Every week, culture critics Diep Tran and Jose Solís bring a POC perspective to the performing arts with their Token Theatre Friends podcast. The show can be found on Spotify, iTunes and Stitcher. You can listen to episodes from the previous version of the podcast here but to get new episodes, you will need to resubscribe to our new podcast feed (look for the all-red logo).
Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic (and very expensive) musical has moved from the stage to screen thanks to Disney+. A musical as big as Hamilton deserves a big discussion, a cabinet battle, if you will. The Friends are joined by actor and composer Heath Saunders, and theater critic Kelundra Smith. They discuss how Hamilton hits differently in 2020 than it did in 2015 when it premiered, how it’s OK for art to be problematic, and whether Hamilton could win the Oscar. This episode was recorded on June 6.
Here are links to things the Friends talked about in this episode.
- This Vox article about why Hamilton is historical fanfiction
- John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons on Netflix
- Comedian Katherine Ryan’s bit about Hamilton‘s woman problem
- Heath’s really smart article about racism in Broadway musicals
- What Kelundra thought of Hamilton when she first saw it in 2018
Below is the episode transcript.
Diep: Hi this is Diep Tran.
Jose: And I’m Jose Solis.
Diep: And we’re your Token Theatre Friends people who love theater so much that Jose owns not one but two Judy face mask that you could see if you are watching this on YouTube instead of listening to it.
Jose: And I’m wearing my mask for a very special reason. I’m so excited that today we have like a really extra super special—is that even a word? Probably not. We have a special very special episode because it was so big and so long. That Diep even called us Infinity Wars, which is like a straight thing, right?
Diep: Yes, it is very straight. It’s Token Theatre Friends: Infinity War, Part One.
Jose: We have a very long episode and we want to share all the good stuff that we have for you. So we ended up deciding to instead of like, super editing our episode, we are going to give you two pods instead of one this week. We have part one, which is going to be an interview with George Salazar, who you know from Be More Chill and if you were lucky enough to see him in Little Shop of Horrors in California, which is why I’m also wearing this.
Diep: Which you also cannot see if this is the podcast.
Jose: I’m very nerdy today. I’m sorry. But George is doing Night of a Thousand Judys on July 14, so we’re going to be talking to him about that and what he’s been doing in quarantine. And in a part two Diep, what are we doing?
Diep: During part two, we have our Hamilton Congress, where we have two very special guests come in to talk to us about wait for it, Hamilton, because we’ve noticed that just like in 2015 right now, most of the people critiquing Hamilton are white people, which is pretty problematic because the show is written by a person of color and is starring people of color. So why are there very few people of color who are not named Soraya McDonald writing about it? Who knows, but we decided to do something about it by bringing in two amazing guests to talk about it. First we have Heath Saunders, who is an amazing actor and composer and you may remember them from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway. And our second guest is Kelundra Smith, who is an arts journalist and friend to me and Jose. And she critiques theater and Atlanta for ArtsATL and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It’s a really long discussion, but we promise you it is worth it because we go in, we’re going far, we almost didn’t come out.
Jose: Will that be satisfied?
Diep: We hope you’ll be satisfied. But you know, we will never be satisfied with our Hamiltondiscussion because we could have gone for longer.
Jose: Oh, my God, we could have, yeah. And we put in a lot of work, work.
Diep: Who’s Angelica in this relationship?
Jose: I guess we can both be Angelica and Peggy. None of us want to be—Eliza’s so boring, right?
Diep: Eliza? Eliza is really good at her job, just being a wife.
Jose: God bless her. I want a revolution. Not a revelation. Okay. Welcome to part two. This is our Hamilton Congress. The house is now in session.
Diep: Okay, we are here for our cabinet battle number one with our very special guests, Heath Saunders and Kelundra Smith. Can someone introduce themselves and tell us who you are what you do. When interesting, Hamilton?
Heath: Hi, I’m Heath Saunders. I’m a composer, writer and an actor. I saw Hamilton on Broadway in previews, and then I didn’t see it again until the Disney+ film. So I have a long standing relationship. It’s also been very interesting to me because Hamilton was one of those things that people told me I had to see because they were like, “You can be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda because when you act and you write, and you act in the things you write.”
There’s a very limited context for what you can do when you’re a person of color. You’re a person of color, you write, you act, you must be a Lin-Manuel Miranda. And I was like, Lin and I do very different things. But you know, what can be done? So I have a long a long history with the Lin-Manuel Miranda world, deeply impressed by him as a general rule.
Kelundra: Cool. I’m Kelundra Smith. I am a theatre critic and arts journalist based in Atlanta. I freelance for a number of publications around the country, including the New York Times, Food and Wine magazine, American Theatre and Arts ATL. I saw Hamilton in fall of 2018 in Charlotte, NC when it was on the first round Equity tour. And funny story, actually, the reason I saw it in Charlotte is because I was unable to get press tickets to see it in Atlanta and raised a stink about it on Twitter and had a lot of support and raising a stink about it on Twitter, which led to me getting a call from the national press agent for Hamilton, who then said, “you know, we have been trying to get more critics of color in the room where it happens. And we are deeply sorry.”
That is how I ended up seeing it in Charlotte. So that’s an interesting tidbit there and so seeing it on Disney+ was a different kind of experience because that’s not the cast I saw. And so I’m not only comparing the live experience to the on-screen experience, but also the cast I saw compared to the original cast, which I have to say there are some performances I liked better from the tour cast.
Diep: Jose, did you see it at the Public?
Jose: No. By the time that I wanted to go see it, it was too popular and I never won the lottery. So I saw it for the first time on Broadway in January 2017.
Diep: I saw it at the Public. And then I saw I saw it again on Broadway. And it’s funny that they were talking about trying to get critics of color in there because I fucking had to, like, practically sell my firstborn in order to get a ticket. I’m actually writing about this. I’m not freeloading.
Jose: The first bill that we’re going to introduce to the session today is, let’s talk about the difference between seeing the show on stage live, you know, back when we were allowed to see other people in public and brush against them. And seeing it on television or your iPad or your iPhone or wherever you saw.
Heath: Yeah, I will offer that of the pro-shot musicals that I have seen, the Hamilton film is very effective, if not translating the exact experience of seeing the show live, it does translate the sort of thrust of a live performed show, which I found really nice. Because as a person who like, you know, adores musical theater, it is interesting the ways that it’s shot often make it seem significantly worse than it is.
And I didn’t really feel that way with the Hamilton film, which I sort of liked. But one of the things that I thought it lost is, is actually it’s both a criticism of the original show and the sort of thing that I liked about the original show, which is that the original show was so much information constantly. Act One especially is just like an assault of visual information and aural information that makes it quite difficult to follow at certain points, and it actually makes it so the parts of it which I think are expertly crafted, we all love the “Helpless” into “Satisfied” and moments. I can’t actually technically speak for you, but for me that moment of stage craft was so impressive, and so just like stunning, I knew exactly where to look. I knew what was happening over. And where my eye was going. Everything about that moment was so thrilling to me.
And while in the film, it captures the sort of story moment of it, the aggressive shifts of camera made it so I wasn’t able to appreciate what I consider the stage craft of that moment. And so it ended up being a little bit like, Oh, yeah, that happened. And, like what happened for me in the show when I saw it, when I was like, out of my seat, like this is this is expertly crafted. Anx, you know, that’s a little bit disappointing. But again, it’s sort of a double edged sword here that we’re talking about, which is like, it is not meant to be a film. So this version of it, I think, was a really effective capturing of it in this new medium. And also, I lost some of the things about theater that I love.
Diep: That’s a good point. I actually don’t think the choreography was best served through it because most of the time, the camera wasn’t on the ensemble who was doing the brunt of the movement. It was on the main performers because yes, that’s who we want to see. But like there’s the moment where Hamilton gets shot and Ariana DeBose plays the bullet and you barely even see her do that epic slow walk across the platform because you’re constantly on Lin-Manuel and so like I feel like that’s the thing about film, the camera tells you who is important. But in theater you’re allowed to look wherever you want to look and take in the entire stage picture. And so I kind of missed a lot of the wider shots I remember in the theater, because Tommy Kael was telling me I need to look that right here at Lin while he’s talking. I’m like, No, I want to like Ariana. I love what she was doing right there.
Heath: As a general rule I always want to look at Ariana DeBose.
Kelundra: Yeah, I would agree, I think that if anything, I think the focus of the camera helped to clarify story in some ways, if you had missed it when you saw it live. And then of course, there’s closed captioning on your TVs, so then you know, you’re like, Oh, okay. So I think there’s some clarity there. But what I really missed, in addition to I think one of the strengths of Lin-Manuel’s musicals in general is all the stuff happening, the background, he loves a street scene that looks very realistic. So we’re now going to be on a street sidewalk in New York, and there will noww be people going by in the background. And some folks are going to be holding umbrellas, and maybe it’s raining.
And so that’s some of the stuff that you didn’t get by watching it through the screen on Disney+. And then I think the other thing that I miss too, is the energy of the music doesn’t come across through the screen because there’s something about that live orchestra, that sound is all around you and you’re swallowed up by it. Now the numbers that did come across like the room where it happens, is still, it was amazing in person, is amazing on screen like you’re just like, it’s in your head, you’re jazzy, you’re singing. But then there are other musical numbers that I really liked in person, but the energy of that live instrumentation is what boosted them, but you didn’t get on screen.
Jose: The movie version I feel is a great example of what you’re saying which is you know, movies are like a director’s medium right? And yeah, like choosing what to focus on is I mean, I really admired this first one because it must have been like hell because like, yeah, Lin loves all his Eaaster eggs, which are usually happening all over. And I thought that this would be a great example of a movie that—remember back when DVDs had this like, multi-angle option where you can choose where to look? This would benefit from that. Because if we had gotten, you know, that standard shot that we get when shows are recorded to preserve them at the Lincoln Center library, you know, those are terrible. Like, we don’t want to look at the whole thing all the time. So I was really impressed, actually. And I went, did you hear that people were talking about whether this movie was gonna be eligible for Oscars or not? Because like Oscars are bending the rules this year to let, no it’s true, to let movies that were ỏiginally—
Diep: Wow, controversial opinion. Kelundra. Tell us more.
Kelundra: No, because there’s going to be a film adaptation of Hamilton that is not the Broadway show.
Jose: But I mean, right now, this is the movie that we have. So
Kelundra: I’m all about genre-busting media, right? Like I want media to be multi multimedia. I love that we sort of blur and blur the lines. I think the challenge that I have with the idea of this particular I mean, I even have a hard time calling it the Hamilton film. I’m like, it’s not really a film. I know. I appraise it. It’s funny because as soon as I go into the like, do you want me to appraise this as a movie?
Then I go into a little bit of the like, there’s camera things I’m like, it’s not like cinematically an extraordinary work beyond the idea that the job is to convey what’s happening on stage. So, I mean, I think about like, you know, Lars von Trier does some movies that are like staged. But to me, what he’s doing is a film, like they’re not meant to be watched live. Hamilton remains a show. It feels to me, the Hamilton film feels like a really, really great archival recording. More than a piece of art on its own. Now that it’s coming out of my mouth, do I really think thaht? But I think, you know what, I’m gonna stand by it. I’m gonna stand by it.
Diep: That’s art criticism. You don’t know until it comes out.
Jose: I’m glad you brought up Lars here because that’s gonna challenge this notion, Manderlay and Dogville are shot on a soundstage. Have you seen those movies?
Diep: No, but I remember the Anna Karenina, the Joel Wright, the one with Keira Knightley. That was done like a play because there was a stage and that was like a metaphor.
Jose: And Lars Von Trier films, basically shoots them in a completely empty soundstage. And it’s very Brechtian. And that he shoots from above, you can see, like, the outlines of what the buildings are, for instance, telling you what’s there. So it’s a movie without sets, without objects, without props, and you have to imagine things and there’s a few sound effects. They’re like fucking fantastic. I was not the Academy when I was talking about this, but this is a real conversation that people are having and if the Academy deems that this is right and that the movie can be eligible for Academy Awards, it will be eligible for Academy Awards.
Heath: Even if it is, there ain’t nothing we can do that about.
Kelundra: Yeah, I will I will not be happy about this. I think it is its own product. Because I mean, unless it’s creating a new genre of film like what category does this go under? Is it documentary? Is it feature what is it? I mean, I’m okay if we’re saying we’re going to make a new category of film for Broadway or theatrical, you know, shows shot? What is that? Like? I need somebody to tell me what category it falls under. Because to me it is not a feature film. And I don’t know that it’s fair that you would put Hamilton in the same category as something that had a bigger budget, and CGI, like I just don’t, I don’t know, what do you do with that? I’m curious, I’m genuinely asking I’m not, you know.
Jose: Kelundra, since you’re saying that, isn’t categorization precisely what keeps people of color from participating in all these things, you know, are they even making real theater if it’s not this or that, you know? And if we go and like, try to categorize even something like this for a year, where, you know, a lot of movies aren’t being released at all, it would give, you know, actors of color the opportunity to compete in the Oscars race, which is usually extremely white. Why this need for categorization, when being classified is how racism started, how we are kept from participating.
Kelundra: Our desire to remove categories from the Oscars doesn’t remove categories from the Oscars, they’re gonna put this movie in a category. I’m not saying what Kelundra wants, I mean, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to put this movie in a category whether we like it or not. My question is what category does it go in? And does that category set this film up for success? Is it fair or is this something that we need to channel into like a Golden Globes or an Emmys if we want to award it with something, to give it its best opportunity for a win?
Because I can foresee the moment where there’s all this hype around, oh my god Hamilton recording is nominated for an Oscar and then all of these people of color are like ready with their accepted speeches. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, and the Oscar goes to insert name of Russell Crowe film or whatever, you know. So I think that I want us, I mean, if we’re gonna dismantle, dismantle but I don’t think the academy will dismantle just by letting this be eligible. I think they’re going to put this in a category and be like, well, if it’s good enough, it’ll stand up. And it’s like, actually, if the category itself is discriminatory, then it’s not gonna stand up.
Jose: Yeah, I mean, there’s only two categories. Basically nonfiction, which is documentaries, and then everything else
Kelundra: This would be like a documentary, right? Why? Maybe I don’t know.
Jose: For instance, the movies that Keath and I were talking about, the Lars Von Trier movies, which were shot on a soundstage with chalk outlines, were movies you know, they’re not like documentaries. That’s different.
Heath: But for me, but what for me is really important to differentiate between the Lars Von Trier movie and the Hamilton film is that the Hamilton film I mean, if we want to talk about like the flow of money and the way that things happen and why the Hamilton film was made when other shows that are put on stage are not made into movies in this way. Hamilton was not designed, they did not direct this musical to be the thing that it is—that is literally a capturing of a different category of media. And that for me is where I’m like Lars von Trier was making a film, he was making a film using a set of techniques that were based on the art, the direction of the actors was directing them toward the idea that this thing was meant to be a film. It was the whole creation of the soundstage was designed, it wasn’t like people were meant to be in watching the thing. He was making a film. And that’s not to say that this piece of art, the Hamilton film, is not a film unto itself.
It feels like we’re having more and more steps of removal from what the thing is, right? We’ve created a musical and then you like film it, and it’s like if I took the recording of the movie, the Hamilton film and then I like recut it myself, would I be making a new piece of art? It’s a valid thing to do as an artist. And then for me, what becomes most disingenuous about that in the context of like giving bodies of color opportunity to compete in these spaces is that these actors are not performing as though they’re—for me as an actor I get really worked up because I do believe that performing on film is different than performing on stage. And I would argue in the Hamilton film, there are performances that are served by this new media in a way that other performances are not, and it is not one to one. There are performances on the stage that I think are really solid musical theater or Broadway performances that I think and again, this is not to be disparaging, saying that one is better than the other, it’s just they’re different. And I feel like I’m a little bit with Kelundra where I’m like, are we setting this up for success? Because who actually wins out of this. We’re not giving these actors of color, this opportunity to compete in this new space that they otherwise wouldn’t, we’re giving a bunch of white people who in fact budgeted and funded the entire thing, the opportunity for clout within their white system.
Kelundra: Right and to your point, the Schuyler Sisters performance is a musical theater performance. When they come out on that stage and the vocal prowess that those singers have, I mean, it’s chills up your spine, I mean, the notes that they’re hitting, but that performance would not be the same if this was shot to be a film. Then you also I wonder what that does to folks like Anthony Ramos, right? He is a formidable film and television actor, he’s going to be in the In the Heights movie, not the film of the musical, but the actual Universal Pictures movie. And so then, I mean, his performance that he’s giving you in the musical Hamilton is different than what he’s already proven he can do in other films, and in other television shows because I mean, he’s been working, you know. So I think that there’s something to be said there too.
Jose: Yeah, I want to say that right now, I’m so happy right now, because I’m imagining white people, if you’re watching this, or if you’re listening to this, can you imagine if this was like the actual House of Representatives, and the Senate looked like, I’m sorry, like, like, holy shit, like what a world we would be in. I am very happy with this conversation. So thank you for being here. The second bill that we want to introduce is the difference between you know, 2015 and 2020. You know, it’s been five years since the musical first showed up. I’m wrong. It showed up as that at that press dinner first. Yeah, but even since like the stage version, the final version was presented, it’s been five years. Let’s talk about the difference between how it was received back then. by us, and by people, and what it feels like to be seeing the show in 2020. Let’s go first.
Diep: We’ve switch president since then. This is a very much an Obama, the only musical that could be written in an Obama administration, where we’re all feeling very positive aboutâ€”relatively positive. I mean, generally, I’m not speaking for Native Americans or immigrants in cages, but we’re all feeling, I know in 2015 like, I was feeling pretty good about the country. This musical made me feel so patriotic, and so represented, because here’s two things I love. I love period dramas. And it just makes me so sad that POCs are never in period dramas because they’re usually with white people. And I’m just like, oh my god, there’s this gorgeous Black woman and she’s wearing a Regency gown. Like that is everything I have ever wanted.
And I love reading about history and being able to—in 2015, I thought the musical did successfully what in was trying to do, which is to reclaim history in our image using these figures that we were taught in school as Americans to revere. And I think what Hamilton did was like, make them seem more human. Like at the time, it was like, Oh my god, how dare you portray, you know, Thomas Jefferson as someone with an actual personality? And I th I ink, right now, this is what’s interesting about art. In just five years, it became something that was so revolutionary to something that’s so problematic, and the thing hasn’t changed, but we have. Watching it for me, it’s different now because I don’t really feel particularly proud to be an American. I do feel like things hit differently for me this time around. Like the theme of cultural revolution. And the notion that it was only ever okay for white people to be revolutionaries, but this musical showed that the people who are on the streets right now, people who look like us, like we are the revolutionaries. But at the same time you can’t disagree with the fact that it is still about white people, and so, what is the next step towards representation?
Jose: I might be the only person who migrated, who was born outside the US who came here as an adult. It’s really interesting to me, because when I saw it even, you know, it is very Obama. But Obama was disastrous to the rest of the world. Obama was putting kids in cages except the media didn’t care that much. Obama was bombing Syria constantly, Obama was creating a lot of war and chaos in the Middle East. And as I’ve talked to you about before Obama is in many ways, the reason why I’m here—he and Hillary Clinton backed up a military dictatorship and a coup that led to the Honduran president to be removed from power, and established a military dictatorship.
And that’s how I ended up here eventually, you know, because I can’t live in my home country because the number of LGBTQ murders and you know, the violence that was caused because of that Obama, Hillary-backed coup was disastrous. So to me, even seeing this musical and seeing how happy everyone was, I was like, well, maybe, you know, we should be more open to listen to all the damage that Obama caused in 2016. It’s so heartbroken, because, you know, I saw how people had to decide between voting for this monster that’s currently the White House or voting for the women who was helped by the government to destroy my own country. So America, for me, has always been a very complex, very heartbreaking concept. So I never had this hope, even Hamilton, because I knew, you know, it was very much about what America sells itself, like what America says that it wants to be. And in 2020, it is the reality of America where, you know, this is the musical that whitewashes history by using colorblind casting.
It’s been so eye-opening to me. I’ve been telling this for a lot of people. How so many of the things that are happening right now with police brutality, with corruption in government, with immigration, obviously, with the military, and the cops unleashing their violence on people. I never thought that I would see that in America because those are the things that America does to the rest of the world. And it is really terrifying for me to be here and recognizing some of the things that I’m seeing, you know, the fireworks and the sound torture they’re using right now. The way in which this President’s family is like, you know, disregarding the Constitution completely, just like emptying their pockets and so much corruption, the disaster that there is right now with COVID-19. Those are things that I never thought in a million years that I would see in America. Those are the things that America helps cause in the world. So right now, every day, I’m thinking, Okay, if I went to the place where I was going to be safe from these things, but now I’m seeing the government do these same things to its citizens, where the fuck am I going to migrate next? Right? Like is outer space the place for me to be in?
Heath: One of the things that’s really interesting with Blackness in America is that the thing that you’re describing about the things that America would never do to its own citizens, that story has never been true for the Black body. And that for me, I have a little bit of a reactivity to the notion that America would never do this to its own citizens because that’s just a difficult thing as a concept for me. And one of the things that I think is very interesting about Hamilton, and this is sort of, for me specifically, what’s different about Hamilton in 2015 versus Hamilton now is for me, I have better contextualized the American relationship to the Black body in a way that makes it so when I saw Hamilton before, what I was witnessing, as a Black person was looking at the possibility of achievement given to the Black body. So I was witnessing Black bodies achieve things and I was, like this is a glorious coup. This is amazing.
I am so thrilled to see Renee Elise Goldsberry on stage being a complicated and interesting character in a way that Black bodies are not afforded that space. I think Leslie Odom Jr. delivers a performance of a lifetime in the show. This is an exciting thing for me. For me, within my own understanding of Blackness and America, when I now look at, with the sort of newly opened reopened eyes about the way that this country treats the Black body, and I put that story on top of the story of Hamilton and I go, Oh, so what has happened in Hamilton is not a celebration of the Black body. It feels like the use of the Black body to better make a story about whiteness, more palatable to us. And that, for me is the thing that’s like, very different. And again, as a person who loves the musical theater, and I love well-executed musical theater, I’m like huzzah musical theater. I love this thing.
But then when I sort of think about the context of what I’m seeing, which the show does very little to actually acknowledge, or sort of point out to us, when I think about the context of using Black bodies, and I mean, specifically Black bodies in this context, there are spaces in which the BIPOC experience is in fact, a holistic and a gathered experience. But within an experience of America, the experience of the Black body is unique and the way that this show specifically erases the experience of the Black body at that time, the cognitive dissonance that I have to put into the watching of the show to buy into the story to say that, “Yes, I as a black body can be concerned with my own legacy, beyond my concern with my literal survival” is a is a really hard it’s a hard space to carry those two stories together. Which to me has nothing to do with historicity of the show. An article came out today that was talking about how it’s a fanfiction, but it’s a it’s a deliberate reclamation of history. The thing about fanfiction is that fanfiction is taking an established story that we know and we culturally understand as a story and then reclaiming a story. The problem that I have with the history in Hamilton is that we’re only just now I feel reckoning in a real way with the fact that history is in fact a fiction. So the relationship between the story that is Hamilton and the story—that is the fictional history. I love that people are like, Yay, this is wonderful, people get to sort of take apart and reclaim pieces. And like, I love that. Like if you tell me Harry Potter rewritten with Black people, I’m like, oh, sorry, not Harry Potter. We cancelled that. I don’t want to deal with Harry Potter. Oh, everything is not safe.
Diep: Everything is canceled.
Heath: No, but if we take if we take a story, like, you know, let’s let’s take any fictional story. Cinderella, like Cinderella, right? And we reclaim Cinderella. We’re reclaiming a fairy tale. And the power in reclaiming fairy tales is about the open power of changing the myth. And for me, we’re not explicitly doing that with American history, or at least it doesn’t feel like everyone is doing that. And I’m very interested in shattering the myth of American history right now. So for me, Hamilton in 2020 doesn’t actually actively work to shatter the myth of America.
And in fact, it continues to reassert the story of American exceptionalism, the story that there are individual men, always men, who impacted the change of the world in great and inspiring ways. And Hamilton does not confront that version of history. The thing that Hamilton confronts is that you can put a different body on stage and a different story can be told, and that for me is the thing that’s like, deeply Obama era, which is like, yeah, we have a Black president, and therefore, we have worked to dismantle these things. Yeah, we have a Black person playing Burr, therefore, we have sort of moved beyond this thing.
And I think right now we’re in this wonderful and terrifying moment, where we’re able to look more deeply at that relationship and actually say to ourselves, wow, I don’t know that history went like this. I don’t know that it’s the story of these extraordinary white men who did things. I think they might have had blind spots to. And again, it’s not to say that Hamilton doesn’t say that these people have blind spots, that they’re not people. It is a great story, right? The story of Hamilton is great. But my question is, how does it contribute to what our culture is saying about ourselves, about our relationship between the bodies in our country right now, about life? And that, for me, is where the sort of difference really lies, which is like, I don’t want to I don’t want to talk about whether Hamilton is good or bad. Hamilton’s great. Like it’s just so well done. Like, the craft on display is extraordinary. But but the insidious thing, what we’re actually saying, which is you know, that America is amazing, specificly that America is a genius project is like, ahhhh, white people love that story.
Kelundra: But I wonder if the way that Hamilton has been received is so much because of who had access to see it. So I will say that I saw Hamilton in October I believe of 2018. But I think earlier that year, I had already seen John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Moronswas almost Latin history for . So actually seeing Latin History for Morons, before you see Hamilton, I feel like totally changes the way you see Hamilton! It’s on Netflix, too. But I saw it in New York on stage at, what was it, Studio 54 I think it was. And I will say that that theater experience, at Latin History for Morons, was the kind of theater experience I wanted to have at Hamilton. Because the audience at John Leguizamo’s show was all brown all around, to quote Sandra Cisneros. It was the first time I’ve ever sat in an audience on Broadway that was all brown all around like that. And then it’s like John was almost giving you this context and his history inside of his own personal story. So I definitely had the experience of carrying that with me before seeing Hamilton.
Now, when we talk about the world of 2015, versus the world of 2020, I think that all of you have made salient points. I will say that when I saw the musical the first time, I was impressed by the stage craft, I mean, the technique. I mean, it’s Western musical theater done exquisitely. But it was always a fiction to me. In the way that the Schuyler Sisters story was handled, the misogyny was just more than I could stomach for one sitting. And the first time I saw it, and I felt the same way when I watched it on Disney+, even with the woman who he has an affair with—comedian Katherine Ryan does an excellent bit in her stand up comedy special Glitter Room where she talks about how, this woman went to her representative because her husband was abusing her and he ends up sleeping with her. It’s like yes, this is only the way a man would write this. Like what do you mean, say no to this? Like she’s desperate! Say no! So that was always like problematic to me.
And then the handling of the three fifths compromise and the way it’s kind of like glossed over, but you know, Eliza redeems the legacy by being an abolitionist. And it’s like, no, the three fifths compromise is literally what we are dealing with in the streets of everything in America right today. So when we talk about 2015 versus now, um, I think that the only difference for me and how I view it, is that looking at the Revolutionary War scenes in 2020 versus the Revolutionary War that’s happening on the streets of America right now. The war scenes struck me differently because it seems as if we are on the verge of another sort of revolutionary war, and we don’t know what our Constitution and what will the Federalist Papers right of 2020 be, versus what they were in 1776. I think that’s where it’s a little different for me because the issues have not changed for people of color in this country between 2015 and 2020. The issue was still higher unemployment rates and equitable access to health care, ICE and immigration detention and deportation being absolutely out of control, police brutality being out of control. I mean, we have to remember that during I mean, police brutality against Black folks has been an issue since the beginning of this country, you know what I mean? Right? I mean, it’s one of those things where it’s like, we had killings of unarmed Black people happening in 2015, and in 2016, and 2017, and they were happening in 2000. And they were happening in ’95. And they were happening to ’85. And they were happening and, you know, I think that we have to reconcile that. Another thing that I will say is different though, is I think that we have critical mass behind ideas today that we didn’t have in 2015. I think generally speaking, we have more critical mass around the idea that ICE needs to be abolished.
More critical mass behind the idea that the way policing currently works in this country doesn’t work, and that stand your ground laws in this country enables white people to kill people of color without consequences. I think we have more critical mass behind that. I think we have more critical mass behind women’s bodies and how women have never had full agency over their own bodies in this country. So I think we have more critical mass behind the ideas that the founding of this country didn’t honor today, than we did 2015. But I don’t see Hamilton I guess for me any differently today than I did in 2018, because it was always a fiction to me. And it was never something where it was like—it all felt like a metaphor. It all felt like satire. It all felt like comedy of manners. To me, it doesn’t take away the brilliance of the stage craft. It was always a work that was flawed.
Heath: I love everything you just said. I want to underline something that I or rather, I’m interested in making sure that, as I look at Hamilton, that in all of the spaces in which Hamilton is problematic, I also think that Hamilton also happenedou know, in 2015, and I think it represented a shift in a conversation that I think it was absolutely, that cannot be taken away. The importance of the shift that Hamilton did, which was about divorcing character from body, which was a defense of white American theater. That for decades, right, as long as as white American theater has been around, they’ve been defending the fact that these characters would never look like XYZ thing.
So Hamilton did an amazing scalpel-like attack on that particular institution of white supremacy. And I think that we would not be in this conversation, this beautiful conversation between the four of us wouldn’t exist without the existence of these sorts of things, right? The critical mass that you’re referring to, it’s like Hamilton contributed to that move if nothing else, even if it’s still problematic. Even if it’s an all in, in the face of all of those sort of, it’s problematic spaces. I think we got to just keep moving forward, we got to keep thinking about the things that we can change rather than being like, no Hamilton was it. Because I think that it’s just obvious that Hamilton wasn’t it. It was just a really great moment.
Kelundra: Absolutely. I think that you’re 100% correct. And I think that like I said, there are things that Hamilton to me and Lin-Manuel Miranda, I would argue did this within In the Heights as well. I still love the book of In the Heights more because I think Quiara Alegria Hudes gave it a nice balance that is missing from Hamilton and she’s just a bangin’ playwright. But yeah, um, you know, I think that Hamilton raised the bar, as people of color immigrants in particular always do, like shocker, that as soon as you give a Black and brown cast a bunch of money and investment they raise the standard for all musical theater for the end of time.
We can sing? Shut up. You know what I mean? You should go to a church on a Sunday. We could dance? Stop it. Um, you know what I mean? So I think that, you know, it showed off what we are capable of when invested in 100%. And I think that’s something that Hamilton does well, and I think also providing jobs is something that has done well. I mean, we can’t deny the fact that when you have three touring cast going simultaneously, how many hundreds of people is that employing that otherwise would not have been employed? So I think we have to give that credit, but also acknowledge you know, the spaces in which there are plot holes, and a hero has been made of someone who did horrible things as a result of having a musical named after him. Again, though, that goes back to the point I made earlier of, I’m not sure if a hero would have been made of him as much, had the audience that had access to see it early on been more reflective of this country, as opposed to the elites who could afford the ticket.
Jose: I want to say Kelundra that I love that you brought up, it’s not unique. It’s like immediately after going to that show, I remember saying, Hamilton is, for me, at least, the most boring, dull character in the show. And I’m like, how are all of these super cool, interesting, complex women in love with this guy that’s so bland? I was like, I couldn’t get it from the beginning. So it still doesn’t work. I still don’t know how, you know, I still don’t get it, but whatever. So we were talking about how Hamilton is the perfect musical, you know, to have come out of the Obama era.
So in many ways, Lin-Manuel also is very much like Obama and that you know, for people of color, for people who are Black and non-Black people of color also, we have so you know such few number of people that we can look up to, that it is very difficult for us to then acknowledge that they have a bad side, that they have that problematic side. And I mean, I’ve told Diep many, many times how much I have a problem with Hamilton. And it’s been refreshing for me to see now that the musical is available for everyone to see, Oh, God, I wasn’t alone, all of this time. And it’s important that we address what is our third and final bill for today’s session. And it’s the burden of representation. How when we have a person who’s not white, become, you know, be under the spotlight. By default, they end up having to represent everyone, and we are not giving them the liberty to be human beings, to be complex, to have both negative and very positive sides, like we just want them to be perfect.
And this leads to poor Lin, for instance, or even poor Obama to become holy cows. Were we to question their choices, we feel sometimes like we are betraying ourselves and that we are siding with the people who have oppressed us for so long. It was very heartbreaking for me to see over the weekend, when I am sure, for the very first time ever, Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading people react negatively to a show that was received with universal acclaim—Kelundra, like you pointed out, by mostly white press. And I wonder now even if those critics would have felt comfortable saying if they had any problems with the show? Not that I want more, you know, reviews by white critics. And it’s very heartbreaking because, you know, this man for the first time over the weekend saw, oh, wow, that people maybe don’t have only 100% positive feedback to say about my musical. And I don’t know if all of you saw that for a few hours over the weekend, he made his Twitter account private.
And, you know, as a human being, you can’t help but be heartbroken for someone to read bad things about themselves. And I realized that, you know, it’s impossible to be a holy cow, it’s impossible to be a saint. And why we are not giving artists who aren’t white, and people who aren’t white, basically, the same opportunity that we give, you know, other people where we’re like, okay, like, let’s separate the art from the artists, from the Roman Polanski and like Woody Allen, all that stuff. And instead we want, no one’s saying that about Woody Allen and Roman Polanski for instance, or Harvey Weinstein or like, enter like X number of problematic menâ€”white men and women, right? But we expect our people to be perfect. And that is not fair. So, I wonder, you know, for the sake of transparency, if all of you would be okay with maybe answering the following question. How are we, in our own way problematic because we are Lin, we are Obama, we are every person who’s not white, who has had to carry that weight. And first of all, I was presumptuous, do all of you feel that you have to represent everyone, from your community and everyone fromâ€”like, if I fail at my job, they’re never going to hire a Latino again, in my case. Like, I feel that, if I fail at my job, they’re never gonna hire an immigrant again. And I wonder for artists, if that’s true for all of you, and if it is, would you be comfortable talking about what makes you problematic? Should I go first?
Jose: Okay. I’ve extremely problematic in the many ways in which I have refused to see that I am not wanted, perhaps in white institutions and white organizations and instead, I have tried to bring in more people of color to join me. In part because I want to see more people of color and non-white people join me in those places, right. But also I’ve been wondering, as I’ve been thinking about this question, is it also because I’m just tired of being alone and I want to share my misery with these people, like why should I be the only one suffering?
One of the things that led me to, I’m in the process of creating a theatre critic institution, you know, organization for critics of color. And I said to myself, stop bringing, you know, your people in to share the pain with you and instead just like create something new. I have been very problematic and not learning that I don’t need to please white people, that I can please myself and I can please the people who need to be pleased, actually, instead of like, imposing the same rules of whiteness. And obviously, you know, these are things that are ingrained in us. I was trying to explain to someone over the weekend that Latinos are extremely problematic, because we are raised on anti-Blackness and, you know, we only get to see movies and TV made in the United States, where we see ourselves as drug dealers, Middle Eastern people as terrorists and we see Black people as you know, criminals and like they’re always the person who’s really bad. And because we’ve become brainwashed by all that media that America is exporting, we aspire to be white. And I am very grateful to have come to the United States because I can see that how we’re being taught to not fight with our brothers and sisters, instead to fight for whiteness when we are at work. So, thank you for listening.
Kelundra: I will say that for me, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the need to represent my entire community and carry my own whole community on my back. But I also don’t know what it’s like to not have been taught that I am doing that at all times. Anyway, so I can’t even distinguish between my own feeling versus what I was brought up to know and believe, which is that you know, you are are always a representative of X of your community, of the Black community and you have to make sure not to come off as like unintelligent or angry or what have you. You’re busting up stereotypes every door you knock down. So I don’t know, like I can’t even distinguish between my own feeling about that versus what I was taught my whole life to be honest with you.
And then as far as where am I problematic? I would say that, I think that I am have been problematic in, I think I can agree with you in some ways Jose, in and trying to integrate spaces that claim to want integration, but actually weren’t willing to do the work of integration, right. So I think that there’s definitely some of that there. And I also think, in maybe not pushing harder for art created by people of color to get the same type of coverage as work created by white folks.
Because I think one of the sinister things about trying to come up in media in particular, and as you all may know, you as the writer of color, have to prove that you can critique the white work before you’re allowed to only critique the work created by people of color, right? It’s usually one of two experiences: either you get your way in the door by developing your voice, critiquing work and writing about people of color, or you have to prove that you have a knowledge of this white canon because your canon isn’t enough, right? To be able to be taken seriously by certain publications. And so it’s like, Okay, if I can see my byline in as many places as possible, to prove that I’m able to write about these things better than my white peers, because you can’t be just as good, you have to be better. Then I can start to write about Asian stuff, the Black stuff, the Latin stuff, the Indigenous stuff and start to pull more of that in there. And I think buying into the idea that like, those were the steps to being able to do that. This may be a place where I have been problematic. Now I will say, today right now, I think I’m just like, I’m with the rest of the world. I’m like F it all, and there’s no more censoring, there’s no more playing nice, there’s no more just like, whatever. But I can honestly say, especially throughout my 20s feeling like okay, if I can get in here and get them comfortable with this, then I can be able to do this. When it’s like, instead of going from point C to point A to M to K, just straight shot it. I don’t know anything I just said make any sense.
Jose: I hear you. It was great. Thank you for following me. I was like, oh god, no one’s gonna say anything.
We’re gonna leave having Jose be like, I’m problematic. Thank you. Bye.
Kelundra: We’re not canceling, I’m not in favor of cancellation unless you don’t want forgiveness or to do better. People who want to do better can be redeemed. if you don’t want to do better then you’re cancelled.
Heath: Yeah, I would connect the two questions you’ve asked. I’m going to answer the second by answering the first, which is, I think I hadn’t really felt a responsibility toward my identity. And I believe that that’s actually one of my most problematic traits. I am very loath to lead with my identity in any context. So much so that I aggressively will not lead—for many years, I actually actively didn’t tell people my race, because in theater, what I look like is the thing that mattered. I never get to play—as an actor, I very rarely if ever play my ethnicity tonicity on stage, because people see me and they see something else.
And so I get called in for, and cast as things that I am not, which has made me very interested in the authenticity question for many years. Because if the question is that, if the statement is that people can only play the thing that they are, I basically have no career as an actor because nobody sees the thing I am as what I am, which becomes this whole complicated thing, which actually results in my presentation being very much interested in—I’ve always been really interested in fluidity and fluidity is it for me, I use a trick that I call slippage, which is that I let somebody else define me and then I explained to them how I’m not that thing, which is very different than me stepping forward and defining myself. And the thing is, what I’ve sort of recognized in the last month or two especially, the ways in which that story that I tell myself is actually a tool of the white patriarchy, that my ability to defer, to sort of dodge questions of who I am is actually about my proximity to whiteness, that because I believe that whiteness is a thing that allows people to define themselves for other people. So if you have the privilege to define yourself by whatever you want to say you are, rather than by what people see you as—I think that that’s a real profound space of privilege that people have and people don’t question. And it has only been very recently that I’ve actually been reckoning with the fact that I have played into that story by actively trying to dodge questions of my own identity.
And that’s, I mean, it’s a really tough concept because on one hand, I don’t want to. It’s really easy for me to sort of be in a space and see myself as in the space because of my body of color or because of my sexuality or because of my gender identity or because of my neuro divergence. I can basically take all these things about myself and be like, the reason I’m in this space is this thing. But what I have tended towards doing is basically pretending like those things don’t matter. And pretending like those things don’t matter, I think is, again, a tool of the ruling class, the ruling class keeps itself in power by pretending like these things don’t matter. So that if you don’t get a job, it’s not that you’re a Black person. It’s that you didn’t work hard enough. That story, that’s the illusion. That’s the story of white supremacy that I’ve been told, and reckoning with the ways in which my own sense of exceptionalism, like the ways in which I am different or better than another person is tied to that story as told by the ruling class. And that’s a deeply difficult thing to reckon with. And I like talking about it in terms of theater because it gives me a nice structure that has language that I can use to talk about the system of theater. It is much harder to talk about that in terms of my own self, my experience of self in the world.
I don’t know if any of that made sense. It’s a challenge to be alive.
Diep: Yeah. It’s like the difference between what you want and what you’re willing to settle for. And I think in terms of like, you know, all of us working in white spaces and working within this industry, and you know, to take you back to the Hamilton conversation, I think the reason the musical was so impactful was because we had never seen that kind of complexity from bodies of color on the stage. And so at the time, it felt like something revolutionary when maybe I think—that kind of ties in what makes me problematic, was the fact that for so long, I’ve accepted incrementalism in exchange for progress. And we all thought, oh, Hamilton happened.
So therefore, we will get to the next phase. And then now in 2020, we’re realizing, oh, no, there’s mainly only white people being produced in 2021 on Broadway right now. We are never going to get to get to the next phase. Maybe it’s time to actually burn it all down. And I feel like for me, especially I’ve been really late to that partâ€”having to turn my brain onto that part. Because I had been so obsessed for a long time with getting approval from white power structures and thinking I can fix things within those white power structures. And that’s the only way to do it. And now I’m wonder, and now I’m thinking perhaps Hamilton wasn’t enough. Like these small steps were not enough. And we need to be asking for more. And by we, I mean me, I’m not really telling you, I don’t wanna tell you guys what to do.
Kelundra: No, I think you’re absolutely right. I always say I want my mansion in the sky. The cabin in the sky is not enough. I want the mansion I was promised. I’m with you 100%.
Jose: Well, thank you all. I know it sounds crazy. But my idea of a perfect world that I guess, like a perfect America would be one in which all of us are, you know, whether white or not white are allowed to be problematic and complex and we are so far away from that. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda, Obama and Hamilton, for giving us an opportunity to have a conversation like this. It’s been very moving. Thank you all for sharing. And I’m sorry that I dropped that on you.
Kelundra: Thank you all for having us on and sharing your platform. I’m very proud of you and what you all have done over the last few years, you have shaken up the conversation. And I think, given some artists, even the inspiration to shake up the conversation where they can, so kudos to you.
Heath: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for having me on. This has been an inspiring 90 minutes.
Diep: Yeah, I cannot believe it took 90 minutes. I have so many thoughts that—
Heath: I have a whole list of things that we didn’t even talk about.
Jose: Yeah, we have four bills originally, but I was like, let’s skip to the last one because that I feel it’s very important.
Kelundra: Can you tell us in this last two minutes before you hang up, what was the bill we missed?
Diep: Like talking about the backlash, talking about what the musical didn’t address, and how it could address it Or maybe not. Because do you expect Lin-Manuel Miranda to talk about slavery in the nuanced way that was asked by everybody?
Kelundra: Oh, no.
Heath: Absolutely not. But I also want to clarify, one of the things that we have done is we have done a slippage point where we talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda, as though he’s the primary creator of this show. Lin-Manuel Miranda is in fact a body of color. So go him, but the four creators of that show are in fact, for cis men, or white. So it’s really important for me that in all of our conversations about how great Lin Manuel Miranda is, we recognize that the structure that Lin represents is that a group of white men have basically put him at the forefront of the story. Within the context of this genius narrative, to allow him to be the unique and exceptional person of color, in a system that serves a set of white bodies, a set of white male body, a set of cis white male bodies, a set of straight cis white male bodies,
Kelundra: And as a caveat to that, I think it’s worth saying that within the Latinx community, right, Lin-Manuel is a white Puerto Rican. He’s not Afro Latino. He does not identify as Afro Latino, okay. The reason he was cast as the chimney sweeper in Mary Poppins is because he’s not Afro Latino. I think that is also just an important thing to note is that he is a person of color, he does speak from a specific lens, I like I said, not discounting the inclusion of what he’s done with like Freestyle Love Supreme, In the Heights and Hamilton and, blah blah blah.
But he has proximity to privilege, by virtue of not being Afro Latino and is educated in you know, in the way that many of us that most of us on this call, with the exception of Jose you know, educated in PWIs and learned the way to navigate them. You know, there’s a set of tips and tricks, that code switching gives you a toolbox. You know what I mean? That everybody doesn’t have access to, where you know how to get things out of people, because you’ve learned how, because you studied them,
Heath: And there are bodies that can codeswitch with different effect than other bodies.
Jose: Yeah, you wouldn’t be surprised because I went to the American school in the Honduras and I know everything about the American Revolution, and I don’t know who the Honduran national heroes are. We’re not taught anything about the indigenous tribes over there. And I lived in Costa Rica when I was an adult, in fact, I had someone who lives in Costa Rica who told me blank-faced that there are no Black people in Costa Rica and my mouth just like, you know, my jaw fell like that. Yeah, you wouldn’t be surprised with how much America influences the way the rest of us all over the world are educated and what we are taught and what we are allowed to think and not think about so. Thank you both. Again, for this. It was such a pleasure. It was such a joy.
Diep: Oh, thank you. Thank you all like this is longer than we thought and so I am so appreciative that you both took the time to do this with us.