Who Tells Your Story?

After a tragedy, my self-care looks a lot like looking the other way. After the day I had on Sunday, it looked like a few hours of work, and then live tweeting the Tony Awards using #powerbottomstweetthetonys. It was three and a half hours of pregnant ladies tap dancing, casts doing full musical numbers in their evening wear, a host that changed suits at least six times, and truly earnest and emotional speeches. This year’s award show was deeply healing for me. I needed the Tony Awards.

The big highlight of this year’s awards ceremony was, of course, Hamilton. The musical, if you haven’t heard of it, is about Alexander Hamilton, a founding father, and can be summed up in the first sentence of the show. “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to cast the parts of American revolutionaries and founding fathers as people of color. The only white people in the show are a few in the chorus, and the British—the bad guys.

What Miranda does that is so powerful in Hamilton isn’t that he changes what the story was—it’s fairly accurate, and based off a biography by Ron Chernow— it’s that he changes how the story is told. The thing about theatre is that in its most pure, honest, utopian state, theatre really is the great equalizer. It’s supposed to be the place where the only thing that matters is your dedication to the craft and your talent. But the American theatre is a spinoff of America itself, and it is not a place of endless possibilities for most people. Hamilton brings us just a little closer. I think as queer folks, Hamilton has been so important because it reminds us that our stories are everywhere, and we can tell them however we want.

By placing actors of color in all the most important roles in the musical, Miranda shows us that the story of America doesn’t only belong to white men. And I saw that so much watching the Tony Awards this year. I saw it and felt it in more ways than I have in a while, and it made me hopeful. Shuffle Along, another nominated show, had an almost all Black cast. The revival of Spring Awakening starred deaf actors and included an actor in a wheelchair. Marlee Matlin introduced the cast’s performance using ASL, and her introduction was translated for hearing audiences. So often, it’s done the other way around. Cynthia Erivo won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Celie in the revival of The Color Purple. Every single category for performance in a musical went to a Black person. So many of the people and shows honored tonight were not voices that we hear from. It felt good to be heard.

This year’s awards felt so good to watch as a Black person, a queer person, and a theatre artist. It felt like the theatre was finally listening to the voices that were being ignored. I think the theatre is full of possibilities, it’s full of room for any and everyone’s stories to be told. This year’s Tony Awards reminded me that there was room for my stories to be told and that they would be celebrated. Last year, when Fun Home was winning everything, I think we got a peek into what our theatrical future could be.

Now, more than ever, in the climate we’re in, our stories need to be told. And our stories include loving, joy, revolution, dancing, crying, raging, surviving, and so, so much more. We have so much to tell, and it’s so important that we do. Miranda wrote a sonnet as his acceptance speech for Best Score. He summed up why the Tony Awards felt so important this year, and what to do with these voices and these stories that need to be heard.

…We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.
Let’s go make some magic!

Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Al(aina) has written 257 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Before Hamilton, I was a theatre major who was ready to give up on theatre as an art form. We have a million ways to consume narratives these days – who needs theatre when you have a laptop screen? And everyone always said, “yes, but theatre is about ~live bodies~ in space,” which wasn’t a convincing argument to me until Hamilton, where the actors are actually rewriting the meaning that their bodies have historically taken up in theatrical space through the rich, multi-dimensional roles they play. I was skeptical that theatre was dead, but this year’s Tony Awards proved that theatre is totally progressive, relevant, full of possibility.

    • YES. The reason theatre is ‘dying’ is because as a genre it’s refusing to do this. Those with the purse strings overwhelmingly insist on telling us the same stories that are told in every other medium, mostly targeting them to wealthy aging white audiences, and then wondering why their shows are lifeless and their seats empty.

      In Chicago and we had a production called ‘Hit the Wall’ a few years back about Stonewall. It breathed life into the story before my eyes, showed me more perspectives on it than there were people in the show, and touched my soul. Its budget was next to nothing, its actors had never been on our city’s biggest stages, but the show’s creators had a story to share and their show exploded into the hottest ticket in the city. THIS is what we need from theatre. Here’s hoping Hamilton provides more inspiration for it.

      Thanks for writing this, Alaina. It’s awesome. <3

  2. I shut myself in with a pizza and some tacos and watched the Tony’s as self-care after a day of grieving and it was the best reprieve. You sum it up so well, Alaina! We have so many stories to tell. There is so much more to be created and I feel like we’re standing at the precipice of great works to come.

  3. The Tony’s made me so so so happy this year. And I totally agree with what everyone is saying about theater being revitalized by shows like Hamilton.

    This comment is probably gonna be a run on and sort of a train wreck and I apologize in advance, I keep typing and backspacing and trying to find a way to make it flow better but I can’t so I’m just going for it?

    Just. REPRESENTATION MATTERS. It matters so much. And because I love the theater, I care about representation on stage. And because I’m a queer woman, I care about the representation of queer women on stage. (In case you were wondering, it’s not great – I actually just wrote a paper on this and so many of the “Top [insert number] LGBT plays/musicals” lists I found were 80-90% white gay cis men, I wanted to scream.) Like, queer women’s stories are what I personally feel qualified to tell on stage, but it also makes me SO SO HAPPY to see so much racial diversity on stage. Especially on the Tony’s!!

    And representation MATTERS. Like, I feel like I say/think it so much that it sounds trite, but it’s true. For soooo many reasons that I can’t even think to articulate them all but it does! Just imagine what a difference it would make if we had a whole generation of people who had grown up consuming media which had interesting and nuanced portrayals of characters of different genders, races, sexualities, religions, etc. The difference it would make if our media actually reflected the make up of the society that consumes it. Such a huge difference! Especially in cases where someone may not know a lot of people from a specific group in their real life, and is going to be learning about them and making assumptions about them based off of what they see in the media.

    I’ve just been thinking a lot about what I want to ~do~ with my life, and part of me feels like I need to do something Important but I just don’t know if that’s for me, but I also feel like representation can be an Important Issue and I kind of just want to devote my career to increasing representation on stage because I feel like it would be worth it. Like I have no idea at all how I’d go about doing that but I really really want to.

    That was long but basically I just really really hope that shows like Hamilton and Fun Home inspire more people to create theater that tells different stories than the ones we’ve been hearing for decades. (How could you not be inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda, he’s always so proud of his cast mates, all of the shots of him in the audience last night were so good). And also I hope that the fiscal success of Hamilton shows that audiences want to hear these stories and inspires more producers etc. to put them on and give them the funding they need to reach a wide audience.

    • YES! I make theater because I think storytelling is one of the best ways for us to really sit down and listen to other people’s experiences. It makes it super hard to be an asshole when you feel trusted with – and connected to – another person’s story. Also, do you know about howlround.com? I feel like that’s a great place to explore if you’re passionate about representation onstage!

  4. I absolutely agree with all of this – Hamilton has been an extremely powerful force in my own life. But what I don’t get is, if Hamilton is supposed to be telling the stories of our forefathers, but told by a group of people who represent us today, and thus the case is extremely diverse … where are the women? Why couldn’t Washington be a black woman? Why couldn’t Angelica be a man? Why play with race/ethnicity and not sex? Today, women are leaders – why are we not reflected in the leaders of the revolution?

  5. I went to work today like “yep, got this. all fine” and came home and crashed with Oreo Ice Cream and a promise to myself to work form home for a few days because in the past month I’ve learned entirely too many people I know are “I’m totally not homophobic but…” and now thats just become a minor shade to Orlando.

    I am going to have to watch the Tony Awards now–because of this write up + the bits I’ve seen on tumblr. Sounds like a really great show and a wonderful way to see some great productions (and people!) get acknowledged.

  6. I don’t even really follow theater, but I ended up watching the Tony Awards and being inspired by so many people of color and so many fresh takes on art and it was exactly what I needed.

    I now need to see Hamilton and also Waitress.

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