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By Brian Keepers
This past Thursday I listened to talk by Jeremy McCarter as part of the January Series with Calvin College. I suspect many of you regular readers of The Twelve, especially those living in west Michigan, heard it too—perhaps even saw it live or via a satellite campus.
McCarter is a writer, director and producer. He is perhaps best known for co-authoring the New York Times best-selling book Hamilton: The Revolution with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the chief architect and star of the Tony Award winning musical sensation Hamilton.
A large part of McCarter’s talk focused on the unlikely story of how the musical Hamilton came to be and some of the key factors that have contributed to its surprising success and social impact.
Now I haven’t seen Hamilton, although I can’t tell you how badly I want to. This was true before hearing McCarter, but all the more now. So any spoilers that follow are accidental. One of the things that most struck me in McCarter’s presentation is the part where he talked about the ways in which the musical has not only sought to tell the story of revolution but has functioned itself as a vehicle of revolution.
While Lin-Manuel Miranda is the spark behind Hamilton and a creative genius on so many levels, McCarter acknowledges that Miranda couldn’t accomplish this all on his own. As with any play or musical, it needs people to perform it. The power is in the performance. “Hamilton had more of a punch than people anticipated,” McCarter said.
Why? Because of the cast of actors who performed it–a company of black and Latino performers. Suddenly you have a cast of incredibly talented actors who don’t look like what you expect when it comes to enacting the story of our nation’s founding. They don’t look like who you see in the history books or printed on our money. An African American playing George Washington, himself a slave owner? People of color playing the roles of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson? And one of the strongest protagonists in the story being a female (Angelica Schuyler)? What kind of history lesson is this?
McCarter recalled the moment when it all clicked into place. After weeks of hard work, rehearsing lines and learning choreography, the time came for the actors to do a dress rehearsal for a workshop in May 2014. This was the first time the actors came on stage in their costumes and performed the songs. McCarter described the visual: blacks and Latino’s dressed to play these parts, wearing the uniforms of the Continental Army. When the musical number ended, sounding out the refrain, “We won!”, “it was like a bomb went off.” “Here you had a bunch of people of color,” McCarter explained, “standing up and saying, ‘This is our country too. This is our story too.’”
The change that happened immediately and most profoundly, said McCarter, was the change that happened internally in the actors as they performed it. It began to change the way they felt about the story of America, especially parts of the story and characters with which they felt such disconnect. Now, getting to play those parts, and in a way that gave authentic expression to their own voice, seemed to bridge the chasm. Enacting the story of our country’s founding in a new way made them feel, for the first time, like this was their story too. Like there is room for them in this story.
It wasn’t just the actors of Hamilton who were awakened to this hope. It was also the bus loads of children and youth who came to see it (they were the first audience)—many of them from Title I schools who had never seen a Broadway show before. Many from families of immigrants. And now you have a new generation, seeing themselves in the story up on stage, beginning to think, “There’s room for me in this story too!”
“These actors,” said McCarter, “took this story and made it sing. Literally. It is ‘America now’ looking back at ‘America at its very start.’” This is a kind of history lesson that does history backwards. It tells the story from the present, which helps us face the ugly parts of the past without jettisoning it, and opens up new ways not only of understanding the past but of moving forward into a more hopeful future.
There is so much one could say about this, especially in this current political moment when, as I write this, there is a government shutdown as one of the central issues is immigration.
But here’s where I want to focus my reflection: McCarter also got me thinking about the biblical story, and the church’s story. Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the church is a theater of the gospel, and the calling of Christians in every time and place is to enact the biblical story as a local company of actors (the company of the baptized) to the glory of God and for the sake of the world.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to stay connected to our past, and the importance of tradition, but to not be bound by it. To enact the gospel here and now as a local theater (with the whole world in mind) means carrying the story forward, but in such a way that we’re making room for a company of actors who maybe don’t look like what the cast has always been. A company of actors who may help us look at our past in a fresh way.
I think about more and more gifted and called women who are finding that they have a role to play in this story.
I think about the growing number of people of color in my own small town, many who are part of the church I serve, who have a role to play in this story too.
I think about brothers and sisters from around the world who have taught me so much about God and God’s kingdom—Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank; children and youth in Bolivia and Nicaragua; pastors, teachers and community workers in places like Haiti, Uganda and India; the list could go on.
I think about a younger generation that is exiting the church at an alarming rate, but given the opportunity to be cast in this drama, may surprise us with a whole new way of seeing this story enacted that doesn’t cut itself off from the past but breathes with fresh wind for the future.
Here, then, is one of the questions I’m asking myself: Is there a place for “them” in the theater company, on the stage, with roles to play and lines to speak and a new song to sing? Will those of us who’ve been cast in the lead roles for so long (and I’m thinking especially of white men like myself), allow others to be cast in these roles and help us enact the story anew?
I suspect if we can make room, not only will we see the Spirit’s ongoing renewal in the hearts and minds of a new cast of characters who discover “This is my story too,” but the Spirit will empower them—and all of us together– to make this story sing. And we will all be better for it. The world will be better for it.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.