and those not living in privilege.
certain that I have fingers
toes, a heart with blood pumping
slowly through my veins —
as do you,
and us, but those that lead find
different ways to say
You Don’t Belong.
my strength for this
Yet I know that one cannot expect miracles
And God cannot do all the work
And so —
Although I am afraid, I am certain. Although I question, I am ready.
I can be brave. I must be brave. I will be brave.
Whenever I begin writing my annual New Year’s post I take a look at what I wrote the year before. Here is what I said in January 2016:
I had intended for this to go up in the waning days of last year but found myself wanting to spend my vacation away from my computer rather than in front of it. So here we are, with some final thoughts on the other side of the new year.
A final post, one last time, on Hamilton: An American Musical.
In a lot of ways, this year has been the year of Hamilton for me. On some level it allowed some respite from the real world, while opening the floodgates on an already complex conversation about art, diversity, and our American past.
In 2016 I have been privileged to see the show on Broadway and like so many others devoured the Hamilton Mixtape, finished the Hamilton: The Revolution (henceforth the Hamiltome, the book about the making of the musical – with annotations!), and watched Hamilton’s America – the incredible PBS documentary that put the musical in its historical context. Continue reading “Hamilton: One Last Time”
In the first post of this series I wrote of how the miniseries Roots and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of the Earth and Sky tackled a simple question of individual identity amidst displacement – “Who am I?” But there is a second question that both the show and the book addressed that looks beyond the status quo and the present revealing active identity creation. “Who do I want to be?” is a question that is both aspirational and forward looking.
And so two other art/history pieces I experienced this spring – the Smithsonian’s Crosslines and the Folger Shakespeare Library’s District Merchants– demonstrate that not everyone wants or chooses to internalize their heritage in the same way. Rather they make it clear that answering the question “Who do I want to be?” is a combination of conscious and unconscious choices we make in the process of forging identities.
“And he, Marin Djivo, younger son of a merchant? What was his life about? Trade? Clever, profitable dealings? He was from a city state that flourished by letting no one hate them enough to do anything disagreeable. Where you are situated in the world, Marin thinks, digging a grave in a Sauradian meadow, shapes how you act in the world.
Then he amends that thought: It is one of the things that does so. Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek might frame it differently. Or the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle might do so. They are all exiles, he thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.”
–Excerpt from Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (emphasis mine)
For those of you that are fans of musical theatre the title of this piece may prompt you to belt out a singular name. A man whose identity at the moment of questioning had long been obscured by a series of numbers.
Words have power. Fact. We live in an age where anyone can say anything and be believed. An age where fact checking is only reliable if it aligns with your beliefs. Words. Have. Power.
But power to what? To sway, to innovate, to encourage, to bring hope – and in their absence limit important forms of expression necessary for real communication. A few weeks ago two events brought these thoughts to the surface. And while both cases are based in fiction there are real world implications.
A quick anecdote. While on a road trip last week to Charlottsville I helped introduce my high school history teacher to the magic that is Hamilton. A few days later I received a Facebook message where he asked me if this was in retaliation for the forced repeated listening of Gary Owen when I was in his class.
My response: I do what I can.
Seriously though, everyone has an opinion about this musical, and I thought it was high time I shared the feelings of others (you know how I feel – in both parody and essay form). I also promise this will be the last post about Hamilton until I see it in August, because I got tickets that didn’t break the bank – Huzzah!.
In November of last year I asked some co-workers, and friends (one of which is an eleven year old) for their thoughts on this theatrical masterpiece. The responses I received were nuanced and introspective. So, on this blizzardy day here in Washington, DC here are the collected thoughts of Iris, Alison, Sarah H., Sarah F., Rob, Monty, Megan, Mike, Alex, and Renee. [Then read this great interview on Vulture.]
Second in a series of three posts about the musical Hamilton. Read the first here.
In starting an essay on Hamilton it might be best to state my bias upfront. A work of genius, Hamilton soars for a variety of reasons including the hip hop allusions, the allegory to modern life, and the purposeful diverse casting, all of which have already been covered extensively elsewhere. But while I yet to have the privilege of seeing it in person there is one very large reason why I think the musical is fantastic:
Hamilton is an almost perfect example of public history.*
Public history is about meaning. It’s not always 100% accurate and is rooted in how various publics perceive their own past. Hamilton the musical plays with that idea while engaging with the very real themes of legacy and memory.
But it’s about more than that. A few weeks ago, at the PastForward conference Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative spoke eloquently about the need to open up the narrative of our history to achieve social justice, he states “I believe that the opposite of poverty is not wealth….I believe that the opposite of poverty is justice. And we do an injustice when we tell stories about our space, our history, our identity that are incomplete.”
While Hamilton isn’t exactly an active agent in social justice, it does, in just over two hours, show how the narrative of a Founding Father is also the African-American story, the immigrant story, the story of women, and a story of the impoverished. As with most artistic interpretations there is an element of anachronism, as this American Historical Association piece mentions, but the musical’s ability to engage the public on the importance of history in all its forms is worth its weight in gold.
For me it all comes down to resonance and relevance.
Resonance is an emotional reaction. In history it is the ability to relate to the past in a way that feeds your identity. In my case it was clear almost immediately that the lyrics and narrative of Hamilton would feed my history-loving, poetry-inspired soul and really hit home in making some abstract subjects real.
This is perhaps best illustrated through “Satisfied“, sung by Angelica Schuyler at her sister’s wedding to Alexander Hamilton.
I’m a girl in a world in which
My only job is to marry rich
My father has no sons so I’m the one
Who has to social climb for one
So I’m the oldest and the wittiest and the gossip in
New York City is insidious
And Alexander is penniless
Ha! That doesn’t mean I want him any less.
In one song we learn more about the social standing of women in 18th century America in a way that is ridiculously catchy and human. We hear Angelica’s conflicting feelings—between what she wants and what society expects–and really feel her plight. While intellectually I saw this as a vehicle for showing the way class and gender determined pathways in early America, emotionally I felt Angelica’s conflict.
Then there is relevance. A lot of the issues we grapple with as a country are rooted in a very real awareness that while “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” huge segments of the country were left behind. (Angelica: And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!). And so one of the biggest reasons this show is a great example of public history is its ability to be relevant to the here and now.
But sometimes you can’t think about resonance and relevance as separate entities. I found that I was emotionally drawn to songs that subtly link to the practice of history. Specifically how Miranda is able to explain why we know some things and not others i.e. “no one else was in the room where it happened,” “I’m taking myself out of the narrative.” As a result Hamilton feels not only historically accurate (within reason), but also authentic. During the Smithsonian interview, Miranda mentioned that for the purposes of the art, some level of suspension of belief had to happen. I believe that in sacrificing some accuracy for the spirit of the past, Hamilton accomplishes something that is uniquely powerful.
As a public historian I walk around the world knowing that our present is influenced by what came before. We grow and change based on how we take those experiences in our own lives. The strength of Hamilton is the way it is able to take a very traditional narrative of the past and create tethers to our current existence. I see this in these two oft-repeated phrases “look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” coupled with the reminder “Look at where you are. Look at where you started. The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.” Both are reminder to us, the audience, that to create a better future we need to pause and recognize how far we’ve come. That it is worth taking a breath as we continue to fight the social ills of our own age.
During the Q&A last at the Smithsonian, an audience member asked Lin Manuel Miranda what he wanted his legacy to be. He said (paraphrasing) that Hamilton touches upon the notion that there is not a lot of time in this world (Why do you write like you’re running out of time, running out of time.) and so “I want to leave behind as much as possible. I know that’s selfish, but there is so much in my brain that when I go I want it all out, I want to always throw rocks in the pond.”
And that is the final reason why Hamilton an almost perfect piece of public history. We only have one life to live and it’s fitting that it is Eliza’s (Hamilton’s wife) words at the end of the show are what left me energized and in tears all at the same time. In the final song she sings of her own legacy, telling not only Hamilton’s story, but also her own, adding another layer to an already rich story. Perhaps, more importantly the show’s ultimate message is that it’s not about finding someone to tell your story, but rather to “put yourself back in the narrative” and tell it yourself. After all, the greatest impact of history can have on the public is to inspire — and Hamilton the musical does that in spades.
*Why is this not perfect? It comes down to accessibility. Right now, while grants have been given to allow school children to see it, the show is cost prohibitive for most people (unless you win the ticket lottery). But I suspect this will change with time — and hopefully a feature film?