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Life Arts

In Defense of "Hamilton"

By       Message Lee Burkett       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Here's the thing: Oh, for christ's sake. Anyone who thinks Art should be a safe place has no understanding of the connection between art and social consciousness. Just go home and look at Currier and Ives prints. Grown-ups are dealing with important issues raised by real, meaningful, radical, subversive art. If art is not offending the complacent, then it's just decoration. People who are offended by the brilliant choice of casting the systematically oppressed to play elite Caucasians are revealing themselves to be racists of the highest order. It's not just conservatives who are upset by this ingenious casting, but many white actors have spoken out about how "unfair" it is that they were passed over when it came time for casting the show. The first attacks against the show were from the conservative right, not for its subject matter, but for its alternative casting. Let it be understood that it was the audience who booed Pence, and it was a cast member who silenced them. People calling for an apology from the cast and crew for voicing legitimate concerns and fears we all share in a very polite and non-confrontational way are merely emphasizing why we should all be concerned with the direction America seems to heading.

And now I see "liberals" in droves getting their memes from "liberal" pundits who are of a mind to trash Hamilton for promoting elitists as people worthy of admiration. Once again, the so-called left has decided to "educate us up" by telling us what we should think about art, and by doing so they're either intentionally or unintentionally attacking one the most subversive pieces of musical theatre I've ever seen. If you're following the "let's disembowel Hamilton" parade, either you haven't seen the show or you're lacking the wherewithal to understand the truly subversive, truly revolutionary nature of the show. Its message is that the Founding Fathers were flawed, racists, prejudiced misogynists who also created ideals that they, and we, have failed to realize. It's not about praising their revolution, it's a call for our revolution.

So, who's surprised that watchdogs of Empire, the left and the right, are now wading in to defuse and discredit the revolutionary zeal Hamilton is giving to a new generation? Just because it doesn't inform your particular revolutionary vision doesn't mean it's not informing the revolutionary vision of others. I live in one of the poorest, most red-neck areas of Pennsylvania, and the impact Hamilton has had on the disenfranchised youth in this area is amazing. Kids are reading the Federalist Papers, and tearing them apart for what they now recognize to be the blatant elitism and hypocrisy to be found there. So it's not meaningless, and rather than mock their awakening to the sham we've all been indoctrinated to accept, how about encouraging the revolutionary spirit they're cultivating? Sure, it's a capitalist venue--what the hell isn't? But to call it a minstrel show, as one leading liberal pundit did, smacks of elitism, the elitism of the so-called left, who will suffer no revolution other than their own. As a matter of fact, I understand it's creator, Lin Manuel Miranda wanted PBS to film the entire show and broadcast it for free. Shot down by the producers, of course. Crass capitalism at work.

Hamilton is indeed presenting the fiction that the US is the land of opportunity, and then it subversively pokes holes in the very idea. The showdown between Jefferson wanting decentralized private banks to be the source of US funding in order to maintain the elitist slave-supported economy of the South and Hamilton wanting a centralized, government-controlled source in order to maintain the elitist industrialized North presents the failure of capitalism, not the triumph of it. It sets up the Founding Fathers as heroes, then proceeds to demonstrate why it's not them who should be worshipped, but the ideals these men created and ultimately betrayed. I had a fifteen-year-old ask me, "So it was all about rich guys fighting over who had more power?" That's powerful. Hamilton is a brilliant tool to speak to the youth from a revolutionary point of view. Maybe I'm a bit more strident over Hamilton, and what I see to be the capacity to turn it into a vehicle for radicalization because I made a living as a professional actor. I've seen how theater has the power to awaken young minds, to empower them to self-realization and to resist the programming coming from pretty much every institution we force our youth to deal with. Having been, in my time, a professional musician, a professional graphic artist, a professional writer, and a professional actor, I can say without hesitation that there is no community more loving, more open-minded, more accepting and less judgemental than that of theatre. And sadly, we're living in a time when being loving, open minded, accepting and less judgemental is a revolutionary act. All I can say is that I have been using Hamilton as a tool to speak to the youth. As I said, they're reading the Federalist Papers and finding the flaws in it. I've got them talking about how the American Revolution was based on 18th-century ideas of socialism. I find it to be a good tool to introduce young minds to concepts of socialism, communism, capitalism and its failures. The revolution will not be fought by old men like me. My job, our job, is to educate those who will be fighting it.

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Lee Burkett is a proud member of The Screen Actor's Guild and a writer/activist.

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