Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homegrown Hamilton: In the Eye of the Hurricane (There is quiet... Just for a moment)

written September 16, 2017

It is a challenge these days not to think about the fact that the sky might actually falling. There was Harvey and Irma, of course, where the sky actually did crash to the ground in countless ways. The intensity of each was arguably our fault, but Mother Nature can still take the bulk of the blame for that. But, I don't know... can one really deny the strange man-made fog that hovers around us now, a product of a new sort of reality and an uncertain future? Feeds, fake news, real news. It sticks to our skin, disrupting our sanity and often our sense of safety. As I sat down to write this the other night, for instance, I got a call that my brother had been two floors down from a fatal shooting that took place at his workplace (in a hospital, no less) that day. No less frightening and heartbreaking than had it happened ten years ago, it was less surprising.

(I promise to turn around the mood of this post. But give me one more paragraph.)

The sky threatens to fall, and these days our foundation feels corroding at best, so neither direction, up nor down, offers much comfort or stability anymore. We are called on, at times like this, to work a little harder to find our own reassurance, to remind ourselves of the joys that make this life so well worth loving.

Occasionally, though, these moments fall straight into our laps. Phones down, eyes up, suddenly there is joy dancing in front of us. Maybe we appreciate these instances more these days, maybe we glean more meaning than intended. But they illuminate something inside of us that has perhaps been dormant for too long.

Last week, three days after Hurricane Harvey and one day before the start of the school year, adult and child emotions no doubt raw for their unique reasons, a certain fenced-in backyard lit up a small space in this town for just under three hours, requiring a few very lucky folks to put everything else aside for just a tiny, but treasured slice of time.

Enter Homegrown Hamilton. One backyard, eleven kids (Noah among them), and a dog.

I can't stop thinking about it.

Directed, cast, and produced by a sixth grader with no prior theatre experience and a sincere adoration of the musical Hamilton, the idea was to perform the entire play, minus "Say No to This" (you know, the one about the mistress and the legs spreading and so on) in his backyard. That was the vision. All 46 songs, minus the one, would be performed. His mother made the gentle but wise suggestion that he and the cast select five or six songs and perform those really well, but it was too late of course. The idea was firmly planted in his head, and once there, the path was paved. There is no trifling with that kind of inspiration. I'm entirely serious about this. The boy had a plan and (spoiler alert), he made it happen.

Haven't all of us at some point been the children preparing for the breakthrough neighborhood performance, the one parents would talk about for years to come? Certain the word would spread far and wide around town, there would be multiple showings of our play. The demand would be huge. We'd fantasize about our rise to local celebrityhood until realizing it was almost dinner and we didn't really know what our play was going to be about yet. So, we'd practice a number or two and then make tickets and a decision to just perform the heck out that one number we practiced. We'd wing the rest. Every time. Strong start, fizzling middle, abrupt ending.

But this Company? Not them. They spent their summer on this. There were backyard practices, two hours long, sometimes more than once a week. Actors ranged from first to sixth grade, with the exception of Penny, the two year old dog who played Theodosia. And these kids - they were all in. They knew every line.

They used costumes, for the most part, that they already had. They repurposed a pirate hat to top off the look of General George Washington (Here comes the General!). I didn't previously know much of anything about Hercules Mulligan, but I will forever picture him as a blond headed, hip hopping, stage-owning machine wearing a long black Slytherin cape. Thomas Jefferson donned a red jacket found in the pile of dress up clothes in the director's basement. Angelica showed up in a beautiful pink skirt made by her mom. (And if you know the story of Angelica, you will agree she deserved her very own handmade costume, having dealt with the short end of the stick for far too long.) And then there was Hamilton, who looked exactly like… Hamilton.

The stage was a sandbox covered in wood chips. A swing set served as the backdrop and props. When Eliza sang down to Hamilton, she stood on top of the slide while he stared up at her. Actors entered the stage by sliding in or climbing down a ladder or jumping off a three foot clubhouse. When Hamilton, Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens raised a glass to freedom in Act I (…Let's have another round tonight!), they used a simple cardboard box as their table. When Phillip (spoiler alert) died after his own duel, he lay on the bottom of the slide while Eliza hovered over him in tears.

They sang along with the album itself. It lasted for hours but felt so much shorter. Every one of the 46 songs had been practiced, choreographed in some way. These kids were not shy, but proud to be there, singing to the 30 plus guests who had gathered to watch, who sat on blankets and fold-up chairs and held expressions of awe as the play continued along.

At intermission, there were baked goods. Donations were put in a jar for Hurricane Harvey. They made $100. They signed autographs (while giggling) after the show. There were programs with all 46 songs written out in one third-grader's best penmanship.

I want to capture it as I saw it that day. In my memory, the days prior were cloudy, grey, and whether that was the actual weather or just my mood around the time, I really don't recall. Even that morning, the day of the musical, my daughter hid naked in her closet ten minutes before the play was to start while I gritted my teeth and sighed heavily. Really, at that point, I just wanted to get through the show without destroying it for everyone. We arrived one minute before it started.

I want to convey without being overly dramatic that that morning last week felt magical and healing. The background noise of news and texts and Trump faded away and in its place stood a simple worn-down backyard swing set. The fog lifted and the most refreshing setting I've experienced in ages appeared. Is there a scene in Wizard of Oz where everything is once black and white and suddenly vibrant with color? I think so. That. That is what this felt like. The eye of the hurricane, a chance to recenter.

Kids without electronics, kids singing songs. Kids who now know by heart how the soul of this country came to be. A soft and beautiful reminder of where we Americans come from. Girls playing male parts, children playing politicians (ha). A respectful, smart, and patient eleven year old in charge of it all, working with young actors -- his friends, his brother's friends -- who ran with the roles they were asked to perform. It was simple but so darn pure and under that warm sun, sitting in a fold-up lawn chair surrounded by parents and grandparents and friends, things felt hopeful for the first time in a very long time.

I hear that a few days after the show, an elderly couple in their 90s sent a letter to the kids, thanking them for a summer of rehearsals and an outstanding show to watch from their porch. Nobody knew they were watching. I wonder if it gave them some reassurance as well.

These kids. While Al Ham and G Washington must be shaking their tired old heads at the goings-on of our current administration, perhaps they are simultaneously looking to these kids (and Lin Manuel Miranda, of course) for a trace of hope. These are just young (scrappy and hungry) people performing a backyard play, but they took a risk and followed through, and they showed so much damn soul in so doing.

A friend commented to me after the show, "Do you think they know how powerful the words they sang are? Just what it all means?" The truth is, I kind of think they do. Maybe not entirely, but enough.

My husband and I have tickets to Hamilton in Boston for October 2018. Noah thinks this is entirely unfair, but that's okay; he can think that. His day will come too. I cannot wait to see the Broadway performance; perhaps my expectations are a bit too high when I say I feel like it will change my life. But I'd be remiss if didn't put it out there that in my mind, the original Hamilton cast will always be an eclectic little group of neighbors and friends in our hometown, who one September morning asked us to sit in the sunshine for a few hours while they told us the story of one orphan (with a plan to fan this spark into a flame) who helped change the world for the better.

With many thanks to James, Quinn, Cormac, Noah, Georgia, Coco, Riley, Rebecca, Tate, Teddy, Nathan, and Penny for restoring my faith in humanity. Perhaps the sky will stay put after all.