Word of mouth (September/October 2015)

The hit Broadway musical Hamilton links Caribbean and American history, and the Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival reimagines Bahamian stories for the stage

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (at right), in a scene from HamiltonScene from a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare in Paradise 2014. Photograph by David Burrows, courtesy Shakespeare in Paradise

Coming to America

Nixon Nelson explains how the year’s big Broadway hit — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Hamilton — is a boundary-crossing Caribbean immigrant tale

An eight-hundred-page biography of an eighteenth-century politician doesn’t sound like the most promising source material for a hit musical. But that’s exactly the trick the Puerto Rican–American wunderkind composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has pulled off with his latest creation, the runaway success Hamilton.

It’s a decade since the debut of Miranda’s career-making first musical. Set in the Washington Heights area of north Manhattan — a Dominican-American stronghold — In the Heights was narrated by the lead character Usnavi, proprietor of a small bodega, performed by Miranda himself. A series of interweaving neighbourhood stories about family and work, love and dreams, were told through hip-hop and salsa numbers. Critics praised its clever lyrics and infusion of diverse musical styles, and Into the Heights won Miranda two Tony awards (for Best Musical and Best Original Score), ran for three years on Broadway, and was nominated for a Pulitzer drama prize. It left critics impatient to see what he would come up with next.

The answer came when, heading off on vacation, Miranda bought a massive biography of Alexander Hamilton on impulse at an airport bookshop. Born in 1755 in Nevis, brought up in St Croix, and orphaned as a child, Hamilton learned to live by his wits. Moving to the North American colony of New Jersey in 1772, he arrived in good time to participate in the American War of Independence, eventually joining General George Washington’s staff. It was the start of a career that would see him rise to the office of Secretary of the Treasury — his portrait still appears on the US ten-dollar bill — becoming one of the fledgling nation’s most influential political figures, before he was killed in an infamous duel with a political rival.

This picaresque tale of an immigrant boy making good struck a chord with Miranda, himself the son of immigrant Puerto Ricans. He imagined a sweeping drama told through hip-hop, jazz, R&B, Beatles-style pop, and breathtaking dance numbers, performed by a multi-ethnic cast portraying what one critic called “the ultimate dead white men of American history” — the Founding Fathers. Six years in the making, Hamilton finally opened Off-Broadway in early 2015, and blew away the critics. The entire run sold out in advance, and black-market tickets, rumour says, went for $600 a piece. The show moved to the Richard Rogers Theatre for its Broadway premiere in August.

Once more, Miranda himself performs the lead role. Alexander Hamilton makes his appearance with a boastful refrain: “Hey, yo,” he raps, “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot!” For two and a half hours, the audience is carried away on a musical journey through a nation’s turbulent youth that manages to be true to its time and to ours as well. Perhaps no more so than in Hamilton’s powerful reminder that — as another number proclaims — “Immigrants, we get the job done!”

 

The island’s a stage

Sonia Farmer explains how the Shakespeare in Paradise theatre festival reimagines old stories for today’s Bahamians

What do Shakespeare and the Caribbean have in common? One juxtaposition is in timing: Shakespeare’s lifetime corresponding with, and therefore informed by, early colonisation of the Caribbean space. The premise continues to inspire an annual theatre festival of Caribbean diasporic work, centred in the Bahamas.

Founded in 2009 by husband-and-wife creative team Nicolette Bethel and Philip Burrows, the Shakespeare in Paradise festival has provided a much-needed injection of theatre culture into the Bahamian tourism model. For two weeks every October, patrons enjoy a range of performances staged at the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts, as well as various creative spaces around Nassau.

While each year brings its own provocative offerings, Shakespeare in Paradise remains an essential platform for talented Bahamian actors and writers to strut their stuff. Bahamian-written, Bahamian-produced, and Bahamian-performed, these carefully selected pieces — such as this year’s offerings The Landlord, a 1970s comedy classic by Sam Boodle, and Murder & Poetry, a dual-offering of experimental spoken-word performances alongside the short play Miss Ethel’s Kitchen by Patrick Rahming — serve to expose mostly Bahamian audiences to their rich literary heritage, culture, and history.

Adding to that are evocative contributions from our Caribbean and diasporic neighbours, manifesting this season in Derek Walcott’s Pantomime, directed by Henry Muttoo, and Trinidadian director Patti-Anne Ali guiding Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. These productions strengthen creative Caribbean ties, bring exciting collaborative opportunities, and grow the annual festival on an international level.

Central to the experience of Shakespeare in Paradise is its namesake, which is no surprise, since both Bethel and Burrows — Bahamian playwrights passionate about culture — were inspired to create the event while enjoying the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during their time abroad in the late 1990s. If such a major theatre festival could transform a small town into a diverse cultural mecca each year, they thought, why not try to bring about the same metamorphosis in Nassau, whose theatre landscape had greatly declined, despite its rich heritage of Bahamian playwrights and oral culture?

After returning to Nassau in 2000, Bethel and Burrows formed the theatre company Ringplay Productions and tested the waters with two successful performances of Macbeth, reimagined through the Bahamian experience by replacing the king with a prime minister and relegating Macbeth to his Cabinet. This, along with other small changes, served to reposition the colonial narrative of Shakespeare’s time, making it relatable to a Bahamian audience, for whom the study of Macbeth is central to national school examinations, but which had remained, up to that point, a decidedly foreign concept.

Today, the theatre festival is anchored by a single Shakespearean production with a Caribbean twist: The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock identifies as a Haitian immigrant in Bahamian society, Julius Caesar is performed against a backdrop of Bob Marley anthems, Romeo and Juliet hail from substantial Bahamian and Haitian families at odds with one another. And this year, Twelfth Night will unfold though seafaring archetypes in a mid-1600s Eleutheran community.

Shakespeare’s plays are no strangers to shifting settings — a testament to their underlying truths about human nature, which persist, no matter the context. But by examining these narratives in a postcolonial Caribbean setting, Shakespeare in Paradise gives us a space in the heart of a young Caribbean nation to tell these stories on our terms and on our own turf, reclaiming the colonial narrative handed to us during Shakespeare’s time, and not so long ago.

For more information about Shakespeare in Paradise, visit shakespeareinparadise.org