Why My Childhood English Teachers Need To Watch Hamilton
Hamilton doesn’t give a shit about whether its actors look like the characters they’re meant to be portraying. Here’s what that means to…
I watched Hamilton the day it was released on Disney+ and I’ve been completely obsessed with it for a couple of days now. Yes, the songs are great and the production is something to behold, but there’s more to it and I’ve been thinking about what it is exactly, and this is what I’ve come up with.
Hamilton doesn’t give a shit about whether its actors look anything like the characters they’re meant to be portraying.
I get that this has probably been called out lots of times before. I’d probably read about this myself a few months ago, but watching it in action changed the experience for me a bit. The show was good. The performances were good. The actors were great in their roles, and it never seemed…‘wrong’.
Why would it seem wrong? I subconsciously thought it would, because that’s what I was made to believe when I was in school.
I was in the 9th standard at a school in Pune. Two English teachers were tasked with casting and directing the school play. I’ve forgotten the name of the play, but I remember it was a murder mystery where a bunch of characters get stranded on an island. The plot was similar to And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I think.
The teachers pulled me aside once during recess and told me that they wanted me to do a part in the play. I’d been taking part in debates and elocutions before this and doing okay, so they extrapolated from there and figured I would do well in drama too. But there was a problem. The play has characters who are all Westerners. British, probably. They had names like Jerome and Aubrey and Hawkins, and I think the story may have been set in England as well. And they didn’t think I’d fit into that production because of the way I looked.
For those of you who’ve never met me IRL, I wear a turban. I’ve worn a pagdi regularly since college and a patka before that. A patka is what I wore for most of my school life. The 14-year-old who was listening to this explanation from his English teachers was also wearing a patka.
Before you read ahead, please remember this: expressing anger at discrimination is a luxury of adults. Children do not get that luxury. Children are not angered by discrimination, they are confused by it. They do not know why it exists, only that it upsets them, and they helplessly struggle with it in ways that we might find difficult to understand now.
So that’s the problem. I couldn’t be on that stage, because I’d stick out. Western characters couldn’t be wearing turbans, you see. So finally their conclusion was that because I spoke well I should get a part in the play, but would I be able to tie my hair differently, perhaps flatten the bun a bit and then cover it all up with a large cap? Alternately I could just leave my hair open and we could tie it into a braid and hide it.
I remember being confused. There was nothing objectively wrong with their suggestions, as far as I could tell. They wanted me to tie my hair differently, I could do that. I did that every weekend at home after washing my hair anyway, so that didn’t sound like a bad thing. Why did it feel so bad though? I felt wronged somehow, but I didn’t have the ability to put it in words then. I didn’t have the opportunity to simply be angry at my teachers, because I didn’t know for a fact that what they were saying was incorrect in any way.
I still said no. I told them I didn’t want to tie my hair differently. I couldn’t explain why. They said okay and waved me off.
I went home and sat on it for a few days, and when the confusion got unbearable, I went and told my mother.
My mother has history with this shit.
Rewind a few more years, 4th standard, at an age when kids don’t even have the strength to define personal boundaries or say no to trespasses. My class teacher was prepping our class for a P.E. display of exercises. We had special uniforms, and she had been given cardboard tiaras with tiny bulbs on them that the students would wear during the performance. They would look nice on boys, who had short hair, and also on girls, who had long hair. My teacher looked at me and decided it wouldn’t look nice on me. She walked over, leaned down, untied my patka and opened up my bun. Tada, long hair. Now I just looked like a girl. She placed the tiara on my head, and that’s how I did the performance. Yes, the other kids laughed, but they did that on most days, so that was no big deal, and I had fun anyway. My parents watched from the audience, wondering why they couldn’t spot their son in the evening light. I went home with my open hair and told my mother what had happened.
I don’t remember what my mother’s reaction to that incident was, if any. I know it stayed with her though. She considered it a kind of personal defeat. We have the vocabulary for these things now, so I can tell you that she felt bad that the school was trying to erase her son, to deny the ways in which he was different, to get him to conform. At the time though, she just felt bad because.
Fast forward again to 9th standard, I’ve just told my mother what my English teachers said to me about the play, and that I didn’t like it, and that I wasn’t sure why. My mother wasn’t going to let this happen again, not without a fight. She took it up the next time she met the teachers at a parent-teacher meeting.
“You aren’t whitening the cheeks of the other kids, are you?”, she said. “They’re playing white people, but they’ll still be looking Indian. You don’t want to change how they look. Why are you trying to change how my son looks?”
My mother would kick ass in a debate.
It wasn’t good enough for the English teachers though. They made the kind of justifications you’d expect. Skin colour is hard to see on stage, but turbans cross some kind of line of tolerance. It just makes no sense. How can an Englishman be wearing a turban? Don’t be absurd.
At one point, when she thought my mother was getting a little too pushy, one of the teachers turned to the other one and suggested, “Well, I suppose we could add a scene where we have some foreign travellers visiting the house.”
My mother’s quote above was paraphrased, this one isn’t. My teacher seriously suggested that the way for me to fit into an English play produced by my school in my country was to act like a foreigner. A more obvious Indian. Maybe I’d carry a flute and speak like Apu. I’d still stand out, but I guess this way I’d be more acceptable because that English teacher had hung a lampshade on it.
My mother lost that argument. The play went on without me. We came home and my father took us out somewhere nice.
I remained withdrawn from theatre stuff for years after this happened. I still spoke well and I considered trying out for plays in junior college, and for the drama club in my first year of engineering college. But it never got much further than consideration. In my head, I reasoned that even showing an interest in these activities involved having conversations that I simply did not want to have. I didn’t want anyone questioning whether I belonged there. Maybe they’d treat me differently, maybe they wouldn’t, but the possibility that they might was enough to keep me away.
I did eventually audition in my third year of college. I mentioned that I wanted to to a close friend of mine who was into drama herself, and she encouraged me, and that’s all it took. I auditioned, it wasn’t great, and I didn’t get in. It didn’t matter. I felt a small release. I’d managed to act on a deep impulse that I had suppressed completely for almost 7 years.
I felt it again when watching Hamilton. I teared up during parts that weren’t sad at all, and where I didn’t really relate to the plot or the characters one bit, but it wasn’t important, I was just crying because an actor was being themself and the production was letting them. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Lafayette were all black men, the Schuyler sisters were played by three women who looked nothing alike, and nobody cared. The show certainly doesn’t care and it demands that you do not either. It demands that you focus on the performance and nothing else. It demands you leave at home any baggage that you attach to these people based on their appearance.
My mother wanted to watch a play like this years ago, and she didn’t get to. I hope the folks at my school watch it now. I hope everyone watches Hamilton and walks away with less rigid ideas about how people should look.
Originally published here, imported here to make my sub look stacker.