Hamilton & Public History: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

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.

The Two R’s

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 feelingsbetween 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.

Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

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?

Ten Ham Commandments

20151122_124332

While in the process of trying to pull together a reflective piece on Hamilton as public history, my friend Sarah H. had a dream where she saw me rewriting the lyrics to “Ten Duel Commandments.”

Challenge accepted.

What follows is the first of three completely different posts on the musical. You should be aware I wrote “Ten Ham Commandments” on a five-hour bus ride between DC and Newark, and in doing so I now have a reinforced appreciation for Lin Manuel Miranda’s skills. Seven was ridiculously hard to re-write (internal rhymes!), and refers to a response Miranda gave during his recent interview at the National Museum of American History about what he wanted his own legacy to be. You can listen and read the original lyrics here – with annotations. Thanks to Sarah H. for helping me edit. In the end this parody is really about how much Hamilton connects with a more inclusive view of the past. Continue reading “Ten Ham Commandments”

Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment

The silence on this blog hasn’t been so much due to a lack of inspiration, but rather the time — or the quiet — to put it all down on paper. A lot of what I’ve had to say comes between the lines of real-life events, catching up with friends, and spending pool side time with a book.

None of these moments are particularly revelatory. In fact, they are ordinary, occasional, spur-of-the-moment flashes of joy. Like nerding out every time the John Adams theme plays at a Washington Nationals game.

So the latest Hodge Podge is a look at 500 episodes of This American Life, A few short book reviews, and a round up of a mish-mash of things my brain stopped to examine in the last two months.

This American Life at 500

It would be funny to joke that the radio show was five-hundred years old, but really five hundred episodes of top-quality storytelling is something that deserves a few lines. When I first started this blog almost four years ago my intention was to spend every week commenting on the latest TAL episode. While that hasn’t exactly come to fruition, I still find myself listening every week and thinking about the people that are profiled, their lives and what they say about living and being a citizen of these United States.

So some of my favorites from the last two years in no particular order: Continue reading “Hodge Podge: Ordinary, Occasional, Spur-Of-The Moment”

2012: Turning, Turning, Turning Through the Years

writingWhen I started this blog in 2009 I had intended for it to serve as an outlet for these words I constantly have churning in my head. Words floating around after I step out into the world, asking–begging to be written down. These words are more than just a way to express myself, they are a way for me to paint a picture, tell a story, form a narrative. They are letters that form sentences that lead to ideas.

So when I look back at my words this year, I realize that 2012 was filled with milestones. When this blog goes live it will be my 108th post*, and the nineteen posts that made up this year have a few common themes. Some were labors of love (the history of Jim Crow, and my piece on public history, the American Revolution, and 1865) while others looked to my travels from Wisconsin to Washington State. I also attended some gorgeously produced theatre productions that pushed storytelling to the next level (not to mention the big Disney buys Lucasfilm news). With every word I put down I tried to embrace the connections between what we read, see, and watch and what we think following these experiences.

Continue reading “2012: Turning, Turning, Turning Through the Years”

Visions. Visions of Lives Lived

A storytelling mechanism that I love is one that uses altered realities to push characters toward an unintended and unexpected destination.For some, these altered realities are remembered as if in a dream, while for others it is a rift in time that only comes once a year.

Two weeks ago, I attended a pair of theatrical productions that used this mechanism to tell the tale. The first was a preview of The Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s A Midsummer Nights Dream. The second was the National Theatre of Scotland’s (whose Black Watch I reviewed earlier this year) The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

Continue reading “Visions. Visions of Lives Lived”

Reality and Fiction//Fiction and Reality

Scene. We are on a stage. Literally sitting on. a. stage. Below us the members of Black Watch are joking around with one another and we can all sense what is coming. We’ve heard live gunfire, been engulfed in the drifting fog, and felt the tension as they fought a choreographed dance with one another and the invisible insurgents in the middle of Iraq. We were given a history lesson, punctuated by uniform changes all to the sounds of the Scottish Highlands. We are in an enclosed space in the middle of Washington, DC, and yet….we are transported. We are somewhere else. We are anywhere but here.

Scene. It’s a story we know by heart. Jane. Beautiful Jane, who we know can’t be beautiful for nothing, trying to be stoic when something that seemed so real, so true, is suddenly over. And her sister, our narrator, is feeling the loss, and looking to understand the sudden changes, but unhampered by 18th century propriety and expectations. This time we are experiencing a 21st century Jane Austen, which includes an Elizabeth Bennet that is someone we all know, someone we could be friends with. A Lizzie Bennet sharing her life on YouTube and Twitter, through the very modern online social world we all live in.

Continue reading “Reality and Fiction//Fiction and Reality”

The Revolution in 1865

A common image of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s Assassin. From the Library of Congress collection.

For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.

–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt

When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.

Continue reading “The Revolution in 1865”

Welcome Back Howard Theatre

The Marquee of the Howard Theatre
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Just a quick post to share some pictures I took at the Howard Theatre (link to info on the restoration) re-opening this week. If you want to read a great account of the night, that included performances by Trombone Shorty and George Clinton check out this post at PreservationNation — complete with great interior shots that my basic digital camera could not take successfully.

As you can tell from my previous post I love the theatre/theater, and while I often talk about the plays, movies, or performances that occur inside these buildings, these performances are enhanced by the places where they occur. Ambiance, acoustics are often what takes a concert to the next level.

One of the places I saw the Hunger Games was in the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC. It’s an old, one screen theater–complete with a balcony. While the movie was the same (I had seen it a few days earlier) there was a sense of grandeur in seeing it again, something that you sometimes miss out at the cookie cutter, stadium seating theaters.

So when an old theatre or theater is rehabbed and brought back to life it’s a wonderful thing. Often these spaces are transformed from original use, but as was the case with the Howard Theatre there is still that origin story of its original place in the community. In this case the memories of performances by musicians of the present and days gone by are about to be added to by a new generation with performances by Savion Glover, Wanda Sykes, James Brown, the Roots and the like.

For more on historic theatre’s visit the League of Historic American Theatres.

Some more pics:

Hodge Podge: Aside the Fourth Wall in the Arena, the Stage, and a Hotel in Chelsea

This is perhaps a post more about narrative than anything else. As I work on another story for May I am ruminating on how to pull together disparate pieces into something coherent and meaningful. And so for this post I thought I would take a look at methods of storytelling in film and theatre. Specifically, the role of the fourth wall in narrative.

The first is a look at the recent book turned into film The Hunger Games, followed by a reflection of a recent adaptation of Eugene O’Niell’s Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Finally, I wanted to look at the role of participant theatre through my experience at the creepy, yet satisfying production, Sleep No More, a version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Hunger Games

Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
(www.thehungergamesmovie.com/?section=photos&item=13)

A story about a world controlled by violence where children are held hostage to a Capitol determined to hold society under their thumbs through an annual gladiator style rite called the Hunger Games. By now, most of you know about this series, and there isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been addressed by others….

  • Do I see Katniss as a strong female character? Check. (Fangirl | NYT)
  • Do I recognize the stories precedents in classics such as the Lottery and to some extent Lord of the Flies (and, yes, Battle Royale) Check.
  • Do I see in the narrative a reflection of our obsessions with 24 hour news, and reality television? Check.

From a storytelling angle, I have to approach the book and the movie separately. The book looks to tell the story from one point of view. We only see and learn what Katniss understands, we know what she knows. It’s like looking at the history of a town or a place and using one person’s diary to tell the tale, sans broader political or social context. We know she is only a piece in a larger machine, but we don’t know what role she plays until later.

In the movie, this tale is approached from two or three different perspectives. We still have Katniss’ point of view—primarily in the arena, but we are also given information as a part of the viewing audience along with glimpses of the undercurrent of malevolence by President Snow and company. And here is where the fourth wall comes in (props to my friend Rob for bringing this up). In the film adaptation we’re pulled into the film primarily through the use of the “hand held (shaky) camera.” The fight scenes feel un-choreographed – and we are amidst the chaos, grappling for some purchase and an upper hand.

The fourth wall is a theatrical term that refers to the barrier between the audience and the events on the screen or stage. “Breaking through the fourth wall,” is when that audience is acknowledged directly, no longer invisible. While the Hunger Games film never directly acknowledges our presence, I did feel at times that the camera work, and the “reality” based storyline made us more than just an unwitting audience member – and made you think of how complicit we are, in our world, of feeding the unreality of reality television.

Strange Interlude

Baylen Thomas (Ned Darrell) and Francesca Faridany (Nina Leeds).
Credit: Shakespeare Theatre DC
http://www.facebook.com/ShakespeareinDC

The story starts with a man talking about his daughter, Nina. Her fiancé has recently passed amidst the fighting of World War I, and her father worries that she will never rise up from her grief and sorrow.

Over the next 3 hours and 45 minutes (a shorter version of play that is normally almost over 4 hours, and often includes a dinner break) viewers are treated with a strange tale. One of grief, manipulation, love (can you call it love?) and expectation. This is Strange Interlude.

I’ll be honest, when we first heard how long it was my friends and I made an unofficial pact (one we probably would never have gone through with, because we aren’t really like that): if we hated the show we would bail during the first intermission.

Luckily that was never necessary. It’s hard to describe Nina Leeds. On one hand she is held up as someone who will not do what is expected, refusing to listen to her father or to an old family friend until pushed. On the other, she and most of the males in her life believe that happiness comes with marriage and children, a daunting task for someone who lives her life for her lost love. When she finally does wed, she discovers a hidden secret in her husband’s family that forces her to live her life dedicated to putting someone else’s happiness above her own.

I don’t want to give away the story (especially for those who may consider attending this show), but I wanted to look at two specific elements. In terms of set it’s a blank canvas. Three pale walls that take up only half of the stage at the Harmon Center for the Arts (the rest of the stage is dark). During scene breaks, scenes of the time/mood/tension are flashed on these walls through black and white silent films.

Credit: http://www.facebook.com/ShakespeareinDC

Much of what we learn about motivations and feeling come from regular asides from each of the main characters. An aside, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is when a character steps out of the normal conversational dialogue to add….an aside, something only we can hear, but none of the other principal actors can. In Strange Interlude we glean sincerity and a version of reality (as each of them see it). Not quite the fourth wall, but certainly insight that we would not get if this was written as a straightforward play.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Let others sway you, and then go see it yourself. (If I didn’t mention it before, this is also a comedy).

Sleep No More

MACBETH.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. —
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Mask and Ticket for Sleep No More
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Picture this. You check in your bags, and receive your ticket – a playing card that leads you up some stairs and through a narrow dark passageway that transports you from there (Chelsea, New York City,  New York) to here. You are told it is a hotel…the McKittrick Hotel, but it is also a speakeasy where suited up guides use breaks in the music to call out numbers for the much larger show. This is how we are herded, prepared for what is to come.

You get a mask, reminiscent of the masks from V for Vendetta but much more ghoulish, and are told to stop speaking. No cell phones. No outside communication at all. After all you are no longer there…you are here.

And up, up, we go and step beyond the realm of typical theatrics and into the show itself.

Have you ever watched a play and wondered what it would be like to walk on set, walk through doorways, and wander about fake libraries, dining rooms or battlefields? In the McKittrick that is what we get to do. On one floor we are wandering through a graveyard. Small crosses dotting a hallway that is nearly pitchblack. I can smell the dirt, and hear the sorrow. The graveyard turns into ruins, half built brick walls, with a statue of Jesus (or was it an angel?) raising their arms towards us. (Aside: This would have seemed less menacing had I not recently seen the “Don’t Blink” episodes of Dr. Who.) It’s a maze that ends in a wall of glass doorways, and peering through the frosted glass you are given a glimpse of a bedroom filled with other silent, masked attendees.

We walked through the glass and spotted the white, porcelain tub in the center of the room. Papers lay scattered about, and when you pick it up you see a familiar name. Macbeth, writing to his lady love.

And then, he walks in followed later by his wife – and though they never verbalize the conversation we figure out that this is the moment. When she convinces him that regicide is what he must do to achieve the throne.

Then we have a choice. To stay with the Lady, or to follow him as he runs to his fate. We stay, others go. We wait, knowing that when Macbeth returns he will have hands stained with blood. And so he does.

We are a part of the play. We are the silent observers to the madness. It is truly like stepping in, almost like a voyeur, into the play itself. The actors never really acknowledge our presence, but they react, dance and float. They fight and we are moved along with the motion, physically working to find out what comes next.

~~~

If anything comes close to truly breaking the fourth wall, this production by Punchdrunk (who champions this type of immersive theatre) does. In this play, Sleep No More, “Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure.” (www.sleepnomorenyc.com). The sets are meticulous, and successfully provide visitors with the opportunity to investigate, opening books, touching tables and wandering.

It is, however, not for the faint of heart. While I explored as much as possible, the silence is unnerving, at times frightening (especially when you are on the upper floor filled with signs of growing insanity by the inhabitants), and I was grateful to have my sister standing next to me.

Like Strange Interlude and The Hunger Games the fourth wall still exists, but it is transparent. While we cannot affect the outcome of the show, we are a part of it, and though you do not need to know the story of Macbeth, it helps to make connections and to understand motivations.

At the end of the night as we stepped from here to there—back into Chelsea, New York City, New York, and reality once again.

Sleep No More is currently being shown through the end of June 2012. For more information visit www.sleepnomorenyc.org.

Twenty-Eleven/Twenty-Twelve

It has been a long, strange, year. On one hand it felt like it disappeared without a fuss, slipping away, month by month, day by day. Winter became Spring, Summer then Fall in a blink of an eye, but so much happened, both in the world and personally that it has its own weight and import.

And now here we are. Over the anticipation and into the 3rd day of the year two thousand and twelve (try saying that three times fast) with resolutions crying to be made, and best of lists flooding the Internet. I’ve had a year of personal triumphs and losses along with professional challenges that forced us to embrace change.

So 2011, Twenty-Eleven 2-0-1-1 I’d like to bid you adieu.

Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY

I am grateful for another year of family. For a wedding that made it grow, and for support when personal losses flew in unexpectedly.

I am grateful for another year of friends. As my thirtieth year on earth begins, having known some of these people for up to ten years has enriched my imagination, my world view, and my heart in the ways that only friends can do.

I am grateful, once again, for a year where I could walk into work and write and talk about something I believe in and love, even when it was hard (and at times, it still is). Change is a funny thing. When you know it is coming it can be frightening, a looming monolith–daunting, but as it sweeps in it can force you to look at old ways of working and push you in new directions. Optimism is my greatest weapon.

I know I haven’t made mention of some of the larger events of the year—of stories that we’ll be talking about as historians for years to come. Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Tornadoes changing the narrative of nations and small towns for decades to come. Believe me those larger events made an impact on how I view the meaning of place and where we came from in a new light. And the death of a friend this summer emphasized that life is fleeting, and that so much of what we have needs to be embraced right here, right now. 

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ

And then there  are the typical “best of” lists. As always this is a reflection of things I’ve discovered/read/listened/saw this year.

Books : The Help, People of the Book, The Hunger Games Series
History Exhibitions: Maximum India, Taliesin West, Martin Luther King Memorial
Music: Sigh No More (Mumford and Sons), Collapse into Now (REM), We Are Young (Song by Fun. As heard on Glee and Chuck).
Television: Game of Thrones, Downton Abby, The Hour, Doctor Who
Movies: The Help, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Theatre: Les Miserables, Hamlet, The Heir Apparent

Many of the items on this list I wrote about on the blog this year, while others have flown in under the radar (including my recent love for David Tennant and Dr. Who. As a historian, watching a Time Lord fly around space during different historical periods is amusing and at times, surprisingly poignant.) Downton Abby (Season 2 starts January 8, Season 1 is available on streaming via Netflix Instant and PBS.com) and The Hour are two other series that I haven’t talked much about on the blog, the first has been written about in many places—great acting, great drama. The Hour, a six episode series set in England during the 1950s about a one hour news program, has an intensity that surprised me.

Each of these pieces of pop-culture fed my creative soul, made me learn something new about storytelling, and were, above all else, fun to listen to, watch, and see.

So….Twenty-Twelve, what can I expect from you?

My resolutions for the year are complicated. They range from the personal (eating habits, work out goals) to the aspirational (write more, dream more). Above all else I see 2012 as the year of getting organized, to continue to live my life in a way that helps others and sends love, peace, and kindness out in the world.

It is certainly going to be an exciting year. The Olympics, the 2012 Presidential Elections (to name two) that are sure to make headlines. There will be stories to be told, and lives that will be changed.

It is also a year of moving the needle, and raising the bar. Challenging myself to take risks and leaps that I have only taken tiny, hesitant steps towards in the past. Figuring out what does come next for me personally, professionally, and creatively. So no matter how we write it 2012, Twenty Twelve, 2-0-1-2, this is the year of living life.