By Jana Monji
Two directors, Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, have taken the 1969 Tony Award-winning musical 1776 and used non-traditional casting in a way that might remind you of Hamilton and some minor additions to the book for a production that is bound to raises questions–many of which need to be raised.
This is a production about the very White Founding Fathers, but reminds the audience that the people they represented were not all White. In their program note, the directors, Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus, remind us this musical was written in the 1960s, and write, “The words and symbols of our cultural memory take on very different meanings through the act of reframing this musical in the context of America today” by using “a company of artists who reflect multiple representation of race, ethnicity and gender and who identify as female, trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming.”
The casting which includes Black people, at least one Asian American (Lulu Picart) and at least one Native American (Brooke Simpson)–who’s a full-blooded Native American and a member of the Haliwa-Sapon Tribe), reminds us of the people these White men represent. Picart plays Samuel Chase of Maryland.
While all 13 states are represented, not all 56 men who were at the Second Continental Congress when the Declaration of Independence was drafted, amended and signed are represented here for practical purposes of streamlining and compressing the story. Still you get the idea of how hard it is to get a group of men to agree on anything.
There are no elaborate sets, but the costumes are perhaps more flamboyant than is historical. For the first time, Abigail Adams’ (Tieisha Thomas) famous words, “remember the ladies…all men would be tyrants if they could,” have been added (“with the blessing of the estates of Stone and Edwards”). In addition , Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved valet, Robert Hemings, is an on-stage presence, giving further weight to Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal.” More importantly, when the congress decides to delete the section against slavery, the concept of enslaved peoples is not an abstraction.
The value of this current theatrical production is in the questions it presents. Were their Asians in North America? Were their Asians in the original colonies?Did people of Asian descent fight in the American Revolutionary War? What role did China play in the American Revolution? I didn’t know the answers to these, but to prepare for watching this musical, I searched the internet and was surprised by what I found.
By digging further into history, we also feel the impact of the erasure of minorities and women in a manner that foretells the troubles of the future–not just the American Civil War, but many other civil rights movements that would march through the nation and continue to do so today.
You can read my full blog entry about China, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and the first Chinese national to be buried in the US.
1776 continues at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until 7 May 2023. For tickets and more information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.
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