I had chills from the first note to the last.
Last week I had the privilege of seeing the touring production of “Hamilton” that came to Richmond, and I count myself so fortunate for the experience.
For this viewer it was one part history refresher course, one part education about people I don’t remember beyond the basics from my school days, and all parts entertainment on a scale I can’t begin to describe.
As I thought back to what I had witnessed during intermission and then again while waiting to get out of a parking space in the parking garage (where this column first started taking shape), I wondered how to capture what seeing this unorthodox retelling of the life one of our Founding Fathers meant to me without it just seeming like a theater review.
I could easily talk about how marvelous it was to see the color-blind casting, listen to the amazing music, and witness the wonderful dancing. I could wax poetic about the choice of using the medium of a rap battle to represent Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton debating the formation of the country’s national bank. I could admit unashamedly that I was weeping soundlessly when Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton mourned the death of their son, who was mortally wounded in a duel – the same way his father would die less than three years later.
But while I love theater, seeing “Hamilton” was more than just lip syncing along to some of the catchiest music in recent musical theater history (though I did that, too).
For this viewer, it was a celebration of history and the way it is made. It is a remembrance of battles won and lost, ideas debated by great minds, and ideals fought for by brave men and women. It is an exploration of people we know – or think we know – and trying to translate them into a modern format we can better understand and appreciate.
Do I think it was 100 percent historically accurate? No idea. But it made me curious to learn more, and isn’t that the point?
For instance, I will admit my shortcomings in not being at all familiar with a young man named John Laurens, who hailed from South Carolina and was an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the American Revolution. Despite the fact that his father made the family fortune in the slave trade, Laurens was staunchly anti-slavery. Several biographical articles I found about him online (not Wikipedia) talked about his belief that he thought the republican principles the revolutionaries were fighting for were hypocritical if they continued to use slave labor.
During the revolution, Laurens went so far as to propose a regiment of enslaved people be recruited from the South and granted freedom after their military service was over. His plan was ultimately rejected by South Carolina and Georgia, but Laurens kept fighting for the revolution. When I heard he was killed in a skirmish with British forces at the Battle of Combahee River on August 27, 1782, it sounded so familiar.
So, during intermission, I looked it up, and, sure enough, it rang a bell for a reason. Recently I watched “Harriet,” a film that was shot partly in Powhatan County, based on the life of Harriet Tubman. One of Tubman’s greatest achievements was the Combahee Ferry Raid, in which she successfully led a force of Union troops to rescue more than 700 slaves working on nearby plantations. Thinking about the two, I like to think Laurens would have been cheering Tubman and the Union soldiers as they risked their lives to make sure others could live free.
All of that quick research sprang out of only a few minutes of the musical. The rest of it posed so many unanswered questions I want to learn more about.
But, the story didn’t just raise questions about the history of this nation. For me, this show also was a very real reminder that history is being written right now all around us. There are a few of them that popped into my head repeatedly during the show. Right now, only the fourth case of presidential impeachment inquiries in U.S. history is taking place. Across Virginia, including in Powhatan County, the very real debate about the Second Amendment and how it should be protected is only gaining momentum. And if you think the issues of immigration and figuring out America’s place on the world stage were complicated then, look at the issues we face now.
I started this column because of excitement about seeing a great show. I end it thinking about how relevant the issues those men debated and advocated and fought for still are today. It is a show about historical memory and the shaping of that narrative – including the influence we try to exact over the legacy we leave behind.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.