Hamilton and Artistic Citizenship

Sometime during the day of Friday, November 19, 2016, the cast and crew of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s prize-winning Broadway musical, were informed that U.S. Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence and his family would be in the audience that night. And so it was that the stage was set for “a play within a play.” As Pence entered the Richard Rogers Theatre with hundreds of others, he was greeted with a mix of boos and applause.

As the musical progressed, and specific lines and songs were performed, it was as if Miranda had written them explicitly for this post-election, political-moment-in-time. Not surprisingly, then, after King George III (played by Rory O’Malley) sang “When your people say they hate you / Don’t come crawling back to me,” the cheering and shouting was so intense that he had to ask for quiet so the play could resume.

Instead of the usual curtain call, and as Pence began exiting the theater, lead-actor, Brandon Victor Dixon—who plays third Vice-President Aaron Burr—implored Pence and his family to remain a little longer because Dixon had more to say. As Pence waited, Dixon read a statement written by Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and producer Jeffrey Seller:

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 . . . We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.

Newspapers, online media, and critics have dubbed this “the Hamilton episode” because this performance-and-post-performance event not only marked a significant moment in American political discourse, it went beyond “another day in the life” of American musical theater: the Hamilton episode “troubled”—literally and figuratively—many ways in which art-making, politics, race, gender, history, and other aspects of life are always inseparable, and the ways in which art-making and “art-taking” can perform peaceful and effective social protest.

As Mark Harris states in Vulture:

The Hamilton episode touched on LGBTQ issues, which were shamefully under-discussed during the [recent U.S. election] campaign and remain so now. It touched on immigration; on race; on the impact and value of protest speech; on the president-elect’s temperament; on his demands for opponents to capitulate; on his disdain for First Amendment freedoms (his quartet of Hamilton tweets was consistent with his post-election attacks on public protestors and on the New York Times); and on the worries of several large populations that the Trump administration will demonize them and make them less safe.

This episode also raises questions about the old 19th-century notion of “art for art’s sake” and the actuality of “art for people’s sake”—i.e., art making for the positive transformation of one’s own and others’ personhood and social communities. When a person creates a piece of music, or writes a poem, s/he is not doing it for the benefit of another piece of music, or another poem—i.e., art for art’s sake—but for the benefit of people.

Restated as a question: What are the roles and responsibilities of art-makers and art-takers? Are we only producers and consumers, or something else? Is the Hamilton episode an act of socially positive, participatory art-making, where actors and spect-actors (see Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) are not part of a normal music theater experience, but are equal participants in a multidimensional political and educational journey of artistic-social responsibility and ethical praxis? If so, then they are involved in a socially transformative, “ethical spectacle.”

Thus, audiences must always be prepared for the possibility that a musical theater production—or any artistic event, amateur or professional—can/will be more than entertainment, or an evening’s distraction. Any artistic event may also be an “episode”—an act of—of “art-ivism,” or what we call Artistic Citizenship: “Anybody who walks through the doors of a theater should be prepared to have preconceptions challenged, beliefs questioned, certitudes shaken, ideas adjusted, worldviews broadened, and perspectives shifted.”

People like President-Elect Donald Trump—who demanded an apology from the cast of Hamilton (so much for “free speech” in Trump’s America)—and those who consider social-participatory and applied art-making, or artivism, a threat to their comfortable beliefs, probably do not understand the potency of the arts. The arts can unsettle us, move us to reconsider our beliefs and motivations, and question our worlds. The arts are not “safe places” and likely should not be, especially now.

The real work of a “work of art” is not simply to show, but to tell. It’s essential that we (amateurs and professionals) put our artistic endeavors to work for the safety and well-being of people who are under attack. It’s essential that we engage actively in Artistic Citizenship.

The Music Kitchen

Founded in 2005, the Music Kitchen—whose motto is “Food for the Soul”—has been serving the homeless by providing what founder Kelly Hall-Tompkins calls “spiritual, uplifting help.” According to Hall-Tompkins, homeless populations are not “musically underserved,” they are “non-served.

Over the past eleven years, NYC homeless persons have been treated to concerts at the men’s shelter at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Antonio G. Olivieri Drop-in Center for homeless women (both in Manhattan). Hall-Tompkins has also organized and performed Music Kitchen concerts at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen, the largest soup kitchen in New York City, serving 1200 meals everyday. Because of the venue, musicians play while the hungry come and go during the performances. As Hall-Tompkins says: “At any one time, I’m estimating that there are about 700-800 people who pass through listening to our concerts. It is terrific that we can share music with so many people…”

The shelter residents are asked to write down their thoughts about the concerts on index cards.

One person wrote: “I loved the singing. It was inspirational. And the singing keeps my hope and faith alive.”

Another wrote: “Please come back when you have the time.”

Yet another wrote: EVER SiNCE MY PARENTS passed, I can’t gEt my life together. BASKETball AND MUSIC has helped ME, but I still don’t KNOW where MY life is going. THANK YOU!

Importantly, The Music Kitchen serves not only those passing through the shelters, but also the musicians serving that population. As violist Brett Deubner said: “When we go there and play from our hearts, there’s a therapeutic back-and-forth for both the listener and performer. Both are being fed.”  Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist for the Berlin Philharmonic, said: “Music feeds our soul and I’d wish that there would be many more places like Music Kitchen where musicians can offer their art to people in need of comfort and encouragement and, in return, get a unique feeling of what it means to share the sensation of music.  The intense interaction of giving and receiving has been a very special experience for me and has moved me deeply.”

Aside from concerts being “delivered” to/for those at the shelters, there have been a few instances were homeless persons have participated. At one particular Music Kitchen concert, a program was performed by the Bach Vesper vocal soloists (singers who specialize in Renaissance and Baroque cantatas, motets, etc.). At this concert, Hall-Tompkins asked the audience if anyone had questions for the singers. The first question was “Can I sing, too?” As Hall-Tompkins states:

I often think to myself when people ask this: Is this going to work? Here was period (Renaissance/Baroque motets) music being sung in German. So, I thought: No way. This is not going to work. But I was wrong. And it really made me think that it doesn’t really matter what music it is, or what people’s prior experience has been, people gravitate towards all music. This young man, in his early 20s, did not have any prior “formal” experience with making music, and he certainly did not have any experience speaking German or reading music fluently, but he just looked over the director’s shoulder and did his best on one song, and sat down when finished. And he felt really good about himself. And satisfied. It was truly amazing that he felt so much a part of the concert experience that he had the desire to be even more connected to the music in this way.

In addition to this kind of participatory music making, Hall-Tompkins finds that music listening has a lasting, therapeutic component.

The mission of the Music Kitchen:

To bring top emerging and established professional musicians together in order to share the inspirational, therapeutic, and uplifting power of music with New York City’s disenfranchised homeless shelter population. I believe a shelter exists to provide not only physical but emotional and spiritual support to those who, for whatever reason, have lost the foundation of their homes and communities. I believe that music reaches the core of our being and can play a vital role in nourishing hope, love and strength, particularly when performed at an extremely high artistic level and in a friendly, relaxed setting.

More recently, the Music Kitchen has expanded its reach. It opened a new series in Los Angeles on December 4, 2014. The Los Angeles Branch of the Music Kitchen is presented in partnership with LAHSA, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.