Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton will make you feel proud to be an American. How rare that feeling is today. The story of Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant immigrant’s incredible life and contributions to The Revolutionary War and post-colonial America, is told over hip-hop and classical theater tracks. Much like a Wendy’s Frosty and french fries, they’re great individually but excellent when combined.
That’s why the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a non-profit organization dedicated to the teaching and learning of American history, has set out to give over 250,000 students across the U.S. the shot at seeing Hamilton for free through their #EduHam Program. “We want to give students every opportunity to learn the truth about America in ways they can connect to. Although we are not primarily an arts organization, we see Hamilton as an opportunity to do exactly that,” said Susan Zuckerman, Director of Development at Gilder Lehrman who schooled me on the #EduHam Program’s primary goal.
On May 31st students from more than 17 schools across Chicago packed into The PrivateBank Theatre downtown for a special viewing of Hamilton. Teachers were provided with curriculum based on Hamilton months in advance, and students chosen from each school performed an original piece on stage — songs, skits, spoken word performances — centered around the work.
Two of Logan Square’s very own, Melvin Cerda and Luis Corona, from ASPIRA Business and Finance performed a dramatic retelling of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. ASPIRA actually performed first. When Corona shoved Cerda like a kid against a locker the entire theater erupted.
“The way history is taught isn’t the most exciting,” said Corona, a Chicago native born in Jefferson Park, currently a sophomore at ASPIRA. “You come to understand it [history] through hip-hop. Alexander and Burr were political rivals who both ended up making America better,” Corona realized. He confessed that everyday life involves watching a ton of movies but no theater. “Hamilton is different though. It reminds me of all the music I listen to.” Corona’s current playlist is filled with “Kendrick, Chance, Biggie and Eminem mainly.” No wonder Hamilton resonates so deeply with youth culture.
Cerda had a slightly different relationship with hip-hop and Hamilton. “I’m more of an old-school cat. I love Pac, Biggie, NWA, Dirty Dozen,” said Cerda, Portage Park native who enjoys theater and drama club. “I really love theater, but musicals I don’t like. I heard about Hamilton through my history teacher, and it changed my perspective.” Learning about Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant who shaped what we know as America today “made Alex stand out to me because his contributions to our country were huge. He deserves more credit for all he’s done for us,” Cerda said.
As young women and men shuffled into a dining hall at The Palmer House where lunch was provided, we got a chance to interview a few other students about their perspectives on Hamilton.
“I’m obsessed with the music,” exclaimed Dayvett Perez, another sophomore at ASPIRA from Ponce, Puerto Rico. “I’m definitely into theater. One of my favorite plays is The Lion King, but because of Hamilton, I’m more interested in theater than I’ve ever been. When I realized they took history and made it hip-hop I was hooked.”
Jason Harenberg, a Mexican-Italian-French student who loves basketball, admitted he “wasn’t really into theater. I listen to Kendrick and Nav, but Hamilton and its music made me enjoy learning history. That competition between Burr and Hamilton made it worth it.”
There was a particular magic in hearing students collectively burst into laughter at punch-lines in this Tony Award-winning play. Yes, the transcendence of great art was obvious that day, but the power of history told truthfully was even more palpable. As students from mostly under-resourced neighborhoods poured out of the theater after experiencing art many Chicagoans feel priced out of, I thought about what it means to actually make one’s country, neighborhood, world better. A brighter future to me is one where giving youth more and more access to this world, and truthful stories about their history in it comes easy.
Thankfully, we have heroes like Lin-Manuel, the good people at Gilder Lehrman, and teachers at ASPIRA and throughout Chicago dedicated to doing exactly that.
For more information on #EduHam and The Gilder Lehrman Institute please visit: