Theatre as a Safe Space

It’s 2016 and news is traveling incredibly fast. In the wake of the presidential election, it’s hard to keep track of every political issue or scandal being buzzed about by the media. But, there’s one news story that has definitely kept my attention. A few weeks ago, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton the Musical—you know, the mega-popular musical that seems eternally sold-out. To me, just knowing that Pence attended a performance of Hamilton would have been news enough, considering some of his positions. But, what actually made this story news was what happened once the VP-Elect arrived at the theater.

When fellow audience members realized Pence was in attendance, he was met by a chorus of boos. During curtain call, the Hamilton cast spoke to Pence directly. Led by cast member Brandon Dixon (who currently plays the role of Aaron Burr), the cast called on Pence to regard them and their interests. What Dixon said was recorded, and you can watch it here (ignore the all-caps title) on YouTube.

In his speech, Dixon stressed the cast’s fears about the new administration not protecting diverse Americans like them. Dixon also addressed the show itself, saying he hoped that it inspired Pence to protect all American values. This seems a logical conversation to have, given the themes of Hamilton. It is a show that tells part of America’s founding history through a predominantly non-white cast. Not to mention, Hamilton addresses immigration issues directly by acknowledging that Alexander Hamilton, himself, was an immigrant.

However, President-elect Trump later took to Twitter to call this a case of harassment. He further argued, “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” In response, Brandon Dixon tweeted to Trump that “conversation is not harassment.” I agree with Brandon.

But what can we take away from the incident and the country’s response? While Pence later said he was not “offended” by the cast’s comments, the response of many Americans was less than favorable. Some Americans called for a boycott, which would never work considering the show is already sold out until mid-2017. Many others seemed to have misunderstood what the cast was trying to make clear in the first place. By addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ (that is, Pence’s presence at the performance) through calm, restrained speech, Dixon and the rest of Hamilton cast were being anything but rude.

Though they addressed Pence outside of the show itself, the Hamilton cast wasn’t ‘rude’ to do so. They were taking the themes the show Hamilton already presents, and more directly connecting them to their audience.

One problem here might be that people expect the theater to be a “safe and special place” in the sense that it should be a place lacking politics or dissenting opinions. But, that couldn’t be further from the reality. Art has long been political and theater, especially, has long been political. Even older musicals like The Sound of Music have a political agenda, though, to a modern viewer, it might not seem that way. But, when you deal with real-world events in an artwork, things are bound to become political. Even in a fantasy piece, themes emerge that have their roots in the real-world. There is no separation of art and politics and there never has been.

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