Why HAMILTON Is a Game Changer for Non-Caucasian Theatre Artists
I’m an Asian American female Actor, Playwright and Advocate for Inclusion who has been making my living as a theatre artist, against all odds, for the past three decades. Back in September I saw HAMILTON on Broadway and here’s what I learned:
- Everyone knows what Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and the rest of the guys from that period in our history books look like. And when you do a show about them and cast them all with people who aren’t even the same race or ethnicity as the real people, if the storytelling is as mind-blowingly vital and compelling and flat out entertaining as it is in HAMILTON, no one cares that they don’t look like the guys on our money. Instead, we are able to see the story through an entirely new lens and hear it in an entirely new way which makes it possible for an Asian American female living in NYC in the 2000’s to suddenly relate to white men living in NYC in the 1800s.
- The case for casting only Caucasian people for “historical accuracy” is now completely irrelevant. Please see above. And please do not think I mean, “Oh, good, now I can go back to casting all my King of Siams with white guys. What they are doing in HAMILTON is not cultural appropriation; it’s taking history and turning it on its head, and translating it into today’s popular culture so we experience the facts and musings and themes in a totally unique way. (Also, just for the record, the intent of “non-traditional” and/or diverse and inclusive casting has never been to give more opportunities to those who have historically had the bulk of them. If I sound defensive, it’s because I’ve found it necessary to defend this concept to well-meaning folks for what seems like my entire life.) I’m sure the creative team has their own reasons for casting the play this way; this is just my take.
- When a story about real people from American history which, before you saw it told this way, seemed to have nothing to do with you, does what you always hope theatre will do — express universal themes with such specificity that you find yourself learning about history and yourself — you have the kind of epiphany that is unique to great theatrical experiences. I never fathomed that I had anything in common with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr! I never expected to think, “Oh my God, I, too, have been thinking that the world isn’t wide enough for me and every other person who is trying to make a mark in the theatre” and I really shouldn’t. “I, too, find myself writing like I’m running out of time”, and that explains a lot. And “I, too, wonder who will tell my story” and maybe that’s okay. Wait! I am Alexander Hamilton! I am Aaron Burr! I am the people of New York! Who, incidentally, in this stage portrayal, actually look like New York looks! Eureka! Epiphany. Wow.
- Contrary to what I’ve heard many, many producers say who are worried about producing works by and about non-Caucasian people, audiences actually are interested in seeing non-Caucasian people who are not “household names” in lead roles on a Broadway stage. (Try to get a ticket to HAMILTON.)
- Though we have been told (by so many subtle and blatant messages out there) that non-Caucasian theatre artists won’t be accepted as lead storytellers on Broadway in non-culturally specific shows (mostly being cast, instead, as supporting characters, or in the case of culturally specific shows, as foreigners or in positions of historically previously held lower social statuses), and that our plays can’t be produced if they aren’t assumed to be relatable to a mostly Caucasian audience — we can be and they can be.
- Every reason I have been given, over the past thirty years in this industry, for there being no real place for me, a non-Caucasian theatre artist, in commercial theatre has now been debunked.
And that is why I believe HAMILTON is a game changer for all of us. I’m not naïve enough to think that it is “done”. But now there’s precedence. And box office. And hope. And all those things can go a very long way to making even more things seem possible. Thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for having the courage to be the change you clearly want to be. And thank you all who have supported that courage all the way to Broadway. #YayHamlet.