The cast of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” made news in November when Vice President-Elect Mike Pence attended the November 19 performance of the musical sensation and was met with a pointed message from onstage. As the music died, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, addressed Pence and asked him to stay and listen to what the cast had to say. “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” Dixon said.
As the theater erupted in cheers from the audience, Pence stayed to hear the full message. Dixon closed the statement, saying, “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
The spectacle inspired no immediate reaction from Pence himself, but President-Elect Donald Trump took to Twitter immediately, demanding the cast apologize for what he called the harassment of Pence. Trump went on to tweet that “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!”
Not only was Trump’s reaction over the top, considering the polite and composed way the cast addressed their thoughts, but it incorrectly characterized the theater as a place people go to forget the world around them instead of a place for people to discuss it.
The problem with labeling the theater as a “safe and special place” is that it disregards the role of the art form as a catalyst for social revolution or change. No one should feel attacked for who they are or what they believe, but expecting a community of artists known for breaking barriers not to voice their concerns is unrealistic and misses the point of something as special as “Hamilton.” The theater community is celebrated for being accepting, but that does not mean it is not a place where important conversations happen.
Sophomore Suzanna Longworth feels that, while the community itself is a safe space for people, and “is very inclusive of all races and genders and body types,” it is still meant to expand your view of the world around you.
If we are not surprised or offended by a painter, novelist, musician, or poet’s criticism of society or its leaders, then theater should be no different.
“I feel like the nature of theater from its beginning has been pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable… saying this is a social issue, I’m gonna talk about it, and you’re gonna listen. Theater cannot be stripped of its meaning to the point that it isn’t sometimes offensive or meaningful,” said senior and Advanced Drama student Lorell Perillat.
“Hamilton” is not the first piece of theater to stir up potentially offensive yet meaningful conversation, and it will not be the last. In the 1990’s, “Rent” talked about the HIV and AIDS crisis, poverty, and the LGBTQ community, all of which made people uncomfortable. “The Laramie Project” is a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Laramie, Wyoming. It discussed homophobia and violence against the LGBTQ community at a time when many people did not want to acknowledge the reality of deep rooted hatred in America.
Unconventional theater can achieve the same effect. In the 1980s, Brazilian director, writer, and activist Augusto Boal and his project “Theatre of the Oppressed” became an important outlet for people to explore radical solutions to society’s problems. Drama teacher and director Cindy Skelton, who taught Advanced Drama students about Boal’s Forum Theatre method last year, wanted her students to see how theater could change an entire community for the better and become a vehicle for political action.
“Boal tried to change people’s lives using theater and was even jailed for it,” Skelton said. “He got people to do theater about their living circumstances and people participated and tried to find solutions.”
That is what theater is meant to do; show us new perspectives and begin the conversations that people do not want to have. Assuming theater is merely about the song, dance, and making people smile is disrespectful to an art form that has helped bring about so much progress. At a time when the beliefs of our future leaders are not in line with the views of the majority of our generation, it is more important than ever that we do not allow expression to be stifled. We need places to air our grievances and have our voices be heard, whether it be through performance or speeches made directly to the people who are supposed to represent us.
Even if you do not agree with the ideas of the “Hamilton” cast or the way they made their beliefs clear, underestimating the profound effect theater can have on politics, society, and individuals does the art form and society a disservice. We need this generation of artists who are fierce and unapologetic. We need the inspiration of movements like “Hamilton.”