Hamilton

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I’ve finally seen it. After months and months of hearing and reading all the hype about the theater sensation of the new millennium, I finally went to see Hamilton.

My husband had surprised me on Mother’s Day with tickets to the play at Chicago’s Private Bank Theater. Our seats were fantastic – dead center and so close I could see the actors spit. My hubby took a photo of me with the stage as a backdrop and sent it to our kids with the quip: “Mom in the third row center for Hamilton: What a waste!”

See, I had been somewhat indifferent to the frenzy that had surrounded the opening of Hamilton. For one thing, the subject matter did not really interest me. A play about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of our less vaunted Founding Fathers? Yawn. I also was not sure about the rap and hip hop infused nature of the music. I love all the traditional old musicals, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc. So I didn’t think I would enjoy a more modern twist.

Furthermore, people’s insistence that I just had to see the play, that it was the greatest thing ever, made me stubborn about not wanting to join the bandwagon. With so much hype, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying it to the level at which everyone seemed to regard it. Indeed, as the play opened, the audience roared with expectation, and I wondered whether they were just responding to the hype or had already spent thousands of dollars on repeat viewings of the pricey play.

I really enjoyed the play. I found the music and lyrics creative and fun, at turns funny and plaintive. The choreography and the characters, the costumes, the comic appearances of a snarky King George: all were well done. And I loved that the closing number was an emotional and subdued one rather than the bombastic, glittery finales of most Broadway musicals.

Yet I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the best musical I have ever seen. While I got the gist of the theme as being about an improbable hero, I found the story less than compelling. I realize that the author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was working within the limits of real history. And I did appreciate the underlying messages of inclusion and of fighting for one’s ideals – particularly in the current political climate that exists in the U.S.

I think my enjoyment was hampered in part by all the hype. The way the audience reacted to certain characters appearing on the stage was over the top. It was as if they were all in on a joke to which I wasn’t privy. I felt more like I was at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than at a Broadway musical. And the underlying insistence from everyone I knew that I just had to love it put me off a bit.

Still, I’m glad I was able to see the musical sensation of a generation. I have no doubt that in many ways, Lin-Manuel has opened the genre of the Broadway musical to further invention and creativity. Perhaps he will also be responsible for keeping the genre alive for the millennials coming of age in the next decades.

Have you seen Hamilton? I’d love to know what you think.

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Disgraced

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Who are we beyond our race and religion? What is the cost of rejecting our cultural and religious heritage? Is admiration for another culture actually appropriation? Of whom should we be afraid? Does treating people like terrorists radicalize them?

These are some of the penetrating questions asked by Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced. Set in a post 9/11 New York, the drama revolves around Pakistani immigrant Amir, who has disavowed his Muslim background and become a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a powerful firm. When his idealistic Caucasian wife asks him to get involved in the case of a local imam accused of funding terrorism, things unravel for the couple, their relatives, and friends.

While Disgraced gives no easy answers, the play implies that our hatreds and prejudices lurk uneasily just under the surface of our politically correct veneer. As the couple and their two colleagues/friends, also a married couple, converge at a dinner party, alcohol loosens tongues and inhibitions, and things go horribly awry.

Akhtar has also written an interesting novel titled American Dervish that explores a young Muslim boy’s coming of age and wrestling with the expectations of his parents, his insular Pakistani community, and the deeply held faith of a beloved family friend. The difficulty of being a “hyphenated” American and the temptation to erase one’s ethnicity seem to be themes in Akhtar’s work.

Successive generations of Americans have struggled with this tension between assimilation and appreciation for one’s cultural heritage. In the play, a character has changed his name to one that sounds less “Muslim.” A similar phenomenon occurred during World War II when Jewish and German Americans hid their backgrounds by Americanizing their names. In today’s society, blacks are often criticized for naming their children unique and colorful names, some of which reflect their African roots, and most of which reflect pride in a black culture that grew up alongside mainstream white culture in the United States.

There is a human tendency to categorize people – by race, religion, ethnicity, social class. We ask the seemingly innocent question, “What kind of name is that?” or “Where are you from?” to someone who seems different from ourselves. We hold in our minds the stereotypes that go along with a given group. Taken too far, we assume the worst of someone whose race or religion are very different from our own. And we act, often in destructive ways, towards those we don’t understand and so fear.

Disgraced is 80 minutes of heart-pounding tension and a sense of unease. The audience is taken out of its comfort zone and asked to examine its own prejudices and fervently held beliefs. It is not an easy play to watch, yet the issues it brings up are absolutely essential for Americans to consider in the current age of globalization and worldwide unrest.