As Barack Obama enters the last year-and-a-half of his presidency, his visit to Broadway’s Hamilton reminds us of a couple of fascinating, if not encouraging, facts about the revolutionary nature of the arts and Obama’s unique relationship to it.
First off, the Obamas are a theatre-going bunch. Michelle Obama and her daughters have seen about eight shows, including last week’s Kinky Boots. Barack Obama has seen two previously: A Raisin In the Sun and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, both works by African-American playwrights. What president has seen this many Broadway shows while still serving in office? Certainly not Clinton, Bush, or Bush Dos. And I’m trying to recall if Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell ever smugly mentioned a president catching the matinee of A Funny Thing Happened… but my memory fails, and so does Google (link below if you know of any). But one presidential family seeing eleven shows in six years? And the president himself seeing three? Do most presidents ever see any theater besides whatever sanitized routine the Kennedy Center Honors team has set up?
Of course, presidents can’t just go around brushing up on this or next year’s Tony nominees, even if they really do want to see Sydney Lucas perform “Ring of Keys” live. This isn’t some comedian’s garage. This involves sitting in the middle of more than 1,000 other people, any of whom might want to re-enact John Wilkes Booth’s legacy. It also involves taking about three hours from a very busy schedule and like, I dunno, turn his cell phone off. If you thought it was hard for you, well… Besides, what to see? As a public figure, (and as someone whose name begins with ‘O’ and ends with ‘bama,’) our president’s every choice is analyzed as carrying symbolic or political significance. His prior choices were revivals of works by noted African-American playwrights. Now he’s at a new musical by a Puerto-Rican. Whether this analysis should or shouldn’t be going on, what I mean to say is that the decision by a president to see a Broadway show has to be a deliberate, important, and calculated one.
I won’t spend too much time discussing the merits and socially-charged ambitions of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (we already did that for you here). The focus of much of the discussion surrounding it has been the casting of black and Hispanic/Latino actors and the use of hip-hop, rap, R&B, and pop music to represent the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and an immigrant himself. It re-positions the American narrative into the hands and voices of the people who owned it all along: the oppressed, the refugees, the free-thinkers, the marginalized. It is also a huge move for race representation on Broadway, where it’s often difficult to find a non-white actor playing a supporting, let alone lead, role. The musical comes at a fraught time (although, to be honest, when isn’t it?) for race relations in America. It opened Off-Broadway at the Public amid the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in retaliation against police brutality. It began Broadway previews just last week, with the Charleston massacre and the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house.
It also comes at a unique time for President Obama. With no re-election to lose, it seems like Obama has become more interesting in abandoning silent bipartisanship as an approach on issues of race and trading his normal, often frustrating, diplomatic manner for stronger stances and action. His eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney ended with the president singing “Amazing Grace,” a gesture that helps remind us that the struggle for racial equality has far-reaching history and no single speech will mend its wounds. He has spoken with unprecedented candidness on his black identity and the dissociated state of blackness in America. Just a few days ago, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and told drug-offenders that he might have been in their place without luck and resources. He granted 46 low-level drug offenders their freedom.
The arts have always had a unique relationship to the state. In The Republic, Plato states that in the ideal society, poets should be banished, citing them as a threat to the “well-ordered State.” About two thousand years later, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” underscoring the essential role that the arts has in developing the public consciousness. The best art, in fact, challenges the status quo and introduces a new narrative, a new perspective, or new challenge into the way we imagine society. Hamilton is challenging the status quo in style and in content, on Broadway and in American History textbooks. The repercussions of it and of stories like it that have come before and will certainly come after shall hopefully be felt on the stage, in the arts, in the public, and hopefully one day in the state. But that will take years. It may happen in our lifetime. The fact that Barack Obama is paying attention RIGHT NOW? Now as he dedicates the remainder of his presidency to mending race relations in small yet significant ways? That’s not a coincidence.