You’ve probably heard the news: the Broadway cast of Hamilton, alerted that Vice President-elect Mike Pence was in the audience last Friday evening, decided to address him from the stage after the curtain call. Actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the show, took the mic and said to Pence, “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.” After Dixon finished his appeal, Pence, smiling, left the theater.
Donald Trump was not amused. Soon after the event, he tweeted that the actors had “harassed” Pence, and were “very rude and insulting.” He demanded an apology. And the New York Times reported that other supporters of Trump and Pence tweeted that the cast’s appeal was “a staged hit job,” that actors should “never humiliate a member of the audience.” Even Bruce Springsteen band member Steven Van Zandt tweeted that “You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage. A terrible precedent to set.”
Well, I think the Hamilton actors were right. And I think their call for tolerance and multi-culturalism should spur all artists — including theater-makers in the Tampa Bay area — to begin four years of Loyal Opposition to what is already threatening to become the most xenophobic U.S. administration in decades. Years from now, it should be clear that artists’ resistance to Trumpist hate began on November 18.
After all, the theater has a long history of political engagement. In the fifth century B.C.E., the playwright Aristophanes turned his opposition to an ongoing war into the play Lysistrata, in which Greek wives go on sex strike until their husbands stop fighting. Two thousand years later, Moliere’s Tartuffe protested religious interference in French society, and two hundred years after that, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House opposed the subjugation of women in the supposedly enlightened West. In the 20th century, political protest has turned up in everything from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In the new millennium, blacks and Jews, women and LGBT figures speak up for themselves on a thousand different stages. There are currently many U.S. theaters that only present plays devoted to the lives of minorities.
But what can local theater artists do? First, get upset, and now, not later. Trump has already shown the bent of his administration by appointing sexist, racist, anti-Semitic Steve Bannon as his senior adviser. To make matters worse, he’s nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General — Sessions, who was turned down for a federal judgeship because of his slew of racist statements — and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who called Islam a “cancer,” as National Security Advisor. So don’t wait for proof: The insanity has already started.
Next, our local artistic directors can look to their 2017-2018 seasons — at this moment in the planning stages — as opportunities to stand up for the tolerant, multicultural America that Trump and Pence want to quash. If ever there was a good time to program plays about the rights of African Americans, women, gays, Muslims, Latinos and all other threatened groups, this is it. A single play at a Bay area theater can reach thousands of audience members, can remind thousands of Americans that the values of Hamilton are the right values. To say it another way, what happened in the Sixties will have to recur: Society will have to challenge government. And local theaters can become the mouthpiece for “ordinary” society.
Years from now it should be clear that artists’ resistance to Trumpist hate began on November 18.
Finally, actors and directors, producers and designers, can make their voices heard through the many platforms, digital and otherwise, that mark our contemporary life. The fact is, people pay attention to artists and entertainers, look up to them, follow their guidance. Performers especially enjoy the admiration of the public, and can influence their fans with carefully chosen assertions. Now is the time for all good artists to come to the aid of their heritage.
So bravo! to the cast of Hamilton. And how apt that a play that puts Hispanics and blacks in the roles of America’s founders should be the first to make this revolution. It’s going to take four years of unremitting clamor to counter the Trump junta, but now the resistance has started, and on Broadway, of all places. Gracias, Señor Burr.