We need to talk about Hamilton

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Red Rover, red Rover, send some damn integrity over. Ken Lund via Flickr

Another Broadway classic shows its true colours of racism, queerphobia

Almost everyone knows about Hamilton. When it premiered on Broadway in 2015 it was an immediate hit, and many claimed it revolutionized the Broadway industry with its combination of hip hop and show tunes. The week after its premiere on Disney Plus, the show racked up over 2.7 million views.

The story itself is fairly simple: it follows the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The show was praised for its inclusion of BIPOC in principal roles and not discriminating within casting call sheets, but things are never truly what they seem.

In March 2021, stories began to come out on what was happening behind the scenes at Hamilton. It started with Daniel Belnavis, part of the first National Tour of Hamilton, writing an article for An Injustice Magazine entitled “The Unraveling of a Dream.”

Belnavis stated that everyone in a leadership position at Hamilton that he talked about was either white or white-passing. For a show that prides itself on diversity on stage, the same is not seen backstage: producers, casting team, general manager, marketing, and press for the original creative team were all white. Out of all the original creative team, there was one Black person – the costume designer.

Hamilton itself has only ever had white music directors, and as Belnavis says “but for Hamilton, a show that quite literally could not exist without Black culture, to not have one Black music director in any of their multiple companies is absurd.”[1]

Belnavis played the ensemble role of Man 6. Man 6 is the only role in Hamilton that is only ever played by a Black actor, and out of all the ensemble roles, is the most marginalized. His status at Hamilton is the lowest and no one higher up is willing to change the structure of the role. Belnavis says in the article, “This effectively insinuates that the Black male actors playing Man 6 are of low status themselves and can be exploited accordingly.”[2]

Recently, a Hamilton actor named Suni Reid filed a Charge of Discrimination and Retaliation against Hamilton. Reid began as an ensemble member as a part of the Chicago cast in 2017 and, right before COVID-19 shutdowns, was part of the Los Angeles cast. Before this charge was filed, Reid went live on Instagram on March 15 to talk about Hamilton. They said that the director of the Chicago company told the ensemble to act like “proud slaves” during one of the songs. Behind the scenes, despite much of the cast being BIPOC, there were no Black hairdressers. There was an incredible amount of internalized homophobia at Hamilton Chicago and the creative team constantly praised the straight men while ignoring everyone else.

Suni Reid is a Black transgender actor. They requested a gender-neutral dressing room during contract negotiations, and shortly after their contract was not renewed by management. This dressing room was supposed to be with the Los Angeles production at the Pantages Theatre, and many other actors showed their interest in having this gender-neutral space. Instead of opening discussions about this, the Hamilton team said that they would use a curtain or a sheet to separate the main dressing room. When Reid said that this was not okay, Hamilton stopped contract discussions with them.

Reid, like Belnavis, played Man 6: a role that both were told was cuttable and unnecessary. Additionally, Reid was often made fun of by their co-workers for being gay. They were called “Miss Six” in reference to their role, mostly notably by Andrew Chappelle who was a member of the Original Broadway Cast and a principal standby. As of writing this article, Chappelle has gone private on all social media.

Another cast member, Zelig Williams, tried to get Reid to “pray the gay away.” Williams said to Reid while they were in an Uber that “I used to be gay but I am not anymore, I prayed through it, if you don’t want to be gay any more, we can pray together.”[3] Reid ended up leaving the Uber because they feared for their safety. When Reid tried to talk to a fellow cast member, Carvens Lissaint, about their interactions with Williams, Lissaint shared the same “pray the gay away” sentiment towards Reid. Shortly after these discussions, Reid joined the Chicago company.

Reid left the New York company because they didn’t feel safe at work and were hoping for a different experience with the Chicago company, but on their second show, fellow cast member Akron Watson said to Reid “I will beat your ass,”[4] unprompted. Other cast members later told Reid that this was regular behavior for Watson.

It was in 2019 while working in Chicago that Reid came out as transgender and gender nonconforming. They asked their coworkers to use their pronouns, but despite this, Reid was constantly misgendered by male cast members. In the dressing room, Reid was bullied and harassed by male cast members and these experiences were one of the driving factors in requesting a gender-neutral dressing room.

Reid’s agent reached out to Hamilton and wrote, “As I am sure you can understand, living one’s life in accordance with one’s gender identity is often critical to mental health. Suni feels strongly that returning to the theater and rehearsals to the same dressing room set up as in the past where they continue to separate the ensemble according to gender is anxiety provoking and only exacerbates other potential adverse outcomes for the performer.”[5]

A gender-neutral dressing room was eventually created. Not because the production team of Hamilton LA did anything, but because Rory O’Malley, the actor who plays King George, offered up his own dressing room so it could be a gender-neutral space. When rehearsals had started again and other cast members questioned why Reid wasn’t there, Hamilton’s contract attorney Jay Hewlin said, “This is not a plantation, if you want to leave, you can leave.”[6] On September 18, 2021, Reid’s counsel heard from Hamilton that contract renewal was not an option for them, despite the major obstacle of the gender-neutral dressing room being resolved.

Despite Hamilton’s popularity, it is “a white corporate machine that uses the optics of diversity and an appropriation of Black culture for its own capitalistic pursuits, thus exploiting actors of color in the process. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of our world–– rooted in systemic racism, tokenism, straight white male hegemony, colorism, and capitalism.” Belnavis said.[7] Broadway has proven to care more about straight white male performers than 2SLGBTQ+ and BIPOC performers, and Hamilton is no different.

[ THE PDF LINK FOR FOOTNOTES 3, if anyone asks: https://ca-times.brightspotcdn.com/12/15/17df16d8448390d8a6b25e3daeb4/filed-eeoc-supplement-hamilton.pdf ]


[1] Daniel Belnavis, “The Unraveling of a Dream,” An Injustice Magazine

[2] As above.

[3] As above.

[4] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission official report of incidents.

[5] As above.

[6] As above.

[7] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission official report of incidents.

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