“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
It is precisely this question that Lin Manuel Miranda’s latest show answers. Hamilton is a hip-hop/rap musical about “the ten dollar founding father without a father,” Alexander Hamilton. I actually remember watching a video of Miranda performing the opening number at a White House event several years ago and thinking, “Wow, now wouldn’t that be a great musical?” Sure enough, it became one of this year’s most talked-about shows during its run at the Public Theater, and just last week it began previews on Broadway.
There are many reasons to be excited about Hamilton. For one thing, the idea to employ hip-hop and rap in a show about the American founding is nothing short of revolutionary (pun intended). Moreover, most of Hamilton’s cast members are people of color. The significance of this colorblind casting may not be readily apparent, especially to those audience members who quickly acclimate to a black George Washington and a Puerto Rican Hamilton. But for many people, the birth of our country evokes images of white slave-owning men. People of color are universally underrepresented in history textbooks, despite the fact that they have made significant contributions to this nation’s development. In many ways, Hamilton reclaims the agency of minorities and pays tribute to those who have been historically marginalized on the basis of their race.
The tribute is more symbolic than explicit. Although the actors are playing white people, they do not embody whiteness in their performances. They communicate through hip-hop and rap, a cultural symbol for people of color in the United States. More than just styles of music, hip-hop and rap are, quite literally, the characters’ voices. It is through this language that they scheme against the British, strategize on the battlefield, and debate the structure of their new government. And, of course, it is no coincidence that the villain, King George, is played by a white actor.
If we understand hip-hop and rap to be part of Black and Latino identity, then we see that race is not a barrier, but a source of empowerment for the characters in the show. In this way, Hamilton is anti-colonial in the 21st century sense of the word. Bravo, Mr. Miranda.