The fake struggle is real
Last week on News and Notes I took some time out of my busy schedule of Netflix and flu symptoms (it's like Netflix and chill, except nobody's happy) to complain about April Fool's Day pranks on the internet. I was starting to suspect that I had transmuted into a crotchety old man who had managed to crush all of the joy out of his life and was settling in to spend his twilight hours shaking his fist at everything on his lawn. Then the internet handed me a prank I can get behind.
A little bit inside all of us died last year when it was announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats will be returning to Broadway. (The Wall Street Journal's Joe Queenan said "For some of us, this is like hearing that smallpox is making a comeback.") It took us 18 years to kill this monster the first time it invaded New York, and here it is again, rising from the dead like a Marvel character. This time around, they promise all sorts of improvements (including a *sigh* "rapping Rum Tug Tugger"), but, at it's heart, it will still be the same mostly incomprehensible plop of latex and fur that we all know and deal with.
But, if this contentious election season has taught us anything, it's that we have the right, nay, the duty, to angrily yell down anything we don't agree with. This is what has made a picture of a joke poster calling people to protest agains Cats such a hit across the theater discussion boards. Unfortunately, we know this is fake, because the email address included on the flyer, [email protected], wasn't registered.
However, something not actually existing didn't stop Andrew Briedis at Annoying Actor Friend. He went out there and made his own reality by registering that email address and collecting the responses that people send in as the poster goes viral. With any luck, by the target date of May 4, this could actually turn into a real march. My fingers are crossed.
Why stop there, though? There are so many things that we could protest! A copy of Shakespeare's first folio will be on tour in Madison soon. Let's get over there and protest it! Why? Um… Misogyny? Does that work?
Or maybe we can claim that it's not the real First Folio. After all, a previously unknown copy was just found on an island in Scotland. Maybe we make the outrageous claim, without any proof whatsoever, that the one on tour is a fake, just like the moon landing! WAKE UP SHEEPLE! THE GOVERNMENT NEVER LANDED WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE ON THE MOON!
Look, I'm just spitballing ideas here. Leave your own in the comments.
Pick a backlash
We are already reaching the total saturation point for Hamilton, and it hasn't even gone on tour yet. Creator Lin Manuel-Miranda is cameoing on everything you can think of. Every iteration of the think piece about how the musical is changing everything has been written. There was even the requisite backlash piece from HowlRound, where everything goes to be protested.
Except that now the idea of the "backlash piece" against Hamilton has leaked into the wider community, and suddenly everyone is questioning the musical about everything. For example, look at this New York Times article probing the show's historicity. The Times actually hits on a question that I've been pondering over. In our current political landscape, everyone is pushing back against elitist parties, Big Government/Big Business/Big Banks and career politicians. The actual Hamilton seems a bad hero for these times, considering that he was way in to being an elitist, championed for an extremely strong federal government and a big national bank, and argued that the President and the Senate should be appointed for life without the interference of that pesky "voting". He wasn't exactly a man of the people.
That's not even the big criticism that's gaining all the attention. Much has been made of the diverse casting of Hamilton, and how that in and of itself is the real revolution. However, as Slate has pointed out succinctly, those brown bodies on stage are still being used to tell white stories. The National Council on Public History has an entire series responding to this idea that Hamilton is still part of the tradition of erasing black history.
Let's not forget the fact that the audience for this show is still almost entirely white.
Lin Manuel-Miranda recently accepted another in a long string of awards that he will be getting this year, and he used his time to celebrate immigrants in America. After all, it was Alexander Hamilton's past as a penniless, fatherless immigrant that inspired him to write the show in the first place. However, as that HowlRound piece I cheekily referenced earlier asserts, this is one more expression of the "bootstrap narrative" of America that conveniently ignores structural racism and other systemic problems in asserting that success is merely a matter of working hard.
Not to downplay these absolutely real and interesting criticisms of the show, but I think all this backlash is the byproduct of something else entirely. Americans are deeply optimistic people. I know that statement feels funny in your mouth during this current election cycle, but it's true. Americans have this innate sense that everything should be improving all the time. We're so hungry for change that when presented with anything that is a great leap toward a goal, our reaction is not to praise how far it's taken us, but to chastise it for not yet getting 100% of the way there. Our extreme optimism breeds a dislike for baby steps and compromise, because we just know it could be even better. It's an almost childlike way of viewing the world, and it leads to the type of political puritanism that has paralyzed our government for the past decade; but, on balance, I think it's a good thing.
Lin Manuel-Miranda said in his recent award acceptance speech, “History is so subjective. The teller of it determines it," and I think that's the real revolution of Hamilton. History is not set in stone. Your actions today can reframe and even rewrite it. An entire generation of people is being conditioned to think of Thomas Jefferson as a black man and Alexander Hamilton as a Latino. While that's not literally true now, it opens up the possibility of it being true in the future. Expanding people's minds beyond the pre-conceived notion of the past is the key to change.
Remember the Kilroy's List? In response to the widespread belief that there just weren't any female playwrights ready to be produced, The Kilroys pushed a campaign to change that narrative. And it is changing. To date, 31 out of the 46 unproduced scripts on the original list have found productions. As Joy Meads, one of the founding Kilroys, said, "I don’t think any of this is a result of intentional or willful prejudice. I think it’s just unexamined patterns [and] a lot of unconscious bias."
If you think that theater criticism is too white, you can change that. If you think that ensemble theater companies are not diverse enough you can change that. But first, you have to have the ability to imagine it differently. Despite any criticism (valid or invalid), that's actually what Hamilton is doing. I'm sure a decade from now we'll look back on it and wince a little bit, but for now it's doing its job. Will you do yours?
Public safety warning
OK, gang! Our production of Sweeney Todd is set to open! Have we thought of everything? Are all the lights focused? Good! Costumes are ready? Excellent! Do we have that real straight razor we'll be using in the show?. Awesome! Now get out there and sing your little hearts out. There's no way there's going to be a problem with this!