Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Like everyone, he was more than a simple decision, more than a simple document, more than what he was most remembered by. He was a human being, with complexities and layers.
But he was a slave owner, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
It is May 2019. I sit in the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, NY, my hometown, Hamilton playbill in hand. I have been counting down the days until I finally got the opportunity to see this show — one that had so inspired me as a writer but also as a human being. When the lights go down and the show begins, I am filled with joy. The familiar first notes of the show begin to play. This story is one of triumph over circumstance, one of emotional complexity, told by a cast entirely composed of people of color (with the exception of the role of King George). In so many ways, it is groundbreaking. It is written by a Puerto Rican; it combines the art of hip-hop with the art of musical theatre.
An audience composed of mostly white people witness the jubilant, expressive show and receive it with hardly any movement or enthusiasm. It is impossible for me not to dance in my seat. I struggle to not sing (and terribly rap) along, I move my head to the beat. I smile, I laugh, and God knows I cry, too. The show reminds me just how powerful music and theatre and the arts can be. It reminds me of the bravery of the human spirit. It reminds me why I love being a writer so much. I feel out of place as I receive the show so intensely. The audience around me feels no different than the audience I watched A Christmas Carol with a few years ago.
There is a line in the show:
“Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.”
It takes place in a song about winning the war. It is one of the most important moments of the show in my eyes — not simply because of the events but because of the way the characters respond to them. The complexity of this victory is something that reminds me of things we are dealing with today. For example, when same-gender marriage was legalized in the United States only a few years ago, many people joyfully proclaimed, “the war is over!” Meanwhile, I got the news at a diner sitting across the table from my dad, sitting in a tiny rural town, knowing I was not yet out and knowing that I would be having a lot of conversations about this topic now today. Sure, a battle had been won, but there was work to do.
The complexity of these things is something that we have spent time discussing in this class so far this semester, and it is an important reminder that nothing is ever as simple as it may seem. For example, reading Fortune’s Bones by Marilyn Nelson prompted some interesting discussions about things I personally had never even thought about before. One of these was the complexity of experiencing the joys of life and being a human while also being forced into terrible circumstances/conditions that are out of your control. Fortune was a slave but also obviously felt joy and happiness, and the complexity of feeling that within the chains of slavery is so interesting to me. I am grateful to this class for being a place that allows these conversations to occur.
In the audience of Hamilton, I was thinking about a lot of things. But one of them was the complexity of these characters that were being portrayed by a cast of color. The show is composed of many characters who were most certainly slave owners, but the show is full of themes of freedom — the complexity of this show being performed by a cast of color is one that reminded me of the types of subject matter we were dealing with in this course. It is never as simple as what you see on the surface.