Recasting The Past

Fall 2017
Claire Sun

How does a fast-paced musical about a secretary

turn the past into a commentary?

How can a rap show about a luminary

try to make the past more tangible and less scary?

Rarely does a work span the arts, history, politics, culture and society, while also championing diversity and inclusion.

“Hamilton: An American Musical” uses its groundbreaking musical style and casting to spark discussion about racial representation and history itself.

The national tour of “Hamilton,” the critically acclaimed show by playwright, actor and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, is playing to nearly sold-out audiences at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until Dec. 30.

The musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton features a number of historical figures, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, but with a twist — these old white men are portrayed by African-American and Latino actors. In fact, of the regular cast, only one main character is played by a white man — King George, who makes a limited appearance.

UCLA, with its diverse student body, strong theater school, active history department and proximity to the Pantages, represents a meeting point for people involved in discussions about the musical's impact.

The room where it happens

Miranda and other cast members use the musical’s casting of people of color as an opportunity to reclaim a history they were written out of.

The idea behind “Hamilton” is to portray the history of America with the people who call it home today, said Jordan Donica, who plays the dual role of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the show’s national touring cast.

“If some immigrants were to found the country now, or even refugees, what would they look like?” Donica said. “Almost every ethnicity is represented on that stage.”

Donica said improving diversity and representation in theater requires a two-pronged approach: casting more people of color in stories where race is unspecified and writing more stories about people of color and their experiences.

Photo by Hannah Burnett, Illustration by Sarah Goldacker
/ daily bruin

He has encountered few scripts that specify whether characters should be a particular race, and believes directors should cast the most talented performer regardless of race, unless a playwright makes race central to the story.

“What it comes down to is a lack of imagination, a lack of seeing people for people,” Donica said.

Donica said race did not play a big part in his casting as the first African-American actor on Broadway to play Raoul, one of the lead roles in “Phantom of the Opera,” or the casting of his Asian-American co-star, Ali Ewoldt, as Christine.

“People’s talents speak for themselves when they get the opportunity to show them and share their interpretation of a story,” Donica said.

Though some shows have taken steps toward colorblind casting, “Hamilton” goes one step further with its color-conscious casting: it actively chooses actors of color to portray white historical figures.

People of color need more power in casting decisions and other administrative aspects of theater, said James Hackett-Little, a fourth-year sociology student and member of HOOLIGAN Theatre Company.

“We need people of color in the decision-making room informing the conversation, talking about issues that face their communities,” Hackett-Little said. “Part of it is making sure casts aim for respectful portrayals, but they also need to talk about access to theater for minorities.”

Rory O’Malley, who plays King George on the “Hamilton” tour currently in LA, credits the show’s creative team for the decision to cast actors of color as the Founding Fathers.

“There is not one word during the show where the program or actors say these are people of color playing these parts,” O’Malley said. “It's just, ‘Let's tell this story.’”

O’Malley, an Ohio native, admitted he did not realize the power of racial representation on stage and in a historical context until he participated in the Hamilton Education Initiative, or #EduHam, the musical’s educational program. The program allows low-income teenage students to see the show for $10 and participate in a discussion about the historical figures it portrays.

“Even though my great-grandparents came over from Ireland in the 1800s, I never questioned that the story of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton was my story,” O’Malley said. “These young high school students – students of color – come see a show where Washington or Jefferson or Hamilton looks like them.”

Though theater audiences tend to be mostly white, Hackett-Little said the diversity of “Hamilton’s” cast and educational opportunities like #EduHam can shift the ethnic demographic of audiences.

“We’re starting from the foundations, where we’re fostering artistic growth, that’s why community engagement is so important,” Hackett-Little said. “People also need to support artistic programming that exemplifies diversity."

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted

Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up

Kiara Bryant, a third-year communication student and member of HOOLIGAN Theatre Company, said the juxtaposition of the races of the “Hamilton” cast with that of the original Founding Fathers also plays out in her life.

“From a cultural, historical standpoint, my dad’s side of the family was brought over on slave ships and my mom’s on the Mayflower, so the very beginning of our modern American history was my history,” Bryant said. “It’s taken a while to come to terms with both sides.”

And when my prayers to God were met with indifference

I picked up a pen and wrote my own deliverance

Bryant is grateful to Miranda for writing shows that feature actors of color and tell stories about communities of color, such as “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” The latter is set in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in New York City.

She said she thinks people of color in the theater industry often face obstacles to success. People either doubt their abilities or don’t give them opportunities to perform.

“Hamilton” may not give every person of color an opportunity in theater, Bryant said, but it brings the problem of representation to the forefront of historical and cultural discussions.

“Representation means so much, regardless of setting,” she added. “For a little Black kid to see someone like them on stage, it makes a big difference in their view of the world.”

“Hamilton’s” musical style, which features rap and hip-hop, also increases representation for people of color, Bryant said.

The manner in which African-American and Latino actors sing and dance starkly contrasts with that of the main white actor, King George, who belts out the occasional British pop ballad.

“Rap began in impoverished Black communities, so it’s an art form usually associated with minorities,” Bryant said. “When we see an art form associated with minorities put on stage in a (predominantly) white atmosphere, it feels like a big barrier (is) broken.”

History has its eyes on you

If Stephen Aron had to guess which figure from early American history would star in a hit musical, Alexander Hamilton would not have been at the top of his list.

Photo by Hannah Burnett, Illustration by Jae Su
/ daily bruin

Aron, chair of the history department at UCLA, said the fervor around a show about Hamilton fascinates him from a historian’s perspective, given the relatively low visibility of the cabinet member only a couple of years ago.

“Maybe some people knew about his place on the $10 bill or his role as first treasury secretary, but he was a relatively forgotten Founding Father,” Aron said. “He was also remembered for being on the wrong side of history, since (his rival) Thomas Jefferson led what became the dominant party and ideology through the first half of the 19th century.”

The musical takes some creative liberties in terms of which characters meet and what dialogue takes place, but Aron thinks historians should applaud and embrace “Hamilton” for its ability to make history matter to people.

“Even if we quibble with this or that, it creates an opening where historians can step in,” he said. “UCLA History is especially interested in how our research can be translated so as to have a broad public outcome.”

Part of understanding history involves placing one’s own life in a broader historical context, Aron added.

“We need to understand the fundamental difference between ourselves and people in the past,” he said.

A number of shows in other mediums have also tried to make history more digestible, either through comedy or a compelling narrative.

Annie Powers, who obtained her master’s degree in history at UCLA, has worked on other shows that try to increase the appeal of history to the general public, like “Drunk History” or “Who Do You Think You Are?”

She said the two shows, along with “Hamilton,” take esoteric concepts pursued by historians and experts and make them digestible for the masses.

“These shows personalize history in a way so people can access it even if they don’t have the academic background,” Powers said. “We like to tackle issues that are pertinent politically or socially and present information that moves against some of the ideas people have about race or gender that historians know are incorrect.”

Much of her work requires academic research and historical methodology that mirrors the process of writing a biography, like Ron Chernow’s of Hamilton that inspired Miranda’s show.

Even with the rigorous standards of historical research used by academics or biographers, Powers said she thinks parts of the past are ultimately unknowable. This leaves room to explore the past in a new way.

“Academia, museums, historical TV, musicals like 'Hamilton' — we're all on the same team, trying to get a better sense of the past," Powers said.

Don’t modulate the key then not debate with me

While representation in history tends to worry about who lives and who dies, representation on stage is about who tells your story

Oscar Tsukayama, a fourth-year world arts and cultures student, said “Hamilton’s” color-conscious casting is one way Miranda has expanded opportunities for actors of color.

In 2016, the decision to cast Tsukayama and other non-Latino actors as characters in HOOLIGAN Theatre Company’s production of “In the Heights” drew criticism. Tsukayama believes creative teams should cast actors based on their talent, while simultaneously considering their ethnicity and respecting the cultures represented in the play

“You need to find respect for the ethnicity, but you also need to find the person right for the role,” Tsukayama said.

Some have criticized “Hamilton” for downplaying the significance of slavery in history by casting African-American actors as slave owners like Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

Donica, who is half African-American, said he tries to keep his personal feelings out of his role, even if others choose to debate the propriety of a Black actor portraying a slave owner. He wants to present the character as written by the author without judging his actions.

“When I take myself out of playing the character, I might find (playing Jefferson) weird,” Donica said. “But, when I put myself into the story, I take my race out of it and play the character that’s given.”

As a historian, Aron supports the creative decision to cast actors of color as the Founding Fathers because it has started conversations about the history of slavery and race relations in the U.S.

“The multiethnic casting makes it a play of moment, a conversation between the past and present,” Aron said. “('Hamilton') takes questions from today about diversity, tolerance, pluralism, and injects them into the past. That’s what historians do, too.”