by Reagan Jackson
As the lights dimmed, the Paramount Theater crackled with energy and the audience erupted with cheers. 2,800 jubilant students from high schools in the greater Seattle area and down the I5 corridor as far as Portland, gathered to watch musical Hamilton as a part of the Hamilton Education Program.
The now world-famous musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding fathers with a twist—the main roles are played by people of color. After its Broadway debut in July of 2015, Hamilton won numerous awards including 11 Tonies and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tickets range from $500-$2000, putting it well out of reach for many would-be theater goers. There are lottery programs to help reduce the costly ticket price allowing lucky winners to purchase tickets for as little as $10. For students wanting to see the play, it took more than luck to secure a ticket.
“It was a part of the school curriculum, so they gave us these booklets and we studied certain songs from how Hamilton took real-life documents and people and [turned] history into something entertaining,” explained 17-year-old Namaka Auwae-Dekker, a junior at Franklin High School. “We had to choose someone or an event or document and write a performance piece like a poem or a song or anything we wanted to.”
The Seattle Theater Group partnered with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to replicate the success of the Hamilton Education Program piloted in New York schools. The goal is to use music and theater to engage youth with U.S. history in a meaningful and relevant way. Wednesday’s performance was the second of two special matinees for youth and was an all-day affair. The morning began with student performances followed by Q&A with the cast.
“A big question was what was it like and how did you adjust to playing a character that lived during slavery and had slaves,” shared Auwae-Dekker. “What is like being a person of color playing that role?”
Kyle Scatlife, who played Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson was one of the actors to answer recounted Auwae-Dekker. “I think he touched on how it was quite powerful that they were able to turn this into a story where people of color could be included and they could be at the forefront instead of the slaves.”
Auwae-Dekker was one of the students selected to perform. She has been a long-time participant in Youth Speaks and is currently the Seattle Poet Ambassador through Seattle Arts and Lectures. She wrote a poem about Mohawk Chief and British officer Joseph Brant.
“I was really glad to perform my poem, because I was very conscious of the audience…there was Tacoma schools and there were Yakima Schools and so I know it was mostly [people of color],” said Auwae-Dekker. “I was conscious that a lot of the performances weren’t going to be about people of color…I felt pride in myself for writing a piece on someone of indigenous descent and speaking a story that is never talked about.”
Auwae-Dekker is a Native Hawaiian and a vocal advocate for social justice. “Before I watched Hamilton I was like ‘We need that, we need more people of color on stage in musicals changing the narrative,’” said Auwae-Dekker. “And after I was like ‘No, we really need this.’ I had the concept of what it meant for that to happen, but when I saw it happen I knew the impact was so much stronger than the idea.”
The first time I heard the Hamilton soundtrack was last summer at Young Women Empowered’s Create Camp. Three young people had memorized the entire score and sang it on repeat. For the most part I had no idea what they were talking about, but their energy was contagious. And they knew more about the founding fathers than I think I ever learned in the first place.
Auwae-Dekker explained for high schoolers of color, musicals usually represent someone else’s idea of something cool. When people of color are allowed into the space where they can, “see an actor that whips on stage or does the nae nae or drops it, or his hella sassy, that’s something that changes what a musical is if people of color can finally be included in it.”
Sitting in the darkened theater experiencing every cheer, every gasp, every laugh, I realized the magic of the Hamilton Education Program is not only that it makes Hamilton accessible to youth, but that the magic of the musical itself is how it takes a history full of white men told by white men and makes it accessible to youth of all backgrounds.
Hamilton is one of the most compelling arguments I’ve seen for the importance of ethnic studies in school. There are so many stories that go untold. If simply providing representation can be this powerful, what would it be like to tell the real stories of people of color who have contributed more to building this country than slave labor, building railroads, and making treaties?
Featured image courtesy of Christopher Nelson