Thoughts on “Hamilton” and why you should have seen “An Octoroon”

Last week I wrote that I had been offered an opportunity to see “Hamilton” and that it was “exactly as good as they say it is.”

Well, because I have had some time to process the experience, and because I am, for better or for worse, me, I’ve been rethinking that line.

In college I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on whether or not art is subjective by one of my professors. I took him up on the challenge, probably because I was a know it all, and also probably because there was a girl in the class who I had a massive thing for. If memory serves, my brief tenure as a Theatre History teacher was lackluster to say the least. I remember very little of what I talked about and I remember quite bit of what it felt like to have sweat creeping like cold fingers down my back as I stood in front of a class of my peers, many of whom were at least as smart (if not more so) as I was, including the girl who I had a massive thing for who would go on to do an MFA at a prestigious West Coast school.

What I am trying to say in a round about way is that I believe art IS subjective, but I believe great art is, on some level, objective. While I can’t tell you whether or not Hamilton is the best thing to hit the stage since the stone age, I can tell you what I actually think about the show as opposed to copping out with “it’s as good as they say it is”. In the grand scheme of things this little blog might not be a huge soap box on which to stand, but it is my soap box, so I’ll stand on it.

Hamilton is a good show, but if I understand anything about Theatre History, it is not a great show. Yes, it primarily utilizes actors of color in non traditional roles, and thank god it does.  Back in my World of Warcraft days there was a weapon called the “Unstoppable Force”, a comically large war hammer shaped like a wild boar. Christopher Jackson’s powerhouse George Washington probably could have gotten away with carrying it. Thomas Jefferson has never been as funny or relatable as he is in the hands of Daveed Diggs. And of course, Lin-Manuel (who for my money actually was one of the weaker voices, though only noticeable in the company he keeps) lent the title role a character arch so strong that it was not difficult to believe he aged 30 years from the time he took the stage to that time he took the fatal bullet in the final act.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

Pictured: The Unstoppable force in the hands of what may or may not be the first President of the United States of America.

But there are legitimate gaps.

Where are the strong female roles in a play that is supposed to be one of the most progressive to hit Broadway in years? There are two powerful females. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo are excellent women’s voices in a stage overflowing with men. But Goldsberry is limited to two songs. Miss Sue, who plays Eliza Hamilton, is far and away the most emotionally affecting actor on the stage…in the few number’s where she has the opportunity to be.

I know the counter argument to this point would be that a play doesn’t have to take on ever social justice issue of it’s time in one fell swoop. Indeed, to do so would be to invite a failure of it’s own kind, that of generalization over specificity. But I think Hamilton had a shot at being more than just an entertaining and educational musical featuring actors of color, and it missed its chance. I wonder what the voice of Martha Washington would have sounded like camping with the troops at Valley Forge. Could the many letters of Abagail Adams have been included somewhere? There certainly was quite a bit dedicated to the Continental Congress, and most historians agree that her husband’s political philosophy was strongly based on his communications with her.

To bolster my point, I’d like to write about a different production.

Last year, my birthday present to myself was a ticket for the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of “An Octoroon”. For anyone who did not catch it, Octoroon was an adaptation by Brendan Jacob-Jenkins of a melodrama written in the 1850’s by the same title. The play featured some of the most clever dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing delivered by a masterful ensemble, powerful imagery (including a ship that “explodes” on stage in a shower of white foam balls, covering the first 6 rows of audience), and music by a string quartet seated just to stage right of the action. Ben Brantley’s review describes the production more eloquently than I will ever be able to. For me, Jacob-Jenkin’s adaptation can be summed up in 3 words: Fire on stage.

Hamilton is an objectively good show, but I think Octoroon was an objectively great show. Great in the sense that nobody in that audience walked out and did not feel a seismic shift in their perception. When I encounter people who saw that production their eyes light up as if I were describing a long lost lover. “Oh, you understand!” the conversations seem to say.

What I will admit is that Hamilton is a musical that is one hundred percent accessible. A person who has never sat through a live production in their life could walk off the street and find themselves wildly entertained. Octoroon on the other hand is a much more formidable beast. It required an active audience, one that is not willing to be spoon fed but is hungry to feed themselves on the mental nourishment that it offers. The ultimate irony? One ticket to an Octoroon ran me $40. Hamilton is selling for upwards of $600.

Yes, Hamilton is providing a venue in which young artists can see a cast that is not loaded with white male actors playing parts written for white male actors. It is easy to imagine a ten year old Alexander Hamilton sitting in those seats and being inspired by what he is witnessing. But Hamilton the poor, orphaned immigrant would  have to get in line behind people who can afford to pay for a single ticket what some people are paying for a month’s rent in my neighborhood.

If I were told that I would only get to be a part of one major production in my life, and the choice were between these two plays, I know which one I would choose. That, for this actor at least, answers the question of which is the greater play.

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