On a gloomy Monday morning, the air hung thick and wet as I waited to enter the White House for the first time. The sunless sky was in no way a reflection of how I was feeling just days after receiving – by cryptic language no less – the invitation of a lifetime. Perhaps anyone who saw me would think that I, a first generation Dominican-American from the Bronx, was anxious to meet the Obamas. As I fiddled with my iPhone camera on the steps of the presidential mansion I thought, “to shake hands with the First Black Family would be crazy ill.” But the truth is, my heart was in another place. I was here to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton star and Broadway’s resident rap genius.
There, on the steps of the White House, with plenty of time to kill as directorial members prepped for press, I thought of the first time I went over the moon for Miranda. It was late summer of 2010 in New York City. A then-boyfriend of mine had asked if I’d wanted to see a show on Broadway called In The Heights. I, unaware of its creator yet excited to hear a reference to the largest population of Dominicans in the U.S. in the context of musical theater, happily accepted.
That night, we sat cozy inside the famous Richard Rodgers Theatre and waited in anticipation for what was about to unfold: a vibrant display of everyday Latinidad in what some dub today as “Little DR.” Despite the fact that we were two of only a handful of brown faces in the audience, the whole room bursted in laughter at every Spanglish joke and engaged with every cultural anecdote we grew up hearing in the crowded living rooms of our mamas and abuelas.
What a time to be alive.
When the curtains closed and the audience gave its last round of applause, I’d nearly shed a tear thinking about what I’d just witnessed. Here was a story of my people. Of my parents in the struggle. Of my first generation cousins in the hustle. Here was the story of us – la familia – and it was brought to a theater forefront. I rushed home and with the most cursory of Google searches learned just how remarkable of a human being Lin-Manuel Miranda was. I also learned that he was already happily married to an equally spectacular woman lawyer by the name of Vanessa Nadal (sorry ladies).
In The Heights served as Miranda’s foray into theater and it garnered him his first Tony for Best Original Score, which I thought was the best kind of irony considering we Caribeños love to cut a rug to the best of merengue and old school boogaloo. (We take music very seriously. So it was only right, right?). What’s more, Miranda freestyled his emotional acceptance speech straight from the dome. The man had everyone on their feet by the time he broke out his flag and gave a shout to his native Puerto Rico.
Who said originality was dead?
What do our favorite hip-hop artists do if not write about the struggle so well that they transcend them? — Lin-Manuel Miranda
Just one year prior to that magical night when I saw In the Heights, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had curated an evening of performing arts and solicited some of today’s foremost poets and spoken word artists, including Lin who was scared to death as he went on last. This is where he first apprehensively introduced a concept album about somebody he really believed embodied hip-hop. An audience that included the likes of Saul Williams, Angie Martinez and James Earl Jones was staring back at him, all the while.
“Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” he stuttered. “You laugh, but it’s true. He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, out of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right hand man, then became Secretary of Treasury, caught beef with every other Founding Father, and all on the strength of his writing.”
Nearly seven years later, after the incredibly diverse Hamilton musical scored a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, Lin was again invited to the White House. And this time, he not only explained the importance of one of America’s Founding Fathers and why his life isn’t just some black and white distant memory, but he also further reinforced Hamilton’s significance in relation to the hip-hop generation.
“What I recognized when I picked up the book was someone who had a remarkable life. At the end of the second chapter he writes that essay that gets him off the island and I go ‘if this guy’s life isn’t a musical, I don’t know what is.’ I know this dude,” he explained, “and I think he’s a rapper. It’s funny if you watch the footage of when I first performed in this room, I say the same thing and the crowd laughs. But what do our favorite hip-hop artists do if not write about the struggle so well that they transcend them?”
And just like that, the brilliant playwright eliminated any distance from then and now, eradicating whatever sepia toned imagery evokes when sifting through histories about old, white men. And I use “old, white men” very loosely here, considering Miranda, in all his flair, knew what he was doing when he made himself the star of the show. You see, Hamilton, despite what the history books depict, was probably not white. He was the son of a mixed-race woman from the West Indies and – as it’s been emphasized over and over again – that makes the First U.S. Secretary of Treasury an indispensable engineer in the fabric of America, an immigrant.
It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters. — Lin-Manuel Miranda
To further shed light on the show’s profoundness, it is without explanation or apology that black and Latino actors are cast to live out the roles of every Founding Father, while women of color play the daughters of Philip Schuyler, the Revolutionary War general turned U.S. senator from New York. “It’s the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life,” lauded FLOTUS.
For me, Miranda – a child of hip-hop raised in the Inwood area of Manhattan – isn’t just inviting new and more diverse audiences to the Broadway scene. With Hamilton, he’s boldly declaring America’s ideals are not reserved for any particular race, color or creed. From where I stand, in a climate riddled with anti-immigrant and anti-black rhetoric, a Puerto Rican rapper playing Alexander Hamilton is the most relevant thing happening on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
His secret to great storytelling? Miranda described it as the thing we all have, but have a hard time expressing. “It’s all about empathy,” Miranda explained to television host and journalist Charlie Rose. “It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters […] I have to get into his head, I have to get into his heart and I have to get into his lungs.”
I didn’t get a Q&A with Miranda as suggested in the original email invite, nor was I allowed to stick around for special selections of the sold-out show (there’s a year-long waiting list). But in the end, I was grateful to have walked through the halls of the White House, shared time and space with our First Lady, and I am forever thankful to be experiencing the grace and humanity of such a lyrically gifted and culturally responsive thespian.
“Thank you for moving mountains to be here,” said Mrs. Obama alluding to scheduling difficulties, just as Miranda approached the floor inside the State Dining Room.
Thank you, indeed, Lin. For moving mountains to be here.