On Friday night, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence walked into the Richard Rodgers Theatre for a performance of Hamilton and was booed by the audience. These were the boos heard round the world, including by President-Elect Donald Trump, who tweeted multiple times about the incident, including this:
Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
Of course, it wasn’t the cast who booed Pence; it was members of the audience. It wasn’t the only time Pence has been booed in public; the crowd at an Indiana baseball game reacted in a similar negative fashion when he appeared on the field this past summer.
As for the cast of Hamilton, at curtain call, African-American actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, read a statement, penned by the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and its producer, Jeffrey Seller, that read in part:
We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us: our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
It was hardly harassment. From a cast filled with performers of all races and all sexual orientations, and led by Javier Muñoz (who is gay and HIV positive), it was a plea for tolerance. In the face of Pence, who has made anti-LGBTQ legislation a substantive part of his governorship in Indiana, and who serves a President Elect who a week prior had appointed Steve Bannon, a notorious editor with proud and open ties to white nationalists, to his cabinet.
And the speech from the Hamilton cast could not come at a better moment. Because the next day, 200 (mostly white and male) supporters of the “alt-right” met for a conference in Washington, D.C. where they cheered for the election of Trump with Nazi salutes, and these words were uttered by its leader Richard Spencer: “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity…It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” Trump has not condemned those words or the alt-right, white supremacists movement.
For me, the response of the Hamilton cast brought to mind a racist occurrence in Ashland, Ore., over the summer. Christiana Clark, an African-American actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was walking down the street when a white male stranger told her, “It’s still an Oregon law; I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up.” A few days later, a death threat was leveled at another OSF company member of color. In response, the festival held a community gathering to discuss the incidents, and released a statement from its leadership that said, in part:
We will continue partnering with other local and national organizations to bring about events like the community gathering on July 2 that packed the Historic Ashland Armory with people willing to try to unpack racism. We will work with the Ashland Police Department, the local business community, and our tourism partners to address the bias that people of color encounter here regularly while driving, walking, shopping and dining.
We will continue to choose plays and cast them in ways that reflect the world we live in now, with pride and without apology. We will continue striving to bring greater diversity to our workforce and our audience. We will recognize that we have a long way to go to live up to our goals of equity, diversity, inclusion and justice, and that we don’t and won’t always get it right—but we will keep trying.
Yesterday I came across a tweet from the Los Angeles Theater Center that said, in part, that it “does not and will not tolerate discrimination based upon race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin, sexual orientation, or any other legally protected characteristics.”
— The LATC (@theLATC) November 11, 2016
To quote another musical about revolution: The time is now.
We are facing an uncertain time ahead, one I have to admit fills me with fear. What will a Trump administration mean for civil rights? For women’s rights? For arts funding? For overtime rules? There is also uncertainty about what theatre artists (and journalists) can do politically. For my part, I have been calling my congressional representatives and marching in the streets. I’ve bought my train tickets to the Million Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration.
As examples from Hamilton to OSF prove, we can choose in this moment to speak, to use our words and take a stand. And it is not only in our lives as private citizens that this work can be done. Art can be activism. And theatres can take a stand and be leaders in their communities, both modeling equity, diversity, and inclusion and speaking out about it, as Hamilton and OSF have done. Theatres can also be safe havens for the most vulnerable among us, by doing things as simple as putting up inclusive bathroom signs to holding town halls—bringing audiences together for tough conversations about race, income inequality, and the most pressing issues affecting America today.
It can also be done via the work onstage. Theatres can take Danai Gurira’s advice and seek out challenging stories from underrepresented populations (such as Lynn Nottage’s Sweat or Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone). Theatres can also tell stories that reaffirm our collective humanity and give us hope for the future. Theatres can join nationwide rapid-response projects, including Every 28 Hours, which addresses police violence, and After Orlando, which addresses a host of issues raised by the Pulse massacre.
In today’s divisive times, the arts can be a bridge across the chasm. Because all we really have is each other, the people beside us, who are in the room with us. And when the time comes to speak up against racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia, American theatres and their artists must be fearless. Let’s not throw away our shot.