Join me on Instagram Live at 7pm on Wednesday 8 July. The handle is @catchorisgram. Bring a question or two as I speak with the cultural affairs officer of the US Embassy in Nigeria.
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Back in 2015 when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton swept the United States, I saw the notices, the reviews, the buzz. I never saw the musical. Forgive me, I live in Lagos, far from Broadway.
That has changed. The video recording of the musical has been released as a film and anyone with a Disney+ subscription can see it right at this very moment. Everyone else might need some connection or some creativity to see it — at least in Lagos.
The musical follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States. To my mind, before Miranda’s play, he was one of the least known ones. Or maybe he was just hiding in plain sight: Hamilton, after all, is quite a common name; Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin at least have some kind of historical weight for a Nigerian like me that is absent when with Hamilton. Not anymore, I think. And the more the filmed version circulates around the world, the less Hamilton will sound weightless. The play is certainly not weightless: it has made a billion dollars and won 11 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize. The critics loved it; the audience made sure it was sold out every night.
The story pulls its own weight and subversively, too. Although based on the Ron Chernow 2003 biography, which essentially tells the story of one white man in a group of white men all of whom contribute to the founding and building of a country, Hamilton deploys mostly black people in place of those white people. In fact, there is only one white cast member (Jonathan Groff) throughout and he represents the past (England) the new country (America) struggles to escape from. The character, although a king (King George III), is the silliest person in the whole play, given to spittle and threats. As with every other actor in Hamilton, Groff is excellent. He just happens to be the only with spit on his lips.
Miranda takes the role of the titular character but the story is really told by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr), an aristocrat who can’t quite believe the trajectory of Hamilton. He starts the tale with the appropriate mix of awe and disdain: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…in squalor grow up to be a hero?”
The pair are the original frenemies. They are both looking for a role in the newly found nation. But while Hamilton is a man of conviction, maybe a bit too much, Burr is one of those people Nigerians might call anywhere-belle-face. He will do what it takes even when he isn’t quite convinced. It’s a great trait in a businessman seeking profit; it’s not so great in a statesman. Funny then that his rival is pretty much the one who had a heavy hand in creating capitalism.
The entire story is told through songs that are mostly rapped and sung in the R&B style and it is a tribute to the Miranda’s mastery that the story comes through despite the insane catchiness of the songs. These are songs that you can enjoy without the burden of a story and yet they all tell a story.
What this means is that you don’t have to be an American or even be vaguely interested in American history or politics to cherish the music. Little wonder the commercial success of the Hamilton album.
Even for Americans, it was difficult to get the pricey tickets, a situation which suggests that, for many, before Disney came along, their only enjoyment of the play was through its songs. They could enjoy the delightful pair of songs ‘Helpless’ and ‘Satisfied’ but they couldn’t have understood the visual pleasure of seeing Renee Elise Goldsberry (as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law) deliver an incredibly impressive performance.
That puts a large section of the American public in the same category, give or take a Sunday-school-esque enactment.
Now up to speed, the Nigerian viewer might yet find a similarity or two with the US. As with America, Nigeria too sought to be free from England. And that quest was led by a group of men who longed to be able to steer their country in the direction they felt it needed to go. Of course, with these many years after the their independence, both countries are no longer “young, scrappy, and hungry” as Hamilton describes himself and his kid of a country. America is now 244 years old; Nigeria turns 60. America is pretty much a bowhead whale at this point but Nigeria is no spring chicken. The fortunes of both countries could not be wider though. There’s no need to bore you with the many disappointments of Nigeria. But what happened?
I believe a part of what happened can be found somewhere in the respective early days of the countries. As Hamilton tells us, some of the men that formed the US were soldiers, people who bragged about being in wars (Hamilton mocks Thomas Jefferson, a wonderful Daveed Diggs, for not fighting).
To be specific, the heroic vacation of power by Washington (Christopher Jackson), a soldier to a civilian (John Adams) and from there to another man who never became a soldier (Jefferson) establishes a dynamic never experienced in Nigeria.
The first two military men who took power in Nigeria were killed before anyone could find out if they would hand over to a democratically elected person. (Not that their body language didn’t telegraph dictatorship.) Where unimpeachable integrity is the most obvious quality signalled by Jackson’s portrayal of Washington, one wonders what quality an actor would most exude playing any of the first Nigerian military men who became heads of state. Clannishness? Selfishness? Wickedness? It certainly seems that it wouldn’t be something nice.
That behaviour by Washington set an example that has pretty much been followed since then. The instability that Nigeria’s founding fathers put down has also been replicated since then.
Of course, the American founding fathers were flawed and by trafficking in slaves, they committed a crime that deserves to hunt their names. And yet, you think: Nigeria’s founding fathers were flawed and deserve to be blamed for the tribalism that Nigeria has been unable to escape. So both sets of founders were flawed but how o how is it that the Americans built a great country with their flaws and Nigeria, 60 years on, is still seeking a path to a greatness that every one of its citizens has given up on?
244 years after Hamilton and company decided to found a nation where an impoverished child could become a man whose story is told in an award-winning play, is that trajectory possible in 60-year old Nigeria for a man (or woman) with similar ambition?
“In New York, you can be a new man,” Lin-Manuel Miranda writes. Is that true of Lagos?