“Outcast on the Outskirts”

By: Tobi Akisanya

Van Gough, Martin Luther King Jr., and Albert Einstein. Why name such names you might ask? All of these individuals were outcast- in one way or another- during their own time. Each of these individuals contributed great thought to our world, thoughts that society once believed belonged on the outskirts. What would our world be without Van Gough’s masterpiece, Starry Night? Or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Or Einstein’s theory of relativity? The world has changed for the better because of these outcasts. Exhibiting such bravery to put ideas out into the world has been the driving force for the world’s greatest movers and shakers. The 2008 Broadway production of Shrek the Musical capitalizes on the fact that unique and different creatures give the world its luster. This show directed by Micheal John Warren follows the main character Shrek as he journeys through life’s misfortune to find the treasures he never knew he needed. Shrek the Musical is a testament to the bravery and determination of marginalized people, told under the landscape of a captivating fairytale universe.  

From the start of the musical, Shrek’s parents are clear about what the world will think of him and give him little to no hope for a future outside of the roles society has created for him. As Shrek searches the world as a young boy he is made to feel ugly, disgusting and undesirable by the people around him. Similarly members of marginalized communities are beaten down by the constructs of society, so much so that they lose all hope. The show’s opening song, “Big Bright Beautiful World,” is all about how the world is not big, bright, or beautiful when you ogre or are an outsider. As Shrek grows up throughout the song, he slowly finds a way to make due within the role society has made for him. He recognizes that the world is exclusive yet, he has no desire to change it. He is ok being alone. He insists he does not need other people because he has never had other people. Little does Shrek know that there is a whole gang of people who have been designated as social outcasts just like him. These characters are without a happy ending at the hands of the evil Lord Farquaad. My favorite thing about the introduction to the fairytale creatures in “Story of My Life” is that they are all individualized. They are no monolith. They are all creatures that have had unique circumstances that had led them to their current state. Common fairytale stories and folklore are integrated into the lyrics and dialogue, making it familiar and funny to the audience. At the end of “Story of My Life” Shrek confronts the fairytale creatures’ hope by asking,“haven’t you heard the stories?” This statement suggests that the individuals within stories feel constrained to them. In reality, these creatures find that their truths don’t lie in the stories written for them but in their own experiences. In the beginning Shrek knows nothing other than the story created for him so in turn he rejects everything else. The fairytale creatures want an “ever after,” something Shrek doesn’t feel is attainable given his circumstances. But in order to regain his swamp, Shrek starts his quest out of annoyance but eventually joins the movement for justice himself.

Just like the fairy tale creatures, Fiona has hope that something greater lies ahead for her and her life, most importantly the hope for love. She never lets her circumstances take her eye of the prize that is her future husband, not even for the 8,423 days she is stuck in the tower. “Morning Person” signifies Fiona’s ability to renew her hope every day. Performed by Broadway’s tap dancing queen Sutton Foster, the choreography in “Morning Person” is light and airy and full of the rejuvenation she is feeling. She isn’t perfect and poised, but to me that is what makes her unique. Fiona’s feisty personality challenges Shrek for the better. Shrek is not used to people challenging him. In “I Think I Got You Beat” Shrek expresses that doesn’t believe that anything Fiona has experienced is anything compared to what he has experienced. As they prove each other wrong over the course of the song, their difficult pasts form a connection that will last until they are married at the ending of the show. Our problems inevitably bring us together. Shrek and Finona’s bond serves as evidence to the fact that love and care are results of empathy found in shared experiences. 

A journey is nothing without someone to encourage you along the way. Enter Donkey. Donkey is essentially a life coach oozing with self confidence and confidence to share with others. Donkey is the guide, the glue, the comedic relief, and maybe even the best character in the show. His kindness is showcased perfectly in the scene before his first solo, “Don’t Let me Go.” Donkey highlights the importance of sticking together through life’s journey. Before even knowing who Shrek is, he vows to stay by his side as a friend, and companion whether Shrek wants him in his life or not. He sees through Shrek’s hard exterior and gives him the chance he has never had. Again, as Donkey is trying to get through to Shrek during “Who I’d Be” he asks Shrek,”what’s your problem with the world?” Shrek responds by saying, “it isn’t me who has the problem, it’s the whole world that has a problem with me.” For the first time we are able to see the result of Donkey’s attempt to crack Shrek’s tough-guy persona. This song gives Shrek an opportunity to share his hope, fears, and ambitions under the comfort of the moonlit sky. We can be the people we want to be but that begins with the believing that we can, and bad circumstances don’t have to be permanent if we don’t want them to be. When Shrek begins to realize his potential halfway through the show he starts his upward climb towards happiness. For the first time, Shrek is able to smile in the face of his hopes and dreams.  

Throughout Shrek the Musical, almost every character is affected negatively by the show’s key oppressor: Lord Farquaad. Lord Farquaad has a huge personality without the stature to match it (oh how I love the irony of Broadway). Farquaad only wants to have people in his life so they can serve him, making him the epitome of a bully and a gaslighter. The environment that Lord Farquaad creates throughout Duloc reminds me of racism and gentrification, a target on the backs of marginalized peoples. He only wants people that fit his vision of perfection inhabiting Duloc when in reality the fairytale creatures add the allure to Duloc in the first place. Throughout the musical number “What’s up, Duloc,” the Duloc dances are like robots. Their dance moves are rigid, lacking the vivaciousness of a happy life. They lack nuance, so Farquaad can stand out instead. They also wear the same colors to ensure that their “fashion is never clashing.” Call and response singing speaks to the fact citizens of Duloc are not allowed to set the tone in their lives, making them victims to Farquaad’s system. It isn’t until “The Ballad of Farquaad” that we learn that Farquaad is exploiting the fairytale creatures because of his own insecurities (sound familiar?). Farquaad wishes the books were about him instead of the fairy tale creatures. Farquadd has problems just like everyone else but instead wants to make everyone else’s life harder because of it. Just like Shrek and Donkey joke, Farquaad truly is compensating for something, and it’s not just his height. 

Marginalized communities can only be marginalized for so long before a stand for justice is proposed. As “Freak Flag” suggests, the only way to combat oppression is to challenge the oppressor. By the end of the show the fairytale creatures are done waiting for miracles; they want to create their own. Gingy rightfully exclaims at the beginning of “Freak Flag” that,” It’s time to stop hiding, it’s time to stand up tall, say ‘hey world, I’m different’, and here I am splinters and all.” “Freak Flag” is all about embracing who you are and using individuality to fight your battles. Over the course of one song the fairytale creatures are able to reshape their mindsets and take initiative when they notice that the needs of their community have become dire. They are and are no longer galumphing around in misery as they did in “Story of My Life”. They stand together with hands locked in unification, in order to take down Farquaad by the end of the show.

 We as human beings or even fairytale creatures have the agency to take the front seat in our own stories. No matter the obstacle life throws at us, we can rise up, conquer, and bridge divides. We must recognize our flaws and love ourselves in spite of them. After all, “what makes us special makes us strong.”

When Centuries Collide: Hamilton in the 21st Century.

By: Tobi Akisanya

Alexander Hamilton, the founding father credited with creating America’s first national bank and authoring a great majority of the Federalist papers. He was outspoken, stubborn, passionate, and charming, not only in his writings, but in every aspect of his life. All of this I learned from my high school history class. The only images of power I knew were the founding fathers who were white, rich men, that is, until 2009 rolled around. While on vacation in 2009 with his wife after the success of his first Broadway hit musical In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda came across the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ross Chernow. Instead of just reading the novel, Miranda decided to run with his gift. What was a concept album, became mixtape, became an Off-Broadway production, became the 11 Tony Award winning musical Hamilton. Hamilton gave Broadway what it did not know it needed. By combining modern rap with musical theater, Hamilton was able to preserve American’s foundational story while simultaneously highlighting the people who make it what is today, people of color. Hamilton took the story of American and finally made it reflect the multi-cultural mosaic that the United States represents today. The carefully crafted relationships and dynamics between characters, the use of the stage as a space for profound and figurative movement, and the emphasis on race, gender, identity, and the American Dream, made it almost impossible for audience members- including those who were not interested in live theater before- fall in love Hamilton.

When Hamilton first hit the Broadway stage, I will be the first to admit that I was not a fan. For years and years, I had admired Lin Manuel Miranda’s work on In the Heights because, frankly, I found it more entertaining and fun. It was not until this year, when Disney+ released a filmed version of the Hamilton on its streaming service, that I actually gave the show a chance. Boy, was this musical just as entertaining and fun as any musical that I had ever watched. Initially I was captivated by each actor’s ability to portray their given character. The relationships created and broken throughout this show brought me through a whirlwind of emotions. I cried, laughed, winced, and gasped.  Whether it be the character’s identity or the identity of the actor shining through the performance of their character, I though the show was very telling of the so-called “American Dream.”

 It is obvious that a huge motif throughout the show is staying historically accurate but also staying culturally relevant. The use of color-conscious casting was a brilliant choice on behalf of the creative team. A cast comprised majority of people of color helped convey 200-year old story to a 21st century audience. George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson were not black, but Chris Jackson, Leslie Odom Jr., and Daveed Diggs- the men I believe were perfectly cast in these roles- were. Who was to say the founding the fathers had to be white? By exploring color- conscious casting, people who were not given a voice in the 1700s were able to tell their stories in Hamilton. It’s not about having people that look exactly like the characters they are portraying, it’s about prioritizing representation but in a way that audience members can still connect it to the original story.

 The fight for equality has always been a part of American culture. Immigrant ambition is expressed in “MyShot” the quintessential “I am” song. The cast members chanting “I am just like my country, I’m young scrapy and hungry,” are truly the image of our nation. They are not forced to mask who they are. They don the hairstyles and skin tones of minority culture. When Hamilton first appears on the stage in the opening number “Alexander Hamilton”, he emerges as an immigrant in new country. He has hope, fear, and desire in his eyes. We hear the other characters recount all that has happened in his past that has led him to that moment.  The audience is learning of his past as he relives it. Having a Latino man sing a song about the strength of immigrants, while many people who look like him are denied proper treatment by American immigration policies, creates a powerful image of resilience and hope.

The relationships Alexander Hamilton has with those around him drive the storyline. Almost every man Hamilton encounters throughout the show poses as a threat to him. George Washington carries the country on his back, but with the onset of the Revolutionary War he recruits a young Alexander Hamilton as his aid. Hamilton wishes to have not only the power that Washington has but also the revered status. Washington invest in Hamilton because he sees himself in him. Hamilton’s young brain bursting with ideas clashes Washington’s wisdom. Despite their differences they are able to form a close bond, however, this bond pits Hamilton against many of his future colleagues. Hamilton’s most gruesome dispute is with Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr feels as though he, as a born and bred American, should have a better opportunity to ascend into American politics. However, Hamilton, who was once his friend, outshines him in almost all of his ventures. Hamilton and Burr hate each other because they are each other’s biggest competition. Both Lin Manuel Miranda and Aaron Burr use their ability to command the stage in their quest to outsmart each other. Their identities as actors makes this dynamic even more interesting as aspects of their real life are on the table, Miranda as first-generation immigrant to Puerto Rican parents, and Odom Jr. as an African American.  Ultimately, Hamilton’s inability to fully trust those around him stems from his childhood. His vulnerable performance in “Hurricane” reveals that writing- his biggest weapon- was the only thing has been truly to rely on.  

Thanks to director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, the use of figurative actions in Hamilton creates images like no other for audience members. Because the set of the show is so minimalistic, people are used in place of objects. The focus is not to recreate the 1700s, instead the focus is to mimic qualities and actions as it pertains to the current generation and what is happening on stage. One of my favorite figurative elements throughout the entire is show is at the end “The World Was Wide Enough.” As Hamilton is fatally shot by Burr in their pre-arranged duel, Hamilton is transported across the river, not by an actual boat, but by two ensemble members. One each side of Hamilton’s body, as it is toppled over, two ensemble members row their arms creating a beautiful and lifelike image, a boat better than a physical boat. The image of two people of color holding the dying body of another man of color with such care evokes a sense of community and belonging and reinforces that people of color an integral part of the American story. These kinds of things do not need to be blatantly explained, they are just understood, making the storytelling even more innovative. This minimalistic approach to scenic design forces audience members to pay even closer attention to the subject matter. Throughout the show cast members are constantly pantomiming and dancing, giving a tangible image to the storytelling in the subtlest moments. Another one of my favorite figurative moments in Hamilton is the “The Bullet”, a character originated by Tony Nominated actress Arianna Debose. As characters come in contact with death, they come in contact with her, as she represents an actual bullet. By putting a person in place of an object it easy to realize that death taunts, flirts, and creeps up on those who least expect it, though it is inevitable.

In both the 2015 Original Broadway release and the Disney+ release this year, Hamilton truly captured sentiments of 21st century culture under a 1700s backdrop. Diversity and inclusion were a priority in this production. As a black woman myself, I can honestly say that I felt represented in by the individuals in this production. Once again, I am in awe of Lin Manuel Miranda’s ability to create something out of nothing and doing it in a way that resonates with humans of every color, creed, and background.

“The Complexities of The Patriarchy on the Modern Stage”

By: Tobi Akisanya

It’s a man’s world. I mean really, how sad is that? We live in a patriarchal society dominated by men. It has always been this way and it makes me question if it will always be this way.  Even though that sounds extremely negative, it is what it is. The patriarchy is no stranger to the American theatrical stage. After all, the stage is often a reflection of a society’s culture. The patriarchy is just one of many structures of oppression that intersect to create interlocking oppressions (in the words of the Combahee River Collective). The King and I first debuted in the 1950s and tells the story (set in the 1800s) of the headstrong and fierce King of Siam and his interesting and complicated relationship with the people around him, especially new English teacher/governess Anna. Miss Saigon, based on the opera Madame Butterfly, tells the chilling and devastating story of the complex relationship between Chris, an American soldier during the Vietnam war, and his Vietnamese lover, Kim. Both stories depict the problematic ideals of the era through the nature of the characters as a product of their given era. These eras, of course, were spearheaded by the men who dictated them. Despite the fact that both the King and Chris benefit immensely from the concrete structure of the patriarchy, it is important to consider the implications of race, gender as a performance, and binaries of the East and West as they pertain to their character arcs. 

Race gives individuals certain privileges and advantages based on who they are. Chris’s status as a white, American man almost completely contradicts the King’s status as an Asian man. Although both men are able both attain a certain hierarchy that comes with being a man, there are levels that exist within manhood. When factoring race into the equation of manhood it is clear that Chris achieves a hierarchy over a King. Since the King is an actual King, he is accustomed to certain immunities. However, one can experience oppression and elevation at the same time. The King is oppressed by being Asian but not by being a King. A prime example of this is seen when the King is worried about coming across as barbaric to the British. Instead of owning aspects of his own cultural experience to discount the assumption, the King turns to aspects of white and western culture in order to throw off their racist remarks. On the flipside, Chris experiences a double layered elevation of sorts by being white and a man. He uses his position of power to make decisions on the behalf of those who have little to know voice. Chris is allowed to make decisions only concerning his wellbeing, after all, white culture created the rules, he is just a product of it.

We are taught through socialization the ideas of being a man or a woman. Both The King and I and Miss Saigon are set in a time where no one really questioned or outwardly opposed the idea of gender binaries and what makes them problematic. Throughout their respective performances The King and Chris perform masculinity at its highest rank. Within the performance of masculinity, it is almost a requirement to acquire the “tough guy” persona. But, unfortunately, emotions are a sign of weakness for both of these men, or at least they think they are. The performance of masculinity is so restrictive that more often than not it becomes toxic, hence the term toxic masculinity. Even the male characters’ audience members want to give a chance, impose their toxic masculinity on others like a double-edged sword. They stab both themselves and the other people in their lives. Men are given the means to be superior but even they struggle to hold that title, and in the little pieces of the musical we see them struggle. However, it’s never in front of people that they want to do that. They put on a front. But the facade of masculinity must begin to wither at some point. The usage of “I am” songs helps both men ponder the questions that neither know the answers to. In “A Puzzlement” the King comes to terms with the fact that he doesn’t have answers to all of life’s questions–just as no one really does. He realizes that as the world changes around him that it is a struggle for him to create relevant ideas. He worries how his stagnation will affect whoever is next in line for the throne. This musical number, as it is delivered, gives the audience a sense of the King’s discomfort with himself, immediately making him more vulnerable. Similarly, in “Why, God Why?” Chris is haunted by the fact that the memories made in Vietnam will stick with him longer than he wants them to. As he pleads with God, audience members see his face covered in an overwhelming emotion that not even he, a privileged white male, can ignore. The patriarchy, at least in the traditional sense, did not give men the time nor the space to be emotional. In my opinion, men reckoning with their emotions is a relatively modern subject on the American musical stage. These numbers confirm that men are uncomfortable with the idea of confusion; it angers them so much that oftentimes they don’t even want to deal with it. Both men hate the fact that the women around them make them think deeper. But what would men think without the women around them?

         The stereotypical Asian character is such a caricature of a false reality created by white people for white people. It is a form of entertainment, of the “other”, in which they (white people) can gawk and laugh at. This type of over exaggeration is evident in the King’s mannerisms. Rather than approaching situations with poise he is overtly animated. His random burst of anger coupled with his broken English—even though it does provide comedic relief—is problematic. When Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil created the role of the King they knowingly/ unknowingly created a character that mocks the Asian race, shaping a false narrative of Asian culture for the white race. Asian characters posed next to white characters make white characters seem even more revered and refined than they actually are, a quality evident in both The King and I and Miss Saigon. In my opinion, Chris is the furthest thing from respectable. He only cares about himself and uses his white privilege to get what he wants.  For example, during “The Confrontation”, Chris confirms that his love for Kim is cheap. Rather than moving Kim and his son Tam to America, he decides it will be best for him to provide for them in Thailand, a place even he doesn’t think is good enough for him to reside in. His actions are rooted in himself rather than the people around him that desperately need him, yet the people around him immediately trust him. Why, you might ask? Because he is a white man, and by society’s standards they hold the key to life’s questions. The white race versus any other race was built in opposition creating concrete power structures that individuals, on both ends, are forced to deal with.  A character of color is always under suspicion and people are way more likely to believe that white people have superior knowledge. Similarly, with The King and I, what is it about Eastern knowledge that makes it so undesirable? The Western ideology prioritizes the mind and rationality whereas Eastern ideology prioritizes a sense of spirituality. Additionally, Western morality is rooted in the fact that every man is for himself and Eastern morality is rooted in honor and shame culture. But even with these cultural differences why is Western culture seen as superior?  Why does Chris’s presence hold a greater force than the King’s? A soldier versus a King yet the solider wins simply because he is a white westerner. The spiritual component of Eastern knowledge systems is often ridiculed and seen as subordinate or illogical in the face of Western rationality. 

         The combination of gender as a performance, race, and binaries of the East and West are what make Miss Saigon and The King and I what they are. Even though both of the musicals are widely problematic, it would be almost offensive to discount the fact that they are nonetheless phenomenal. Though he is a man, the King does suffer from racism and the discrediting of the East, adding depth and nuance to his character. And Chris, who is beneficiary of white privilege, struggles with the weight that comes with his role in society. Watching both of these men play with the cards they were dealt with in life gave a sense of added knowledge to me as a viewer.