“He struggled and kept his guard up”: Hamilton in the Big House

Apr 1, 2016   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook

Sing Sing

“I am the one thing in life I can control.

I am inimitable,

I am an original.

Life doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep living anyway

We rise and we fall and we break

And we make our mistakes.”

I work with a group of men who aren’t used to seeing themselves in the narrative, unless it’s as the villain; maybe not in your history book, but in a few newspaper articles a few years back and in the hearts of their victim’s families. These men understand that much of America thinks they are monsters who deserve to be locked in cages. They are the bastard, orphan sons of … every kind of women you can imagine; they are also beloved sons and husbands in close families who come to see them in the visiting room at the prison every week. Maybe they’ve been “livin’ without a family since I was a child. My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild.” Many of them know all about impoverished, in squalor, and fathers who split. A few of them are in college, working on being scholars.

People look at them like they’re stupid; they’re not stupid.

Because our criminal justice system has silenced them, I will be so bold as to tell (a little piece of) their story.

We make plays together, hidden away behind the razor wire and the 18 ft. high walls. We rediscover vulnerability and human connection underneath faces masked for survival and inside guarded, broken hearts. We perform for the incarcerated population (please, not one more joke about the ‘captive audience’) and for a few hundred civilian guests.  We’re less than a month away from this year’s production, which is Twelfth Night. We’re telling a story about losing a brother, about heartbreak, about discovering what it’s safe to reveal and what one has to conceal in a strange and possibly dangerous new place. We’re telling a story about not knowing when the joke has gone too far and the consequences of that, a story about wrongful incarceration. We’re telling a story about recovering what one thought was lost forever.

I’ve written before about how theatre can teach trust, empathy, compassion, peaceful conflict resolution, deeper cognitive thinking, delayed gratification, create community and understanding.  The men in Rehabilitation Through the Arts have far fewer disciplinary infractions inside the facility and a dramatically lower recidivism rate upon release than the general population.

I often wish I could take the guys to the theatre. You may be able to imagine that a fair number of these men had no access to the arts as children. (That’s a separate post.) We make do with production photos and the occasional “adapted for television.” Until the cast of Hamilton beautifully and powerfully performed their opening number from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the Grammy ceremony, and then performed at the White House. Until Lin-Manuel Miranda free-styled in the Rose Garden with President Obama. Which I promptly burned onto a DVD and waited for clearance to bring into the facility.

Tonight we watched Lin-Manuel perform a piece from his ‘concept album’ at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam, and we talked about how that audience received his work. We talked about what happens when people laugh and you’re serious, about the decision to stand one’s ground and follow one’s purpose, which is a hot topic in our rehearsal room as we get closer to sharing our months of work with the population of the prison. “He gets more confident as he goes.” Some of the men are worried that the population won’t understand Shakespeare; some are worried that they will laugh at the serious parts. Tonight, one of the elders in our circle says, “We have to tell the story.”

We watch a Broadway show in the Big House. Well, four minutes of it. We watch the Grammy performance of “Alexander Hamilton.” Heads nod to the beat; some of the men snap along. “Can we watch it again?” We can.

We talk about how Hamilton is performed on a bare stage, just like we’ll perform Twelfth Night. “No one laughed when he said his name this time.” We talk about how Miranda uses language, leverages rhetoric to find each character’s voice, just as Shakespeare did. We talk about working for six years on something you believe in, and we speculated about the long, uncertain nights somewhere in the middle of year three, year four. The men know more than the rest of us can imagine about long, uncertain nights in the middle of a very long bid to survive. I attempt to describe the beautiful specificity of the physical and vocal choices that Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, and Anthony Ramos make to differentiate Lafayette from Jefferson, Mulligan from Madison, Laurens from Philip Hamilton; we’ve been working on character walks.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda

We watch the cast perform “My Shot” at the White House; we woop. We joyfully behold the son of Puerto Rican parents and the first African American President freestyle in the Rose Garden. We cheer. (One or two of us might tear up, but we don’t need to discuss that.)

These gorgeous, thoughtful, wounded men rarely see themselves represented in the world. As they fight to become the men they want to be, they still mostly see themselves in the narrative as junkies, dealers, thugs or the latest Black man brutally gunned down in the streets by the police. According to an Opportunity Agenda study, “negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men.” (Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?) But tonight, in the midst of our shared creative endeavor, they saw themselves smack in the center of the narrative of creation, possibility, pursuit, and achievement.

Representation unabashedly made me weep tonight as I watched a few of the men lean in.

Representation matters.

Representation is beautiful.

And I am not willing to wait for it.

  • Jeanne Marie Olson

    http://youtu.be/pqGGmfDZsWU I loved this article about your work with the incarcerated and wanted to share this with you from a public high school in Chicago. Hoping they see themselves represented in this beautiful interpretation of Musicality’s “Wait for It” from Hamilton.

  • Kimberly Russell

    An amazing story

  • Martha Spong

    Thank you for your work, and thank you for telling this story.

  • mx

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it.

  • gcatherinev

    thank you for writing this. it was so good to hear about.

  • Angela Hager

    I don’t know if you know this, but Lin-Manuel Miranda just shared this post on his Facebook page. And I’m glad he did. You do amazing work and I truly hope that you and the inmates are proud of all you’re accomplishing. Break a leg!

  • Stephen Van Gorden

    Such a beautiful article – if a wonderful thing you are doing. If our society caould fllow some of the lessons you are teaching we would have a less hateful society.

  • Xanny

    Beautiful article. One small correction: Lin-Manuel’s parents are from Puerto Rico, so they’re not immigrants. It’s an important distinction right now, when Puerto Rico is fighting for its life in Congress.

  • Susie

    This is beautiful. Thank you for what you do.

  • Kate Powers

    Thank you for the clarification; I’ll correct that.

  • Jackie Burhans

    They are SO good! I’m moved.

  • Robin Caracino

    What you are doing is so important and so meaningful, thank you for sharing it with us. (I particularly love that Lin-Manuel also shared this, he and you are obviously like-minded.) What a perfect place to share Hamilton’s story. Genius work, beautifully shared!

  • Shannon Langhorne

    What a great story and experience. Thank you for your sharing the Hamilton story with these men. I hope it encourages them to learn from their mistakes and if/when they get out of prison, they can tell their story and inspires others to restart a better life. This play has definitely given me inspiration to go back to theatre and acting.

  • Kate Powers

    Thank you!

  • plainkate

    Thank you for that clarification: I corrected it. 🙂

  • plainkate

    More than 97% of the people we incarcerate will eventually come home. My program is about teaching life skills through theatre, and the men who participate in it have a dramatically lower recidivism rate upon release than the general population. It’s an honor to be in the room when an individual suddenly sees the world more expansively than he ever has before.

  • plainkate

    Thank you so much, Angela! I know now; my feed is blowing up in the most delightful way.

  • kf

    very powerful

  • Chris

    Beautiful. Moved me to tears.

  • Susan Githens Cable

    The room where it happened. 🙂 You’re doing a great job.

  • Caryn O’Connor

    I was enthralled as soon as the first young man started to sing, and I couldn’t stop. Beautiful performance from all. Thank you for sharing.

  • Cat L.


  • Melissa

    Thank you for giving us a window into the lives of these men, Kate. That’s just as important as the beautiful and redemptive work you’re engaging in with them. How amazing that you were able to share Hamilton with them! Excellent.

  • Diane

    Kate, this is a powerful and beautiful post! Congrats on the exposure it and your program got through Miranda’s sharing it. So happy for you and your guys. Love your words, your deeds, your work!

  • Nicole Chase


  • Thank you so much! For this, the work you do and those who step up to work with you!

  • Roma

    I immediately shivered when he started singing. Amazing.

  • TAM

    Does the prison you work at allow hardback books? If so, I would be interested in buying a few copies of the Hamilton staging book (not sure what to properly call it) for the library.

  • C. Bour

    Hi Kate,
    This is great stuff. I wanted to get in touch to let you know that others are doing similar work. I run a creative writing workshop in a max security men’s prison in CT. Our theatre teacher recently produced an event that featured the inmates performing two songs from “Hamilton.” They were so inspired during rehearsals that they created their own play featuring historical figures speaking in “rap verse.” Titled “Crossed Swords,” it depicted debates between WEB DuBois & Booker T Washington, as well as John Brown & Frederick Douglass. It would be great to get you in touch with Mark Aldrich, who is the prison theatre director. My email is chrisbelden124(at)gmail(dot)com. Thanks, & keep up the great work!
    Chris B.

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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
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