You would have to have been living under a rock with bad WiFi not to know about Hamilton by now. And if you know about Hamilton, you almost certainly also know about its casting: with only two exceptions, all the roles are played by people of color. This decision has been the subject of some controversy, but I think most of the discussion misses a central fact about the meaning of race in Hamilton’s casting: it has no single meaning. By my count, it does at least seven different kinds of work on stage and off.
First, casting people of color gave the musical’s creative team access to some phenomenally talented performers. The Marquis de Lafayette, Angelica Schuyler, and Aaron Burr were white, but if you insist that the actors who play them look like them, you don’t get Daveed Diggs’s lightning-fast raps in “Guns and Ships,” Renée Elise Goldsberry’s staccato flow in “Satisfied,” or Leslie Odom Jr.’s seductive croon in “Wait for It.”
Second and relatedly, casting people of color is essential to Hamilton’s musical authenticity. The show is built around musical genres created and continually renewed by people of color. There will be room for some very different productions as the show continues its outward diffusion into American culture, but given this country’s long and fraught history of musical appropriation, it’s symbolically significant that the original and official production gives this music of color to people of color.
Third, putting people of color in most of the roles makes it possible to sharpen the contrast of having a few people of no color. George III and his proxy Samuel Seabury are cast and presented as white within Hamilton’s racial universe, and they sing white, too. It all comes together in “Farmer Refuted,” where Hamilton raps his way over, under, and around Seabury’s Baroque pastiche, making the contrast between the (black) American revolutionaries and the (white) British royalists visible as well as audible.
Fourth, putting African-American actors on stage as revolutionaries helps rework the American Revolution as a moment of African-American empowerment, a juxtaposition that fuels the show. Filtering the 19th century (emancipation) and the 20th century (the civil rights movement) through the 21st (hip-hop) makes the 18th century (the American Revolution) come to life by tapping into a specifically African-American understanding of freedom.
Fifth, by making the all-white Founders black, Hamilton asserts that race doesn’t matter. Alexander Hamilton is defined more by his non-stop-itude than by his race. It’s an optimistic kicking-down of racial barriers; Broadway is open to everyone, so is high political office (thanks, Obama!), so is the world. If George Washington can be black, anyone and anything can be.
Sixty and simultaneously, Hamilton asserts that race very much does matter. Portraying these historical figures as non-white makes it obvious that the real Thomas Jefferson had a race, and that his race was white in a time and place where being white came with massive advantages. “Cabinet Battle #1” makes this explicit:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
We plant seeds in the South. We create.“
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting
Seventh, casting slaveowners like Jefferson and Madison with non-white actors is a way of reclaiming American history. That history is deeply problematic (see above) in ways that the casting both acknowledges and transcends. The “your” in “who tells your story” is Alexander Hamilton, to be sure, but it is also the “slaves … being slaughtered and carted away across the waves” and all of the people pushed brutally aside in the long arc of American history. Putting people who look like them in these roles is a way of bending that arc a bit toward justice by repudiating some of history’s worst injustices.
Some of these meanings reinforce each other, while others are mutually contradictory. Resist the temptation to say that one is the right interpretation and another is wrong. Instead, accept that like so much else in this remarkable musical, Hamilton’s casting is overloaded with multiple meanings to a ridiculous degree. Like the musical, like Hamilton himself, it does everything at once.