by Timothy Yu
Mike Pence went to see Hamilton. He got booed. The actors read a statement from the stage. And our president-elect tweeted a demand that the cast apologize for their “harassment.” Just another day in the dawning Trump Era.
There was plenty to say. Some pointed out the irony of Donald Trump, scourge of political correctness, complaining that the theater should be a “safe place.” Others pointed to the chilling precedent of our incoming president demanding that artists apologize to an elected official. But what most surprised me was seeing some of my friends — many of whom are themselves artists, writers, literary scholars — repeating the argument that the Hamilton controversy was “just a distraction” from Trump’s other problems.
Hang on. Aren’t we the very people who would ordinarily insist on the relevance, the power, the political importance of the arts? Aren’t many of us right now asking the question, “What can artists do to take a stand against Trump?” The Hamilton cast actually did it! And we want to call it a distraction.
So let’s talk about what is actually worth talking about here. What is worth talking about is not Trump’s manipulative social media strategy; you can’t say “don’t feed the troll” when the troll is the President. And so what if people booed Mike Pence? I’m sure he’s been booed before and that he will be again. Instead, let’s talk about what the Hamilton cast did, and what kind of model, if any, it offers for the stance of the artist in the Trump era.
The Hamilton cast saw Pence there and decided to do something. But their choice was interesting. I would call it a liberal rather than a radical response: they did not, for instance, interrupt the show to call out Pence, or rewrite the show to denounce or mock him in some way. They made their statement after the show was over (not disrupting the artistic integrity of the work), and their statement was respectful in the extreme: it was simply a statement of anxiety and support for diversity without any specific criticism. It assumed the space of the theater as a liberal democratic space in which ideas were exchanged freely and respectfully.
The actors’ statement also told us what they think the greatest political value of their show is. It lies not in the show’s message, but in its representation. Hamilton’s diverse cast, the statement asserts, embodies “the diverse America” whose members (people of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims) are “alarmed and anxious” that the Trump/Pence administration “will not protect us.” Hamilton, in this reading, becomes a coda for the all-too-brief age of Obama, in which placing people of color at the center of the national narrative provided a political vision of a multiracial future. The Trump administration, whose key members represent an anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and white nationalist agenda, looks from the perspective of Hamilton like a reaction against this diversity, an attempt to “make America white again.”
Trump’s response was, I suppose we could say, in keeping with a completely commercial view of the theater: it is purely a space of “safe” entertainment in which political statements are “rude” and constitute “harassment.” Mike Pence paid for a ticket; therefore, he should be immune from political expression or from experiencing anything uncomfortable or offensive.
In some ways, the most radical view of the space was offered by the audience. Their response was purely political: they booed Pence because they didn’t like him and what he stood for. And the cast actually tried to stop them from booing. The only point of agreement between Trump and the Hamilton cast is that the theater is a “special” space apart from everyday life; those in the audience who booed showed no such respect for boundaries. And why should they have? There is no space in our lives that has not become politicized.
Perhaps Pence’s visit to Hamilton, and Trump’s subsequent attack, is the opening salvo in a return to the culture wars of the 1980s. The huge commercial and critical success that is Hamilton will not be damaged in the slightest by the controversy (indeed, it may even be helped). But what of other artists, writers, and scholars, some of whom may depend on funding from the National Endowment for the Arts or the Humanities? When the President himself is weighing in on what is and is not appropriate for artists to do and say, permission is granted for even greater partisan scrutiny of the arts and arts funding. Trump’s interest in expanding libel laws has already shown him to be no friend of the First Amendment; direct public attacks on individual artists are yet another ominous sign for freedom of speech.
So forget the controversy and what it may or may not be distracting us from. Let’s focus instead on what a group of artists did when faced with a political opportunity, and ask ourselves — as artists, writers, critics — how effective that act was and whether we would have made the same choice. For this may well be cultural politics in the Trump era: taking the narrow windows of opportunity that we have and using them.
Timothy Yu is the author of 100 Chinese Silences and Race and the Avant-Garde. He is a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him on twitter @timpanyu