After taking home a record-setting 11 victories at the 2016 Tony’s, performing for the president at the White House multiple times, and selling tickets for record-breaking prices, there is no arguing that the success of the Broadway musical phenomena, Hamilton, has been revolutionary in its own right. However, these accomplishments have not come without controversy. Earlier this year, a casting call for Hamilton was released on social media, indicating that the producers were “Seeking NON-WHITE men and women…for Broadway and upcoming Tours.” This word choice received harsh criticism and accusations of “reverse racism” from those both inside and outside of the theatre world, with critics expressing their disdain at the fact that the show would omit white performers from auditioning. In their minds, the auditions should have been open for everyone to attend.
I would argue that what has made Hamilton so successful is that it is a commentary on the white-washed past of the United States through the lens of the diverse populations that live and work here in present-day. The fact that the historically white, male founding fathers are played by a primarily non-white cast of black and Latinx actors really forms the context and the messages that the show seeks to convey.
How would the musical change if Alexander Hamilton was not played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aaron Burr was not played by Leslie Odom, Jr.? Consider the implications of a white man on stage, spitting out lines such as, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” It would surely still be enjoyable to watch, however the story being told would not be the same and the commentary on the racial dynamics of past and present-day America would certainly be nonexistent. Take Dreamgirls or The Color Purple as some more examples; they would be completely different shows if the leads were played by a white cast. It just would not set the same context in order to provide the same intended messages to their viewers.
As for Hamilton’s intended message, it appears as though Lin-Manuel Miranda and the other producers of the show aim to make a statement on the binary of reality versus fictionalized reality. In reality, the founding fathers of America were white men who placed people of color in subordinate positions, through institutions such as enslavement. In Hamilton’s fictionalized reality, and through lines like “…we all know who’s really doing the planting,” the people of color become those in power. In other words, the show argues that enslaved people and other marginalized groups were responsible for growing America’s economy and making it the successful superpower that it is today.
The professional theatre rules state that the use of “non-(anything)” in a casting call is considered to be outright discrimination. In essence, Hamilton’s mistake was that they should have specified what races they wanted, rather than what races they did not want. However, it seems that criticizing the show’s poor choice of words is not the same as criticizing their wish to fill certain roles with actors of color. After all, shouldn’t members of the theatre community celebrate the fact that more actors of color are being given the chance to be cast in a history-making musical and, thus, becoming less “invisible” in mainstream entertainment?
In her discussion on “The Rebirth of Caste,” Michelle Alexander describes the various systematic ways in which the American political system has essentially locked black Americans into a subordinate state due to laws and custom (classically enacted by white men). In essence, Hamilton is a way for people of color to reclaim this and to rewrite their own history, per se, as well as to comment on present-day racial tensions. While institutions such as enslavement and segregation are obsolete, people of color continue to be forced into positions of marginalization. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s choice to place black, Latinx, and Asian Americans in the political roles of power that continue to systematically fail them is not only a statement, but the beginning of a conversation.
Was Hamilton’s casting call word-choice an act of “reverse racism” towards whites, or an act of support towards people of color?