Through Sunday, Dec. 2
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Every lyric has been subjected to Talmudic scrutiny, every hip-hop and show-tune reference footnoted, every historical fudge corrected, every hot take fired and cooled. So I’m not going to write a review. Let’s just talk.
I arrived at DPAC to see Hamilton, the hip-hop Revolutionary War musical turned cultural juggernaut, carrying the following items in my pockets: phone, wallet, keys, notebook, pencil, quarter, dime, three pennies. This inventory is fresh in my mind because I had to put it all in a tray to pass through two metal detectors, a freestanding one and a waved wand, at the international-flight-worthy security checkpoints choking the queues around the building.
I was also carrying some things I couldn’t put in a tray: the wary anticipation I bring to any box-office blockbuster that is putatively populist but financially exclusive; a conversance with existing critiques of Hamilton as a steamroller gentrifying hip-hop and black culture; and the white privilege and perspective I never leave home without.
Looking around the venue, I realized I was in the minority, in that I couldn’t really afford to be here without a press comp. Tickets are going for hundreds of dollars unless you win one of the $10 lotteries, like in a folk tale about a peasant being made king for a day. But in a more significant way, I was securely in the majority, as the audience, as is often the case at DPAC musicals, was mostly white.
I made my way to a seat that offered a square view of the spare, dynamic set, its brick ramparts laced with wooden ladders and catwalks. There was a sense of moment but also of levity as the usual housekeeping announcements about phones and photos came on in the plummy, peremptory voice of King George III, and the house lights fell. The opening lines—“How does a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and scholar?”—triggered a Pavlovian pleasure response. This was what we’d been waiting for, something that, in some sense connected to the waiting, we deserved.
During the first act, I made the usual kinds of notes. There were some early intelligibility issues with Aaron Burr, but it didn’t matter—everyone knew the lyrics, and the soft vocal tone of Nik Walker made both his rapping and singing shine. I caught the obvious musical theater citations and likely missed many others. With a deeper knowledge of hip-hop than musicals, I duly geeked out on the references to lyrics or songs by Mobb Deep and Biggie, and I pored over the inspirations of the instrumental backing, detecting whiffs of connoisseur classics like Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says” and Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds.”
For a musical touted as the future, it’s fascinating to think about how nostalgic Hamilton is—not just for the heyday of Gilbert and Sullivan, but also for a hip-hop golden age before cloud rap and trap, before Lil B and Migos, when lyrical and vocal virtuosity still reigned.
“Golden age” traditionally refers to borough-dwellers like Run-DMC and A Tribe Called Quest and cuts off in the early nineties, when bicoastal crime rap took over. While Hamilton does due diligence to the former, it lavishes more love on the latter, extending its golden age through Wu-Tang and Big and Pac, all the way up through, say, Lil Wayne. The slipperiness of when and how things were great bears on how the musical treats American history, too.
Golden ages have a funny way of moving around like that. Purists once turned up their noses at gangster rap and its shiny-suited offspring, but when it comes to hip-hop fundamentals, even Mase seems like KRS-One compared to Lil Pump. Two or three decades from now, maybe someone will create Grant—after all, Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow took on old Ulysses in his most recent tome—a Civil War mumble-rap musical sung by dozy children with rainbow hair and face tattoos, and it will have the same timeless halo.
Some of the performers actually sound like rappers, limber and fluid. Others, including Joseph Morales as an energetic Alexander Hamilton, sound like talented Broadway singers riveting down their enunciation syllable by syllable. This is rap only insofar as a spoken version of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”—a chestnut referenced on “Right Hand Man”—would be. Which is fine. That’s just what musical theater does: absorbs everything into its own idiom, for its own purposes.
But that’s what white culture does, too, and the white left at least hypothetically agrees this is a problem. Once you embark on this line of thought, it’s hard to stop.
Hamilton is spectacular. It throbs with energy, but it’s tense and restrained, building and breaking, not just bombastic. The wordplay is thrilling and the melodic motifs of the R&B songs pleasurably sear the memory. On stagecraft terms, it works fantastically. At intermission, my face hurt from smiling. I texted a friend who was there, “This shit is kind of [fire emoji] huh.” I started thinking about star ratings—a perfect five? Four and a half, for the intelligibility issues? Four, deducting one for the whole uneasy gentrifying-rap thing?
Is that the cost of white privilege—a single star?
Mesmerized by the musical, I had ceased to hold in mind that in real life, this cast was divided into masters and slaves along sharp racial lines. Hamilton has been persuasively accused of whitewashing racial history and perpetuating the myth that immigrants need only grit, gumption, and sturdy bootstraps to succeed. The naturalness of seeing diverse races playing formerly white roles says something true about America today, even something inspiring, if you squint. But it is also a lie about history, an act of willful forgetting about men who owned and raped slaves, which makes it a lie about the present, too. What do we owe to painful memory, and at what point does the fantasy slide from redressing past crimes to acquitting them, even as they continue in more covert forms?
This question might be merely academic if not for the fact that in Hamilton, the dream and lie are both finely tooled to flatter white liberal sensibilities using hip-hop as a funhouse mirror. The second act continued to entrance me with its candy-coated revolution and its candy-coated racial politics, but I started to feel—well, like I had eaten too much candy. That night and in the days to follow, my texts about Hamilton changed drastically in tone. Now I wanted to [fire emoji] the opera houses. Let the people don their own masks, for their own aims. I knew I was overcorrecting. It was an emotional response, not an intellectual one. It happens periodically when you live in the arts—the crisis of faith about its excess, divisions, and baggage. It’s always worth exploring. I loved the show, which agitated me. I know that not everything I want is good for me or others. I abandoned the leveling device of a star rating and started writing through the conflicts instead.
Hamilton seemed like an unlikely success when it debuted three years ago, but in hindsight, it’s a no-brainer. A chance for Broadway to feel modern, cool, and open-minded without leaving its aesthetic or cultural safe zone—how are you going to lose money on that?
It’s clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda has a deep love of hip-hop. He made something genuine and earned, and then he released it into a culture that distorts the genuine and steals the earned. The cast album, widely accessible and helmed by The Roots, is less problematic than the stage version—though even the album wound up revealing white hunger for black culture to call its own when a white Billboard reviewer dubbed it the rap album of the year, absurdly stating it was better hip-hop than Kendrick Lamar.
Hamilton treats rap with self-conscious respect, as a form of eloquent dialectic and debate. But this is an NPR sustainer’s idea of respect. Appreciating rap as a form of civil discourse is not the same as understanding it and giving it space as a revolutionary energy of dissent and self-definition, one born of injustices white Americans at least passively propagate and benefit from.
It’s a comforting, if faintly condescending, idea that Hamilton valorizes rags-to-riches rappers who conquered an unjust world on the strength of their words by merging them with founding fathers. Less comforting but just as true is that it valorizes the creation myth of white America by merging its icons with those of an artform forged in domestic oppression. This was a version of the Italian or Irish outlaw story that white America could gaze upon but never possess, and we could never stand it.
With insidious ingenuity, Hamilton creates the illusion of that dream come true, drawing false equivalence between its subject’s rise to fame and Biggie’s, whose “Ten Crack Commandments” becomes “Ten Duel Commandments.” A song about a systemic drug epidemic wrenched out of context and turned into a clever rhetorical structure for the enjoyment of people who might not even get the reference? I think the burden of proof is on anyone who says this isn’t the definition of cultural appropriation, which we claim to abhor.
It’s not for me tell you what the white gaze feels like, but I know that Hamilton, or at least Broadway, was made for me to enjoy. Read other people on feeling unable to respond according to the tradition of the culture supposedly being represented on stage, or how the racially mixed casting is a progressive shibboleth that fakes a post-racial utopia white progressives long for.
Hamilton lampoons whiteness in the person of King George (played by a scene-stealing Jon Patrick Walker), a regal clown in an ermine robe and a glittering crown. But whiteness remains the musical’s home turf, which dulls these barbs and ultimately just reassures us we’re not like that. More troubling is that blackness, if inadvertently, is also lampooned, simply by being played for laughs in this context. If you can sit comfortably in an auditorium full of white people chuckling at moments of idiomatic black speech and gestures played for otherness, as if they were exotic tricks—well, your white skin is thicker than mine.
On stage, Hamilton is about how much America has changed. But in the seats, it lays bare how much it hasn’t, as a white audience continues a vampiric relationship with black culture. Broadway gets the vitality and allure of hip-hop; hip-hop gets … breeches-and-bayonets war drama. Does this sound like fair cultural exchange, which will remain impossible until the bargaining positions are equal, or just more of the same old colonial, imperial mindset?
The musical is geared toward answering the opening question quoted above: Hamilton succeeded by having more energy, eloquence, and hustle than anyone else, as if the only difference between him and Jay-Z were a couple of hundred years. But a more important question raised in “My Shot” is left for us to untangle: “If we win our independence is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”
Many Americans of all races would grant that freedom and death are unequally apportioned in our country, but this is exactly what the musical’s historical revisions so seductively invite us to forget. It isn’t really that Hamilton is a uniquely problematic musical, but that it throws into sharp relief, because of its juxtaposition with a culture it has long considered below its station, the capacity of the whole enterprise (Broadway, big-box musical theater in general, our country, take your pick) to be a hermetic, revisionist pastime for privileged people who long to see themselves in scrappy underdogs, even if it takes serious mental contortions.
This is a cynical view. But sometimes we need cynicism to counterweight credulity. History is not done with us, and we can’t dispense with it. Hamilton is a phase in massive, grinding gears of cultural transition we can’t fully see yet. Time will tell if it was a reactionary or progressive force, if it mattered to something more than money or if it didn’t. In the meantime, have fun but keep your eyes open. If you’re complicit in something, know it. Know who you are and where you stand. Have what you want but watch what you eat.
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @brian_gray_howe.