A few nights ago, I watched the original Broadway production of “Hamilton” on Disney+. Even though I’m a bonafide theatre kid at my very core, I never had the opportunity to see “Hamilton” on Broadway. When COVID-19 hit us like an unexpected fist to the face, I watched the glittery lights of the theatre-district dim from bright and hopeful to dark and hopeless overnight.
I was gutted.
I don’t want to live in a world without live theatre.
Overcome with an acute restlessness and an insatiable craving for content baring a theatre-like impact, my wife and I decided to subscribe to Disney+ so we could watch a filmed-yet-staged production of “Hamilton” with the original Broadway cast a few nights ago.
“I’m ashamed to say I have no idea what ‘Hamilton’ is really about or what the hell to even expect,” I confessed.
“Me neither,” my mom, wife, and Aunt chirped back at me.
“That’s the best way to go into a piece of art!” My brother, an artist, boomed from the next room, where he was furiously editing his latest masterpiece.
We knew he was right. The artist is always right. Our culture is sick because we’ve stopped listening to the artist.
The curtain opened wide on the static screen. And out of an actor’s brilliant mouth sprouted this poetry:
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 a scholar?
The beat. The stage presence. The words. The ~energy~ that beamed like Broadway lights out of the twinkling eyes of the actors.
I was riveted.
Within the span of the next three hours, I was transported to an entirely different time in American history. I took in the incredible, odd-defying story of Alexander Hamilton. I learned more about the founding fathers and the intricacies of how America was shaped than I did in 13 years of public school. I learned about the women of the movement and the energy of New York City and the feeling of being on the brink of change that energized the streets in the late 1700s.
In fact, “learning” isn’t even the right word for it. I retained it. The story of Hamilton is now absorbed into the skin I move through the world in.
That’s the beauty of art; once it crawls its way inside of you, it never leaves. (It’s the reason oppressive societies ban art).
What struck me the most is something that has struck me so many times in my life, yet each time I’m hit with this lightning bolt of painful truth, I find myself shell-shocked: Our culture does not respect or value the brain-changing, heart-expanding power of the arts.
Back in my school days, I wasn’t a great student, but I wasn’t a terrible student either. I, like the vast majority of my peers, sifted through our school years academically unscathed. But also, academically unmoved — academically uninspired.
I found myself floating up in the pretty pink clouds in the sky during most of my classes, lounging in the thick-calm of a daydream. I managed to pass all my tests because if school taught me one thing it was how to cram. In one hyper-focused evening, I would study a semester’s worth of work. I would memorize dates, names, times, events, wars. I would repeat these facts in my head on the school bus, only breaking to occasionally pray to the scholarly gods that this information please remain stuck in my brain until the exam was over. Most of the time the gods would comply with my fervent request. I would feverishly work my way through my endlessly long, static exam, knowing that if I stalled for a mere millisecond — if my eyes were to dare to drift toward the clock — the information I’d shoved inside of me would fly away and be gone forever. See, the information that I packed into my brain knew it was was in a temporary holding cell. My school-brain was like a storage space with an extremely short lease. When I dutifully handed in my test to my teacher, the facts were evicted — and off they went to wherever crammed in, quickly memorized information goes to die.
I’ll never forget a science teacher I had in the 11th grade who was teaching us about the AIDS crisis. We were a particularly rowdy class made up of mostly skater kids and rude boys and under-disciplined girls. When he recognized that we were glassy-eyed, shaky-legged, distant, and inattentive through his verbal lectures, he tried a different tactic.
“We’re watching a movie today, kids,” he said, his eyes scanning the room that smelled like socks and underage drinking and pregnancy scares.
“Hell yes!” My friend John shouted, thinking this would be an ample opportunity for him to spend the next hour writing love notes to his popular, preppy girlfriend.
Our teacher lowered the lights. We collectively sunk into our plastic chairs anticipating a pleasant mid-afternoon nap. 20 minutes in and our backs were as straight as the blackboard that held court behind the TV in which our eyes were glued to.
An hour in, we were all perked up like little Meerkats in the wild.
The bell rang.
“Nooo!” the druggiest boy in our class practically screamed, flailing his nicotine hands in the hormone-laden air. “This shit is good! I’m learning shit.”
The truth was, for the first time ever, *no one* wanted to leave science class. Our teacher assured us we would finish the movie the following Friday. For the following three days all I could think about was the movie. I vehemently longed to know how the story ended. I was wildly invested in the characters. My heart ached more than it had ever ached after a breakup. My curiosity spiked to heights so high I could no longer see them.
Finally, Friday came. We were all on time for class. The teacher didn’t waste a second. The moment our asses were planted back into our plastic chairs, he reached for the remote control and pressed play.
By the end of the movie, all of us, even the most stoic of stoner boys, had tears burning in our usually apathetic eyes. Some of us (myself, a soft-spoken boy I had long suspected was gay, and two girls with matching foot tattoos) were sobbing.
The lunch bell sounded off. It no longer sounded like freedom; it sounded like doom.
“If you want to stay and talk about ‘Philadelphia,’ we can,” Our teacher offered.
We silently accepted. With passion permeating out of our eyes and lumps lodged into our throats, we discussed the AIDS epidemic as it’s played out in the movie “Philadelphia.” We discussed homophobia. We discussed how the president of America failed his nation and how his silence contributed to the spread of the virus. We discussed race. We discussed the intersections between sexuality, race, and class. This was when the word “intersection” was only used when referring to complicated roads with multiple traffic lights.
It was by far the most heated, nuanced conversation I’d ever had inside the confines of a classroom.
We weren’t a class of academic, over-achieving, enthusiastically hand-raising students. But after being seeing the movie “Philadelphia” we all had something to say. We all became HIV/AIDS activists. We explained how easily the virus spreads to our friends. (And our friends, let me assure you, were all of the “high risk” elk. We probably unknowingly saved lives.) Most pressingly, we were now aware of an overlooked American crisis that our culture had (has) not recovered from — not even close.
Most importantly, we left the classroom that day with a newfound sense of empathy. The most breathtakingly beautiful aspect of art is that not only does it teach you important, historical lessons and scientific facts in a non-didactic way, but it also inflates your empathy (while “good” grades inflate your ego). Through art, you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of a stranger — a stranger with a different upbringing who perhaps has faced different disadvantages than you have in your life.
I would argue that you can’t truly understand history without empathy. How can you grasp the magnitude of the AIDS crisis without feeling for those whose young, vibrant lives were robbed by the Virus? How can you respect — truly respect — the works of Alexander Hamilton without watching him rise above the most excruciating obstacles? Without hearing the shaky resilience in his voice as he boldly challenged the status quo, despite coming from nothing? If you’ve had everything, how can you know what it means to come from nothing without the theatre forcing you to move through uncomfortable experiences that are not your own?
And when you attain such a visceral understanding of the pain history has endured, you’re able to spot the signs of history repeating itself. If you have a visceral understanding, of history you’re able to connect the dots between then and now. And when you can connect the dots, you can destroy the chain that holds them together.
A visceral understanding is an emotional understanding. And emotions are what inspire people to step up make the world a better place. Emotions are the driving forces behind every protest, every movement, every revolution, and every random act of kindness.
But what about the artists, the creatives, the writers, and the music-makers who create the art that forever changes us with its emotional arch? The artists that personalize the politics and make us better people? Why are they so undermined by the culture? Why are they so underpaid in the workforce? Why is it that the most powerful form of education is offensively deemed an elective? Why do companies put people who can perfectly fill out spreadsheets on pedestals, yet treat the creatives like they’re replaceable and lucky to have a seat at the table? We treat creatives like what they do is easy. We neglect to recognize that the power of art is that looks effortless, but can you imagine how hard it is to make something so complicated look effortless?
I owe my education to the arts. I learned about feminism through the music of Ani Difranco. I learned about the unjust treatment of Black men in our legal system through Bob Dylan. “Schindler’s List” taught me about the holocaust. I learned about the heartbeat of America through “Hamilton.” Actually, like I said earlier, I didn’t “learn” from these masterpieces; I absorbed.
So here’s to the artists: the artists who stretch our hearts and expand our brains and the artists who inspire us to come out of the closet, to fight for what’s right, to see further than our own backyards. Here’s to the writer who heals millions of readers with their words, yet is told to be grateful for receiving the smallest of pay. Here’s to the painter who continues to change the way in which we see the world, who changes perspectives and paints and paints and paints even as the powers at be roll their condescending eyes. Here’s to the actor who uses their body as a tool to teach us how to feel, who dives deeper than the ocean even after their parents ask them when they’re going to get a “real” job. Here’s the hungry songwriter who has the astounding ability to disconnect us from our brains and plugs us into our heart. We are nothing without our hearts; we are dead without our hearts.
Here’s to the creatives, our greatest professors who manage to stay creative in a culture that is forever undermining their worth in the world when they’re ones who bring us the world.