History In Color

Before Hamilton, United States history was one of my least favorite subjects in school. I thought learning about America just consisted of memorizing the names of numerous old, white men and wondering how many more could have the name James or John. The American history they taught me in school never really applied to me for the most part. The only times it did apply to me was during the Civil War or rights units and from February 1st- 28th (and February 29th on the years they decided to allow Black history to be relevant in the American narrative for one more day). On most days, United States history was like looking at a painting made with white paint on a white canvas. However, in eighth grade, this all changed. The year was 2016, and my U.S. history teacher introduced the whole class to a new, up-and-coming musical called Hamilton. Being the theatre kid I was in middle school, I started listening to the soundtrack, and I fell in love. I listened to the soundtrack all the time, and for the first time, I saw American history in color. It was like the monochromatic painting of history I had been looking at before was now a large wall covered in colorful paints. 

The musical Hamilton, by Lin Manuel Miranda, sparked my interest in American history because it did for me what my textbooks in class never did. It included me! The producers on Hamilton erased the performance of whiteness that most people associate with American identity by using a cast and ensemble entirely made of people of color to tell the story of the founding of America. Lin Manuel Miranda also used Hamilton to make American history inclusive of people from all backgrounds through his selection of characters, the way he embraced the black culture, and the way he celebrated immigrants in the production. 

One of the most notable aspects in the casting of Hamilton was its composition of an almost entirely non-white leading cast and ensemble. This unique choice of casting is a big part of why Hamilton became such a great success. However, the call for a diverse cast was also the cause of the production’s major controversy. Several people have accused the producers of Hamilton, that sent out an ad calling for non-white performers to try out for the musical’s lead roles, of being discriminatory towards white people. These critics failed to recognize the essential part that a minority cast plays in the narrative of America Hamilton attempts to create. The musical, Hamilton, fills its ensemble and leads with people of various backgrounds to rewrite American history in a way that allows all people to find belonging in United States identity. 

When people think of the formation of America, there is usually an assumption of complete and inherent whiteness. But Hamilton shatters this notion and presents a beautiful parade of Black culture and immigrant celebration in its rewrite of America’s creation. 

Black inspiration in Hamilton is evident when listening to the musical’s soundtrack. You can hear the incorporation of black culture within Lin Manuel Manuel Miranda’s use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and jazz in many of the songs. The producers of this show also display Blackness in the musical’s characters. Black actors and actresses play most of the lead roles in the performance of Hamilton that Disney Plus features. These actors are allowed to embrace their appearance and utilize Black style in the development of their character. A perfect demonstration of this is Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson. In the musical, Daveed Diggs rocks his lively afro and exercises his swagger to steal the hearts of the audience. His suave movements and use of the pimp walk allow him to portray Thomas Jefferson without having to perform whiteness.  

Lin Manuel Miranda also stresses the value of immigrants in the creation of America. Throughout history, many have attempted to separate immigrants from the definition of American, but Hamilton teaches us that there is no America without immigrants. From the first song in the musical, Miranda emphasizes that Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important founding fathers of America, was an immigrant. Another immigrant in the musical is Marquis de Lafayette, played by Daveed Diggs, another crowd favorite. The producers portray Lafayette and Hamilton as incredibly hard-working, intelligent, and determined individuals. Together these two characters sing one of the musical’s most iconic lines: “immigrants, we get the job done.”

By emphasizing the immigrants that played a role in the revolution and founding of the United States, Lin Manuel Miranda writes American immigrants back into the narrative of this nation and shows them their identity as an essential part of our country. Lin Manuel Miranda also highlighted different important aspects and identities in American history through the selection of largely dismissed members of history that helped in the creation of The United States as characters in the musical. 

An exemplary member of Hamilton’s character selection that highlights essential aspects of America’s identity is the part of John Laurens. John Laurens, played by Anthony Ramos, is undoubtedly one of my favorite characters in Hamilton. His multifaceted role on stage taught me a new side of history that I never learned in school but is integral to American culture and identity. John Laurens’ first solo is in the song “My Shot.” In the solo, Laurens expresses his belief that America can not claim freedom until the enslaved Black population receives the same rights as white men. Throughout the musical, John Laurens is passionate about his goal to abolish slavery in the United States, but his dreams are cut short by his sudden death at the end of act one.

John Laurens was one of the few early allies in the fight for freedom and rights for Black Americans, and his exclusion from history allows the country to overlook the long and continuous struggle of Black people in the United States. By including John Laurens in Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda teaches viewers that Black people were always present and relevant in American history. John Laurence proves that there was a struggle for Black Americans’ rights even before the fight for American independence and long preceding the era of the civil war or the civil rights movement. 

Another aspect of John Laurence that makes him a crucial character in America’s narrative is his ambiguous sexuality. Based on the letters between Hamilton and Laurens, historians have speculated the two may have shared a romantic relationship. Knowing this, Lin Manuel Miranda did not shy away from displaying a very intimate relationship between the two characters in his musical. In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton says, “Laurens, I like you a lot…” and throughout the production, you can see the two are closer and more physical with each other than any of the other men on stage. The display of this relationship in Hamilton sends a powerful message to the viewers. Introducing the possibility that Hamilton, Laurens, and other historical figures that aided in the creation of America, may have been queer provides representation for the LGBTQ community in the founding of our nation. John  Laurens represents a group of people that modern history has almost erased from the story of American. He was an ally to the Black American’s struggle for equality and a man who crossed the lines of heteronormative behavior. Hamilton “put [Laurens] back in the narrative,” and in doing so, represents the diverse people and struggles that made this country. 

Before Hamilton, United States history only taught the creation of a nation by white people and for white people, excluding minorities from the American narrative and identity. This teaching of history is the reason my sisters were thoroughly confused when they found out that I was obsessed with a musical about American history and yelled at me to stop when they heard me spitting bars about the founding fathers. They never had an inclusive and empowering experience learning about our country. But when my sisters watched the Hamilton for the first time on Disney Plus, I got to see their jaws drop as they danced with Thomas Jefferson and sang about George Washington. They literally could not stop raving about how much they loved it! Lin Manuel Miranda’s inclusion of minorities, celebration of immigrants, and use of black culture are the reasons why Hamilton was able to rewrite the way people think about American history. The musical was particularly impactful the year after it premiered on Broadway, during the 2016 election when some politicians and citizens were alienating and antagonizing United States Immigrants. Hamilton taught our nation that every member of America is an indispensable and crucial part of our counties story and identity.  

The White Woman Will Always Win- How White Privilege Hinders Feminism

How is it that the heroine of the 1951 musical, The King and I, is far more empowered than the heroine in the 1989 musical, Miss Saigon, despite the 38 years of feminist activism and expansion of women’s’ rights that occurred between the openings of the two Broadway productions? The answer is in the race and ethnicity of these two characters. Kim, from the musical Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and Anna, from the musical The King and I by Oscar Hammerstein II, are both single mothers that are in trying to make a living in Asian countries with their sons. The only distinct difference between these two characters is that Kim is a native-born Vietnamese woman, and Anna is white and British. This small difference between Anna and Kim’s ethnicity and race translates into a world of difference in the way that the playwright and actresses in the musical wrote and performed each character. 

To understand the disparity between the performances of Kim and Anna on stage, viewers must acknowledge the patriarchal relationship between western and eastern cultures that elevates white women and degrades women of color. Western nations have a history of demeaning and interfering in eastern affairs to gain power and impose their practices on the citizens of these foreign nations. The King and I demonstrates this patriarchal relationship in the way that Anna patronizes the people of the Bangkok court. From the moment that Anna first meets members of the Siamese court, she convinces the audience that she is a superior and more civilized character. Anna first proves her superiority when she encounters the prime minister, Kralahome. Anna is shocked that Kralahome can communicate with her in English. The irony in the fact that Anna is surprised by Kralahome’s knowledge of English is the fact that the audience is not supposed to be shocked that Anna does not know the native language of Bangkok. Anna is in Bangkok for a job teaching the royal children, and the fact that she cannot speak the native language of the land is strange. However, instead of seeing her lack of knowledge as abnormal, the audience accepts it because people speak English in many western nations. This notion that “normal” people speak English dehumanizes the people that do not (many people living in the east) and allows the audience to ignore Anna’s flaw. Anna goes further to patronize Kralahome by repeating, “the King says,” after he says, “the King say.” This correction makes Kralahome look half-witted while Anna sounds well educated. The audience expects Kralahome not only know English but to speak it well to prove his intelligence, while they see Anna as intelligent despite not speaking the Central Thai dialect. This double standard allows the producers of the play to make Kralahome look inferior to Anna despite his intelligence and Anna’s lack of knowledge. Through Anna’s appearance of greater intelligence that the members of the Bangkok palace, creators Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein make the western world look intellectually superior to the eastern world. They also demonstrate this patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern world when Anna attempts to help the palace residents act British so that the British and the western world would not regard them as “savages.” Anna explicitly calls the native customs savage compared to the western way of living. Anna, an average white widowed woman, is given authority over the king of Bangkok and the entire Bangkok court at this moment. The subordination of the Bangkok court is synonymous with the patriarchal power men use to oppresses women. The description of the Bangkok people as uneducated and submissive to Anna, who is a western woman, enforces the hyperfeminization of eastern Asian people and the hypermasculinization of their binary, the western world. 

The patriarchal relationship between the western and eastern worlds and sexism also work to undermine Kim as an Asian female. This oppression is what makes Kim weak and helpless in the play compared to Anna, who is strong and independent. Kim demonstrates her helplessness as she sings the song, “I’d Give My Life For You.” The lyrics of the song perpetuate the stereotype that East Asian women are intensely loyal and always helpless. Within the lyrics of the song, Kim sings about Chris (the white American soldier who is the father to her son and left her in Vietnam) and how she is sure that he will return to her and give their son the life she cannot provide for him. These lyrics imply that Kim is not capable of improving her situation and taking care of her son on her own. Her only option is to wait as long as it takes for Chris to come back and fix her life for her as he did before. This behavior conveys the message that eastern women are desperately willing to rely on a western man with fierce loyalty. This stereotype allows men to fetishize Asian women as are dependent, easy to control, and desperate. Kim sings the song to her son about how she would give up her life to ensure him a better future. The audience sees Kim as a woman that is willing to sacrifice for love, but they do not consider how unreasonable and degrading this sacrifice is. Kim must take her own life for her son to go live in America with Chris and his new wife, Ellen. This decision determines the value of Kim’s life as a rational trade for her son to live in America. Kim’s entire life is determined by the men in her life and she is left with almost no agency of her own choices. Anna, in The King and I, on the other hand, can make independent choices that do not rely on the male characters in the musicalIn fact, the King of Siam was dependent on Anna to make him and his country civilized and educated with western knowledge. Anna is free to leave Bangkok or stay and she makes that decision for herself, not for her son or the king. The producers make Kim inferior to Chris in Miss Saigon because she is an Asian woman, and Chris is a white man. Anna, however, is made to look superior to the King of Siam, even though Anna is a woman, and the King of Siam is a man. This reverse of these roles is possible because Anna’s performance of whiteness allows her to overturn the constraints of being female in a sexist society. Anna’s identity in her race permits her to display authority and autonomy over other Asian characters. 

Another indication of the superior power that Anna’s character possesses in comparison to Kim’s is the casting of the actresses. In the 2018 adaptation of The King and I, 42-year-old Kelli O’Hara plays Anna. O’Hare appropriately demonstrates the power and wisdom of her age in her performance on stage. Eva Nobelzada, a 5′ 2” 20-year-old, is who producers cast to play Kim in the 2016 adaptation of Miss Saigon. Nobelzada’s young age and small stature fit perfectly in the role of Kim, who is 17 at the beginning of the musical. O’Hara uses the control of her voice in a disciplined and sophisticated way that helps establish Anna’s civilized character. However, Nobelzella, a young and less experienced actress, brings Kim’s youthful wide-eyed character to the stage. O’Hara’s facials are confident and proud, clearly expressing annoyance and anger at times to the King and other men in the production. Nobelzada’s facials remain soft, passionate, and confused in the musical leaving her lips slightly ajar in a pitiful pout to show Kim’s childlike purity.

Another difference between these two actors is the way that they sing. O’Hara is always elegant with her head held high in her songs. She sings in a very sophisticated and controlled voice while dancing joyously. However, Nobelzada does not sing in the same controlled manner. Nobelzada allows her voice to be full of passion and emotion. While she belts out, her pleading face is towards the audience. Nobelzada’s voice is also very youthful and almost childlike, which adds to the innocence and helplessness of Kim in the musical. The drastic contrast in the castings of Anna and Kim goes beyond the written characters. The casting of O’Hara, an established and accomplished actress, as Anna emphasizes the sophistication and the maturity that Anna brings to the stage, while Nobelzella, a young actress in her first major musical, brings Kim’s feeble innocence to the production. These contrasting characteristics are used to elevate white women to a place of high status and power and stereotype Asian women as helpless and weak. These productions show us that because of the binary relationship between western and eastern cultures the portrayal of women of different races on stage and in society will never be equal which will inhibit the progression of feminism as a whole. 

The stark contrast between Anna and Kim’s characters in their respective musicals conveys that activists cannot resolve the issues of feminism without also addressing issues of race. Anna demonstrates how white women receive privileges that Asian women cannot receive because of western and white supremacist beliefs detract from the oppression they face as women. Kim exemplifies how society treats Asian women as inferior because of the subordination of eastern culture in addition to their subjection as women. Women cannot achieve equality with men when there is still a disparity in the way that society treats females of different races. Activists must integrate advocation for racial equality and feminism to end the societal institutions that oppress all women.