‘Hamilton’ and the unfulfilled promise of America

I was lucky to score tickets to see “Hamilton” in Durham before it ended its run last week. Though I had avoided getting caught up in the “Hamilton” hype, when the time came, I still couldn’t help falling in love with the show – partly for the fictional America it creates on-stage, and partly for the America it suggests could be on our side of the curtain.

There is a lot to praise in “Hamilton,” from the story-telling, to the lyrics, to the choreography. But none of it would be nearly so striking if it weren’t for the diversity of the casting.

Alex Gertner

The diversity of “Hamilton’s” cast is an intentional part of the storytelling, highlighting the contemporary relevance of Alexander Hamilton’s rise from penniless immigrant to national leader. This deliberate choice also creates much-needed opportunities for actors of color. Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he started writing in part because there weren’t enough roles for him as a Puerto Rican actor.

Part of what I found so moving in ‘Hamilton” was a glimpse of an America where its casting would not require such effort and intent; an America where immigrants and people of color are so well-represented among our political and business leaders and have such ready access to social and economic resources that there would be no dissonance in a Latino Alexander Hamilton or a Korean-American George Washington.

Such an America is certainly far away. The nascent country that welcomed Hamilton, the destitute immigrant, is now, in its middle age, firing tear-gas at refugees, separating migrant children from their parents, and refusing entry to people because of their religion.

Though Durham is a minority-majority city, the audience at the show appeared overwhelming white. That may be in part a reflection of the fan base, but it may also be because tickets cost hundreds of dollars, and for every $100 that white families hold in wealth in the U.S., black families hold just $5.04.

The economic outlook of families of color is the result of decades of discriminatory policies, and there’s evidence it could be getting worse. Recent news has compounded the gap between the American promise and its reality. Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a 20-year resident of the U.S., was lured out of sanctuary from a Durham church and deported, while Mark Harris, who’s made anti-Islamic comments, appears poised to represent North Carolina in Congress.

My family permanently moved to the United States from Brazil when I was 11. Unlike the refugees being denied asylum at our border, I came to this country with every advantage. Even so, immigrating was a difficult experience. I became a citizen at age 22, but I still struggle with understanding my place in this country.

These realities made “Hamilton’s” inclusiveness bittersweet to me. On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see America’s story told in the faces and voices of peoples who’ve been so long excluded from its central promise of equality. On the other hand, the inclusive casting accentuates how exclusive so many other institutions continue to be.

There is a lesson for policymakers in “Hamilton’s” intentional inclusiveness. Hamilton uses color-conscious casting to counter decades of discrimination in theater, just as government policies must specifically target disparities created by decades of economic inequity. Just as inclusive casting can enhance the meaning or relevance of a theater production, there is evidence that diversity in workplaces enhances decision-making and promotes innovation.

As I watched “Hamilton,” I sensed that somewhere far backstage was an America where the show was the expression of a promise realized, instead of an exception to a dream deferred. For that dream to be realized, we must be relentless like Miranda’s Hamilton, work together, and have faith that a fundamental change in our institutions is possible and imminent.

Alex Gertner is a graduate student in the Department of Health Policy and Management at UNC-Chapel Hill.