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Hamilton: Race, Disney Plus and the arts

Since its debut in 2015, Hamilton has become a Broadway sensation, and its release on Disney Plus means it’s now available for more than just those who can afford a ticket. Chronicling the life of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the musical has been praised for its racial inclusion. It has a diverse cast of Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race actors playing White historical figures, as well as a fusion of rap, hip-hop and classic theatrical musical numbers. The diversity present is a testament to writer Lin Manuel Miranda’s statement that this is ‘a story about America then, told by America now’.

While Hamilton has done much for diversity in the theatre, historians and critics have condemned its almost complete omission of slavery. Many of the figures present in the show, including Thomas Jefferson (the only figure with which slavery is negatively associated within the musical), James Madison, George Washington and the Schuyler family were all notorious slave-owners. The founding fathers, including Hamilton himself, accepted it as an institution and were embedded within it, but this facet of their lives is notably absent. While I don’t believe the musical presents these figures as people to admire, its portrayal of Hamilton as an abolitionist is inaccurate.

The musical’s sanitisation of history makes it more palatable for a modern audience, but by doing so, it has erased all historical figures of colour from the narrative. We can only hope that the show’s popularity will act as a catalyst for more people to explore American history in all aspects, for an accurate retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s story is not to be found in the theatre.

Hamilton isn’t trying to recreate the past, and an actor’s race is irrelevant to the message of the show. The tale of an intelligent young man who emigrated to America to make a better life and legacy for himself is as relevant now as it was in 1776, maybe even more so. The musical is more a story of who someone like Hamilton could’ve been. It’s important to note that the show doesn’t present these figures as heroes; they have successes and flaws – Hamilton himself has an affair and indirectly contributes to his eldest son’s death. As the audience, we need to differentiate between who we’re seeing portrayed on stage and the person who lived all those years ago. Ultimately, the blurring of race doesn’t take away from the story; the diverse cast has done much for inclusivity in the theatre, an industry typically dominated by White people.

We can’t ignore history, but we can learn from it. Hamilton, although problematic in areas, is a piece of art that allows us to argue, think and debate even as we are entertained. It has asked Broadway and the arts to do more for diversity and representation. There is no excuse. For that alone, it has earnt what is sure to be one fantastic legacy.

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Nerisse Appleby

April 2021
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