”This is for ones like us, that had big hopes and dreams but didn’t make it.” — Lea Ibragimova, Shanae Bennett, and Valentina Vidal Ortega from Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies
There’s nothing like seeing Hamilton the Musical with a crowd of high school juniors. They laugh at the sex jokes, they get squirmy about death, and they echo the chorus of “ohhhh” at every diss in the show. Having seen Hamilton three times now (yes, I’m bragging a little — you would too), it was absolutely the best audience to see the show with. But it wasn’t the centerpiece of the day.
The central mission of October 24’s Hamilton performance was giving students access. Access into American history, access into unlocking or furthering an interest in performing, and access to one of (if not the) the most expensive shows on Broadway (for just $10). I was lucky enough to attend the #EduHam performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, which not only included the matinée but original performances by high school students from New York City (and New Jersey) and a Q&A with members of the current Broadway cast.
#EduHam, the quirky Hamilton-hashtag themed nickname for the Hamilton Education Program, is a partnership between Miranda and the producers of Hamilton, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and the NYC Department of Education. Together, these organizations open up the Hamilton experience to kids who may not otherwise be able to see it by including it in their school curriculum. As they learn American history, they are encouraged to engage with it creatively by writing songs, skits, raps, poems or whatever medium suits them. Students who excel in the program get to then perform those pieces on the Hamilton stage in front of their peers. Then, there’s a Q&A with current cast members from the show and, after a lunch break, the matinée performance of the musical.
I spoke to two high school performers who both said it was going to be their first Broadway show.
“We were asked to choose from a song, spoken word, or rap,” Kleiner Almonte, 17, from Comprehensive Model School in the Bronx, NY told me before her performance with classmate Sean Jaiman. “I chose a rap song because I wanted to do it like a genre that’s seen as academically underwhelming, speaking about a topic that’s intellectual and smart. I wanted to have fun on stage while getting with the culture and the stuff we’re more familiar with.”
Some of these students never even thought they’d see a Broadway stage, much less perform on one, but they blew the roof off with their original performances. It was inspiring to see the audience of supportive students — both strangers and classmates — hyping the performers when they messed up. (If you remember being a high school junior, you know how rare a phenomenon this could be.)
Some of the performers, like Liara Torres from the High School for Environmental Studies, showed they were meant to be on stage. Torres wrote a song called “Remember the Ladies,” showcasing a voice that, if she chooses, could take her places.
What initially sounded like ruckus chatter in the audience was students supportingly pulling out their phones to give Torres the concert experience her song clearly required — and a few teachers trying to shut it down.
Three students — Lea Ibragimova, Shanae Bennett, and Valentina Vidal Ortega from Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies — nearly brought the house down with their spoken word piece on the modern hypocrisy of the Bill of Rights. Their piece — unlike the others, which were primarily set in the past — took the common platitudes of America and showed that students are not at all removed from how hollow they sound, especially at a time when every day feels like we’re on the brink of a new revolution.
“This country doesn’t pay enough for the damage it has made.”
”They claim that America is home of the free, but my people were held in captivity.”
“What is our life worth to you, since you refuse to change your laws?”
These are Parkland-aged students and, in the wake of not one but three high-profile shootings in a week as I write this, it’s clear that young people today not only need but have a desire to understand how this country got where it is and why it isn’t working the way they were told it is meant to.
Several other students shared raps about Ben Franklin and the Battle of Yorktown (“Pull Up to the Chesapeake Bay” set to a trap beat was a crowd favorite) and scenes from the Boston Massacre and Tea Party.
Bryan Terrell Clark, who was in the midst of his last week of performances in the show as George Washington, hosted the student performances and took part in the cast Q&A. He encouraged the students to find their passion and, as soon as they are able, to vote. “America is not done, you are America now.” When he showed up as Washington during the matinée, the kids went wild to see him perform.
The #EduHam initiative excels at its purpose: teaching students about American history, engaging them in critical thinking about the past and present, sparking an interest in performing, and allowing students to expand their worldview, no matter what background they come from. Over the next few years, the #EduHam program will continue its mission across the country to provide students, and especially students of color, the opportunity to experience something unique and new. We all know Hamilton the Musical has been a phenomenon that has touched adults, but its effect on students may prove to exceed far past a love of musical theater and the arts. As one of the taglines of the show says, Hamilton is the story of America then, as told by America now — and it’s helping to shape America’s future.