Mariah Rankine-Landers wasn’t excited to see the play her friend dragged her to. She had flown to New York for one reason, and one reason, only: Taye Diggs.
At the time, Diggs was starring in a Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Rankine-Landers and her friend Jessa Brie Moreno flew across the country to see it. During the trip, however, Moreno bought tickets to another play, one Rankine-Landers hadn’t heard of: Hamilton.
When the curtains went up, Rankine-Landers noticed that the cast looked like her -- a rarity in the theater world. Great, she thought, another musical starting with a slave song. Soon, though, she realized that the black actors in this play weren’t relegated to typical disenfranchised roles: they were the protagonists. She felt tears in her eyes, remembering all the times she had been told that she couldn’t play dress-up in historical costumes. “In that moment, she said, “I realized, 'The world is changing.'”
On Saturday morning, Rankine-Landers told this story to a group of about 25 teachers at the Museum of the African Diaspora. Rankine-Landers is part of Rise Up!, a group developing curriculum for educators using Hamilton as a teaching tool. Weeks before the group's website with public resources goes live, the teachers, armed with notebooks and coffee, were there to learn how to take advantage of the cultural zeitgeist.
For students, the play's themes of revolution and power have taken on a particular significance since the election. “What’s changed is young people have a new and vital response to civic action,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who developed the day’s curriculum with Rakine-Landers. Joseph is the Chief of Program and Pedagogy at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (his title, he joked, is “what happens when poets name themselves”), whose introduction to the play came from Daveed Diggs. One of the musical's breakout stars, Diggs' last pre-Hamilton role was in Joesph’s own choreopoem Word Becomes Flesh.
“I’m so nervous,” Rankine-Landers said before the event, tapping at a laptop. “I hope that they’re piqued.” The Rise Up! Curriculum encourages educators to have their students tie their personal experiences, their own revolutions, to the American Revolution. To model that, Rankine-Landers and Joesph had to ask the teachers deep, uncomfortable questions about their lived experiences. One of Rankine-Landers’ goals for the day was encourage educators to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
After an opening prayer wherein the group agreed to acknowledge their past and move toward a future of more inclusive narratives, Rankine-Landers introduced handshake shapes, which she demonstrated with Jessa Brie Moreno (the friend who originally introduced Rankine-Landers to Hamilton, and one of the leaders of Rise Up!). Partners started with a handshake or fist bump. Then, one partner broke away to establish a new point of contact, while the other partner remained in the original position. The process repeated until partners were tangled around each other, any awkwardness forgotten. For some, the result was a floundering waltz, or a choppy yoga routine. “That’s too much, I’m not trying to fall right now,” one woman warned her partner. Others ended up on the floor. “So good to get into the body,” Joseph enthused.
Attendees then went through a series of exercises where they were asked to interrogate themselves. Think of a memory or experience you’ve had, instructors asked, that you’d like to plant in the brain of of our 45th president (the class’ preferred way of referring to Trump). During other exercises, they were asked to examine their memories and definitions of the world, as well as those of their personal relationships: Who are the five people you’re most accountable to? Who are you engaged with? Who are you not close with?
This excavation helped teachers develop a framework that would allow them to incorporate their students’ personal narratives into the study of history, to “think about personal experiences and connect them to traditional paradigms of power,” as Joseph said. “Where does accountability to one another come up in history? Who are you responsible for throughout history? How does compassion play into the American revolution?” Joseph asked, eliciting approving snaps from the crowd.
But before they could pose those questions to their students, the teachers had to ask themselves the questions first. Rankine-Landers’ goal wasn’t to provide didactic instructions about how to teach Hamilton, but to create a space where teachers could be vulnerable, a place to address the complex emotions that Hamilton -- and teaching -- can provoke.
In that regard, the class had been a success, she said afterward, as she watched attendees mingling after three hours of sharing stories, challenges and tears. “My favorite part is creating this community,” she said. “They walked in as strangers, and now they’re hugging.”