“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.

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Follow your bliss: it will lead you to the black pit of despair.
– Jeff Watkins, The Shakespeare Tavern

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i