The full story of America can be seen, told, and appreciated at so many places and on so many levels…if one only cares to stop and listen.
Candice and I are in New York City for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. New York is the poster child for how our rich national story is a blend from so many different people, both ordinary and extraordinary, and it is timely to be here this weekend. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the most powerful examples of an extraordinary person who fought to ensure that the full talents, opportunities, and stories of all Americans would be supported and recognized. In the first 24 hours in the city, we saw, heard, and thrilled to various aspects of the story that it truly American.
We are staying in Greenwich Village, which counts among its many notable former residents Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and urban activist Jane Jacobs. Neither was seen as anything other than ordinary, until they put pen to paper, spoke truth to power, and changed the American story.
Last evening we went uptown from the village, as we were fortunate to have tickets to the extraordinary musical Hamilton, at the Richard Rogers Theatre. And yes, to quote the reviews, it really is that good.
“A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, “Hamilton” is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette….But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address….And you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another. In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.
Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation.”
History has seldom been told in such a lively, thrilling, and “oh-so-appropriate for the moment” way. We buzzed about the show and its meaning until well past midnight (and well past our normal bedtime), so this morning we slept in late and then walked a few blocks to the West Village for a brunch at Joseph Leonard. Candice and I felt right at home – because other than us, all the other patrons were just about Andrew and Claire’s age! (We joked with our waiter that we got a table because it was still before noon…and most 20-somethings were just getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.)
As we looked out the window in this wonderful neighborhood gathering place, I realized we were at Christopher Park, and right across the street from the Stonewall Inn.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, supported President Obama’s designation of Stonewall as the nation’s first gay-rights National Monument last year. Because of the actions of those patrons of this ordinary-looking place back in 1969, millions of Americans gained the freedom to love the person of their own choosing, and to tell their stories proudly as part of the fabric of American life.
The last song in Hamilton – “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – had such resonance with both Candice and me last evening. Why? Perhaps because the relevance would come up so quickly today when – at the beginning of the MLK weekend – civil rights hero John Lewis was attacked in another of the tweets which are becoming all-too-familiar, in an attempt to silence his story. We were reminded in real time why we must stand strong in ensuring that our American story is told truthfully and fully.
More to come…