Can theatre liberate the oppressed?

By Martin Docherty

We can see how successful Hamilton is at annoying white supremacists by considering Donald Trump’s cries on Twitter that, “The theatre must always be a safe and special place” after the cast criticised Mike Pence on stage. But Hamilton did more than just annoy Trump. Indeed, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show scarcely needs an introduction, but in case you’ve not used YouTube in the past year, I’ll attempt to give one. Hamilton takes the tale of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, creator of the nation’s financial system, New York Post and Federalist Party, and presents it in a hip-hop/pop/rhythm/soul musical of unprecedented success. The musical won eleven awards at the 70th Tony Awards; the soundtrack topped the Billboard Rap charts twice after the release of its mixtape, and it made $3.3 million in its first 8 performances alone.

The show also adopts a specific eye towards casting the white founding fathers as people of colour, and whilst I could gush about the brilliance of the show forever, that is going to be our core focus here. We are concerned with the question of whether theatre can be used to combat oppression. And moreover, how well can a musical like Hamilton, a piece concerned so heavily with race, help to liberate people of colour? As a white male attending Durham University, I may not be the best person to ask these questions, so this article will rely primarily on the lived experiences of people affected by such issues.

Arguably, a genre like musical theatre is poorly equipped to combat oppressive systems. Hamilton’s regular tickets retail for $139-$177, with the most expensive tickets costing up to $849 – the record for the direct price of Broadway tickets. It’s an unfair fact that people of colour earn on average less than white people in the US. If the people who can afford to buy tickets are statistically less likely to be the people of colour it represents, then how can it claim to meaningfully combat oppression for them?

In his Beyond Bourgeois Theatre, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre observes that “The bourgeois controls the theatre by the price of tickets which rose steadily in order to make the theatre a profit-making enterprise.” There is also the question of whether casting the all-white, often slave-owning Founding Fathers as people of colour that become glorified through dynamic musical numbers is actually helpful in combatting racial oppression. While it is not my place to put forth, it is a position that can be formed from statements such as these from Bush theatre owner Madani Younis, in a recent Guardian article: “The corporatisation of diversity now means that race becomes something we talk about in ways that we feel comfortable. It has been neutralised in the sense that we’ve forgotten about the politics that underpin the idea of racial politics in our country.”

It is easy to see how a critic could accuse Hamilton, in the light of its ridiculous ticket prices, of using corporatised diversity, coupled with the partial erasure of the atrocities of the Founding Fathers against people of colour. Yet the corporatised diversity critique doesn’t hold, as Hamilton was not created by white people. Leslie Odom Jr summarises this subversion in an interview with Rolling Stones: “It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it. We are saying we have the right to tell it too.”

Hamilton not only reclaims the story of the Founding Fathers, and not only focalises a pro-immigration tale within it, but it also tells this story through the musical language of the oppressed. By submerging the story in music that has been used by black people for generations as catharsis from white oppression, Hamilton creates a tool of radical subversion that eats at the founding heart of American white supremacy.

Photograph: Nathan Hughes Hamilton via Creative Commons

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