Alexander Hamilton, Brandon Dixon, Donald Trump, Fourth Wall, Hamilton The Musical, Mike Pence, Reese Waters, Sanctuary Cities, St. Patrick's Day, Steven Van Zant, Tendentious Art, The E-Street Band, Thomas Jefferson
An incident at the curtain call of Friday night’s performance of Hamilton, The Musical in New York has attracted more attention than it deserves, or perhaps it’s attracted attention for the wrong reasons. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence attended the show, and the word spread to the cast. One of the actors, Brandon Dixon, read a message to Pence from the stage which had been written by the show’s producers. By that time, Pence’s Secret Service detail was ushering him out of The Richard Rogers Theater, apparently the usual protocol, but one of the producers said Pence stopped to listen. Here is the message that Dixon read, according to this Twitter link:
“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening — Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out but I hope you hear just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo, ladies and gentlemen, There’s nothing to boo. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir, we hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everyone to pull out you phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide.
Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
Thank you truly for seeing this show. this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds and orientations.“
Donald Trump overreacted to the situation, tweeting that Dixon and the cast should apologize to Pence. This is typical Trump, making a bigger story of something that could have passed with less controversy. Pence, left to his own devices, would have let it pass. He said later that he was not offended. And I’m sure the cast of Hamilton was under no illusion that Pence would accept their advice on anything.
Dixon’s message itself was respectful, more or less, though it was not “a conversation”, as he later claimed. It was a lecture. It seemed designed to show Pence up, but Pence listened politely. Less “respectful” were audience members who greeted Pence with boos as he entered the theater (there were cheers as well), and when Dixon mentioned his name at the curtain call. At least Dixon admonished them. However, there are reports, which I’ve been unable to confirm, that some of the show’s actors directed their lines at Pence. If true, such a confrontational delivery broke the “fourth wall” for purposes that do not elevate the show. On something of a light note, someone suggested that the incident might prompt Trump to build a “fourth wall”. Heh! No, Dixon’s lecture did not break the fourth wall — he read the statement after the show had ended.
Some artists thought the Hamilton cast went too far. Here is Steven Van Zant, guitarist for The E-Street Band and an avowed progressive who, for what it’s worth, happens to agree with Trump that the cast should apologize to Pence:
“When artists perform the venue becomes your home. The audience are your guests. It is nothing short of the same bullying tactic we rightly have criticized Trump for in the past. It’s taking unfair advantage of someone who thought they were a protected guest in your home. You don’t single out an audience member and embarrass him from the stage. [This was] a terrible precedent to set.“
I have a number of friends and acquaintances in my city’s theatre community. Their opinion is divided, but a clear majority are defending the cast of Hamilton. They stress that theatre has always been a vehicle for social commentary and social change. There is certainly an extent to which that’s true, and Hamilton is nothing if not a social statement. Of course, the lecture was not part of the show, but for what it’s worth, my view is that such commentary is more successful as art, and more likely to provoke sincere thought, when it is weaved into the art or story in subtle ways. I also believe that approach is truer to the history of theatrical social commentary. Personally, I don’t like tendentious art, and I’ve always felt that artists who make their political views too explicit cheapen their work. But that’s just me. One theatre friend thought that Dixon (and the producers) had crossed a line, using the curtain call to get on a soapbox to instruct a single member of the audience as to the proper interpretation of the art he had just witnessed.
Another theatre friend commented that theater should educate, entertain and edify, a view that probably gives the average playwright credit for more knowledge than they deserve. As it happens, there are several historical distortions in the book of Hamilton, which I covered in this post on Sacred Cow Chips about five months ago. While the show is a smashing success as entertainment, it contains some unadulterated propaganda about Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, the meaning of the Constitution, and certain events that took place around the time of our nation’s founding. It is a failure at educating.
Incidentally, Brandon Dixon is not quite the virtuous SJW that many would have us believe. His Twitter history shows a rather aggressive attitude toward women, and white women in particular:
“St. Patty’s day weekend is like Christmas for black dudes who like white chicks. Happy holidays boys.
Evidentally, Brandon fancies himself quite the stallion, a sure sign of his deep respect for women.
The incident at The Richard Rogers is most interesting to me because it reveals an irony: the extent to which the writer, producers and actors of Hamilton lack an understanding of our system of government and individual rights. The president (and especially the vice president) do not hold the power to strip individuals of their rights. Granted, the GOP will have a slight majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court, but that does not mean that Trump will be unrestrained. The divisions of power and the constitutional checks and balances promulgated by the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton will serve to protect the rights of diverse Americans. And in two years, control of either the Senate or the House of Representatives might swing back to Democrats.
The Hamilton cast has an insufficient grasp of another fact: one person’s constitutional rights can come into conflict with the rights of others. If they so infringe, it is not enough to assert that you must have the freedom to exercise your rights. You can try, but these are matters for the courts to decide, and those decisions usually hinge on possible accommodations and whether the government has a “compelling interest” in protecting one right at the expense of another.
One other note to the Hamilton cast: while illegal immigrants share in many of the individual rights protected under the Constitution, they do not share fully in all of those rights. In particular, Trump might not need congressional support or help from the courts to enforce existing immigration law. If it’s any reassurance, he seems to have moderated his position on illegals, focusing his rhetoric on “sanctuary cities” and illegals having criminal records.
Perhaps the “elite” Broadway theatre kids of Hamilton can be forgiven if they have the wrong impression about executive power after watching Barack Obama over the last eight years. Hamilton would not have approved. Thankfully, what can be done with “a pen and a phone” can probably be undone with “a pen and a phone”. Now get back out there and have fun, kids!