The SHN Orpheum Theatre was poppin’ this past Wednesday, to say the least. The theater was filled with students who sang along to “The Hamilton Mixtape,” danced in the aisles and broke out in thunderous applause before anyone even graced the stage. When a few students walked onstage for simple microphone checks, the crowd went wild. Those onstage joyously lingered and danced on Hamilton’s newly iconic turntable, or called out to their friends in the audience. This atmospheric excitement swelled when the house lights finally went down, for full day of Hamilton programming had just begun.
2,100 students from Title One high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area convened at SHN Orpheum Theatre on April 3 to participate in the Hamilton Education Program. Coined as #EduHam, the program invites students to showcase original performance pieces onstage, engage in a question and answer panel with “Hamilton” company members and see a subsidized performance of “Hamilton” for $10 per seat. The same event occurred on March 27 with a different amalgam of Title One schools.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Hamilton” roused Broadway in 2015. The musical centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton, and traverses the American revolutionary period through the dawn of the 19th century. The production notably casts people of color as White historical figures and blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B and Broadway musical styles, commenting on America’s history through a modern, musical lens. The first national tour of “Hamilton” debuted at SHN Orpheum Theatre in 2017, and has now returned with a new cast until Sept. 8.
The Hamilton Education Program is offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The program debuted on Broadway, but has since expanded to satellite “Hamilton” productions across the country. The Institute’s president, James G. Basker, devised the program alongside “Hamilton”’s creator and producer, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeffrey Seller respectively.
“‘Hamilton’ has struck a chord with our nation’s students because it embodies what great history education is all about — bringing the past to life and fostering connections with the exceptional individuals and moments that have made us who we are,” Basker said. “This program empowers students to reclaim their own narrative and teachers to bridge classroom learning with the stage.”
This bridge between the classroom and theater is constructed through a multi-week curriculum focused on Alexander Hamilton, which participating schools follow before seeing “Hamilton.” Students use this curriculum to better understand the musical’s historical context and create their own historically-based performance pieces. During the April 3 event at SHN Orpheum Theatre, 25 Bay Area high school students claimed center stage to perform 14 of these historically inspired original works, including songs, rap, poetry, scenes and monologues. Performances ranged from comedic to touching, fiery to solemn.
A comedic highlight of the afternoon was a Paul Revere parody of Ariana Grande’s recent hit song, ‘7 Rings,’ performed by Zara Edwards of Aspire Langston Hughes Academy. In her piece, Edwards replaced Grande’s original lyrics with, “whoever said riding can’t solve your problems must not have done enough riding to solve ‘em. They say give up I say nah I want freedom,” and received avid cheers from the audience in return.
Edwards’s performance was beautifully contrasted by a feminist ballad written from Abigail Adams’s perspective and performed by California Connections Academy student Coral Smith. Smith’s strong musical theater vocals supported her lyrics, which state, “I write to John, remember the ladies and soon we should abolish slavery … Behind the scenes, Abigail pulling the strings.”
Smith said the #EduHam curriculum revitalized her investment in her education, and provided her with the space to claim greater agency over her own learning. “I used to love school when I was younger, but the social part of high school kind of killed it for me. Doing this gave me a chance to learn about something in a way that worked for me,” Smith said. “Because I’m a performer and I’m an actress, it’s best for me to write songs about things that are interesting to me. What brought in my attention and made me love school again was doing this the way that I could.”
Perhaps the most stirring performance of the afternoon was Isha Clarke’s spoken word poem, which commented on the Founding Fathers’ relationship to slavery. Clarke, a MetWest High School student who went viral after asking Senator Feinstein to support the Green New Deal resolution, wrote her piece in the form of a letter to the Founding Fathers.
“This is a letter to the founders, the ones who drew the blueprint for democracy on the scarred backs of my ancestors,” Clarke performed. “When we reached the shores we heard strange tongues that spoke the sound freedom. Never would we know that word on this land. I wonder if my ancestors cry knowing that I still don’t know.” Her emotionally dynamic and confident performance received routine snaps and cheers from the audience. And Clarke received the most audible feedback when directly addressing the Founding Fathers. “All this pain in the name of freedom, who is it really free? Founding Fathers this is really what you should be remembered for,” Clarke continued. “Not for we the people because who are you actually speaking for?”
Clarke hopes her fellow students in the audience are inspired by her words and decide to work toward systemic and institutional change. “We tell dark parts of history not to immobilize us, but to make sure it never happens again. We need to create a future where diversity is really the top priority … that’s what I want my piece to get people to do,” Clarke said.
Immediately following the student performances, eight “Hamilton” company members responded to pre-written audience questions during a question and answer session. The panel was mostly comprised of “Hamilton” cast members, including recent University of Michigan musical theater graduate Simon Longnight (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Broadway veteran and Puerto Rican native Rick Negron (King George III), and Darilyn Castillo (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds).
Most responses were gilded with advice, including Castillo’s commentary on handling rejection.
“I never viewed [rejection] as a failure, I always read it as a lesson learned,” Castillo said. “There are things that are going to be right for you and there are things that are not going to be right for you… I love seeing my friends win. When you see somebody else win, you win because you learn something.”
When asked what lessons should be garnered from studying Alexander Hamilton’s story, Longnight chose to highlight both Hamilton and Miranda’s focus on forging a legacy. “Hamilton’ is a story of a man who decided to make his legacy last,” Longnight said. “Legacy is an interesting thing because it can be positive or negative and it is something we all have the power to define.”
Similar to Longnight’s focus on an individual’s ability to impact a society or culture, Negron optimistically encouraged students to mobilize for a better future. “We might be going through troubled times in our government but remember the troubled times always bring about change,” Negron said. “Troubled times for Hamilton early in his life brought about change and brought about better things … You’re learning lessons now about what’s wrong with our country and what’s not working, lessons you will implement when helping us move this country forward.”
Six more EduHam performance days are planned in San Francisco for the 2019-2020 school year. Title One schools can apply to participate in the #EduHam program at gilderlehrman.org/hamilton.
Those not affiliated with Title One schools also have a chance to receive $10 Hamilton tickets through SHN’s #Ham4Ham digital lottery at hamiltonmusical.com/lottery. For tickets and additional information, visit hamilton.shnsf.com.