“So Much Work to Do”: The Legacy of South Pacific in Hamilton

 

south-pacific-musical

Cultural Reference: “You’ve got to be carefully taught” (Act 1: 27)

Jeff Storms (Spring 2018)

Part I ~ Introduction

On May 27, 2016, Lin Manuel Miranda wrote (in faux-exasperation) to a fan with a question about a subtle reference in Hamilton: “WHEN ARE Y’ALL GONNA REALIZE I’M PLAYIN CHESS, NOT CHECKERS” (Miranda 2016). “Chess, not checkers” is Miranda’s way of saying that his references throughout the show are made intentionally; they work both to draw meaning from what is referenced and to transform this imported meaning to fit the work. Miranda’s reference to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in “My Shot” works in precisely this way.  Aaron Burr’s invocation of “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” to “Laurens and the boys” is meant to draw audience ideas of historical and contemporary American racial tensions to the fore, to weave together the narratives of the early American struggle against British tyranny and current minority American struggles to flourish. In bringing this lens of racial struggle into the play’s wider narrative and performance, Miranda posits social engagement and activism as the just response to those who restrict the freedoms of others.

Part II ~ Historical Background

Miranda and his creative team wrote Hamilton at a critical time in American racial history, informed by the presence of a contemporary, highly public flare in racial tensions. It’s no coincidence, then, that Hamilton and South Pacific dovetail in the narrative moment that Miranda draws it into his play; Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote South Pacific in a moment of American racial history that is in many ways similar to the moment that birthed Hamilton. South Pacific was released in 1958, about a decade after World War II, meaning that this show emerged from a time of rapid social change in the United States. Philip Beidler writes that “World War II had turned Americans into globetrotters scrawling ‘Kilroy Was Here’ on everything from cathedral walls to coconuts” (219); the war had exposed a significant portion of a generation of American men and women to the world across the oceans, both in the Pacific and European theaters. The fight for “freedom and opportunity for all nations” (Lovensheimer, quoting Wilkie 227) across the globe brought inequities of the US society into painful clarity, particularly those that ran along racial lines.

In the aftermath of the war, during what would prove to be a fatal series of assaults against the Jim Crow power structure, issues of race relations took the national stage. The 1896 U. S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which “upheld segregation and endorsed the concept of ‘separate but equal’ for blacks and whites” (Most 317), wasn’t overturned until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board, which came in 1954, officially ruling the unconstitutionality of segregation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed a year later, with photos of police dogs attacking Alabaman demonstrators a year after that. In 1957 came the integration of Little Rock High School (Beidler 218), which (not unintentionally) became the hometown of Nellie Forbush, the lead female character of South Pacific.

Because South Pacific was born in the aftermath of the war, with increasingly urgent cries for racial justice in its ears, Rodgers and Hammerstein wasted no time in meeting the crises of the day through their work. They wrote into South Pacific’s narrative two dilemmas of racial prejudice: that of Nellie Forbush, who struggles with what she believes to be inborn feelings of racial prejudice, and that of Joe Cable, who realizes partway through the show that he harbors inborn racial prejudices without even realizing their existence. When confronted with the reality of his negative racial beliefs, he sings “as if figuring this whole question out for the first time” (Hammerstein and Logan 140) shooting for the heart of the issue of whether racial prejudice is inborn or not, and whether it can be overcome.  The song he sings, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” (Hammerstein and Logan 140), “pulls together the two plots of Nellie and…Cable and…is a sharp and perfect expression of the show’s philosophy” (Maslon 162). The song captures the ideas at the heart of the show; Cable “implies that if prejudice is learned, it can also be unlearned” (Most 312). This seems to convey a message that even though American racism is prolific, it does not have to hold ultimate sway over the hearts and minds of the people, and can combated by intentional decision not to buy into racist ideals.

This message certainly didn’t go unheard by South Pacific’s critics. In the postwar world, “expressions of any…sentiment that challenged the status quo, racial or otherwise, had to be spoken in carefully chosen words” (Lovensheimer 228), lest they fall under accusation of being Communist propaganda, aimed at disrupting American society (Maslon 163). South Pacific as a whole was treated as such by some, most famously by two Georgia legislators who venomously denounced the play as having “an underlying philosophy of Moscow” (Maslon 163), referring specifically to “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” which they interpreted to be aimed at normalizing and justifying interracial marriage. Consequently, they attempted to introduce “legislature that would regulate theatrical presentations in Georgia” (Maslon 163).  The song was met by “heavy pressure…to eliminate the controversial number,” for fear of a drop in ticket sales once word of the musical’s content got out (Maslon 162). Upon receiving news of this, Hammerstein wrote to the press in response: “I meant every word in that song” (Maslon 163, emphasis mine).

Part III ~ The Scene Where It Happens

The story of this song and its words, however, didn’t end when South Pacific faded from the national spotlight. It didn’t even end with South Pacific. “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” appears in “My Shot,” in an intentional “shout out” (Miranda and McCarter 27) to South Pacific. In this song, Alexander Hamilton lays out vision of ascending from outsider/foreigner status to power in a new nation, “A place where orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints” (Miranda and McCarter 273).  His friends chime in, each articulating their own visions of a country where they’re no longer crushed under the yoke of tyranny, though John Laurens points out that “we’ll never be truly free/until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me” (Miranda and McCarter 27). Burr responds “with some cold reality,” saying: “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught./You’ve got to be carefully taught:/If you talk, you’re gonna get shot” (Miranda and McCarter 27, emphasis mine).

This reference to South Pacific works to do a few things simultaneously. It imports the message of the Rodgers and Hammerstein number, with its theme of struggling against deep-seated racial prejudice that can be unlearned, into this moment of Hamilton. At the same time, this phrase loaded with these initial meanings is linked to the struggle against British tyranny, bridging protagonists’ navigating the fight against Britain with the implicit fraught-ness of the struggle of navigating the realities of American racial prejudice. Burr’s pronouncement that “if you talk”—in other words, if you speak/act against the established social order—then “you’re gonna get shot” (Miranda 27) brings to audience awareness the gravity of the situation in which the characters find themselves in this moment. The possibility of failure to achieve social change is quite real, in the sense of both the moment in the narrative and in the racial sense. Revolutionary failure would result in death for those involved. But alongside the possibility of failure is the possibility of success, a nation where all are “truly free” and “those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.” In this case “me” is a white John Laurens hoping to secure the freedom the black men, women, and children he saw held captive as slaves, whose person is being represented by a man of Puerto Rican descent, highlighting the double-consciousness (of racial issues as well as the narrative action) with which we are to understand this moment.

Part IV ~ Thematic Connections

The revolutionaries of Hamilton respond to the injustices they encounter, both racial and political, by engaging in a spirit of activism rather than passively allow injustice to be perpetrated. This engagement happens, at one level, in the world of the mind and emotions. Hamilton works to demolish the intellectual foundations of the Royalist cause (see “Farmer Refuted”) through advocacy for the rights of American citizens. Similarly, Laurens and Hamilton “write essays against slavery” (Miranda & McCarter 97), leveraging their newfound influence and their intellectual abilities to advocate for the rights of slaves over and against the rights of slaveholders to own them.

The characters of Hamilton also actively engage the world around them by working not just to change hearts and minds, but to alter the circumstances around them to favor those on the receiving end of injustice. Hamilton leverages his influence, due to his “proximity to power,”  in another instance: he uses this influence to gather the resources needed to effectively resist the British (see “Right Hand Man”). Laurens also uses his position of prominence, earned by rising through the ranks of the revolutionaries, to effect change in a way that blends the cause of fighting British injustice with combating racial injustice. Over the course of the war he travels to South Carolina to emancipate and recruit “3,000 black men for the first all-black military regiment” (Miranda and McCarter 131), a venture which costs him his life.

Hamilton’s activist approach isn’t confined to the actions of its characters. Miranda and his team built activist social engagement into the play’s performance. This can be seen in the intentional casting of actors of color, perhaps one of the show’s most notable features. Shannon Walsh writes that Hamilton: An American Musical “reframes both the ‘American’ and the ‘musical’ of its title by giving voice and fully realized life to artists of color that have been historically excluded from, and representationally ridiculed on, American stages.” It puts bodies of color into a place of honor they were too often pushed out from, and what’s more, elevating them to the highest positions in American. Miranda and McCarter, writing about Chris Jackson’s role as George Washington, says that “Chris knows that plenty of people in America are uncomfortable with a black president. He also knows the symbolic power of Hamilton having three of them” (Miranda and McCarter 208).

The cast and creators’ activist approach to Hamilton can also be seen in the ways that those who are a part of the show engage with the culture around them. Benjamin Carp writes about the social context in which Hamilton was written:

In  February  2015, The New Yorker reported that Miranda and his creative team  had  been  paying  attention  to  two  deaths involving  police  in  2014:  Eric Garner  in  Staten  Island  on  July  14,  and Michael  Brown  in  Ferguson,  Missouri,  on  August  9. The fact that the cast members are people of color allows Miranda to connect the eighteenth-century Revolution to contemporary activism against police  brutality.  The show calls for an end to the “cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants,” possibly referring to the non-indictment of police officers in these two cases and others.

The circumstances that led to the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter (and similar movements) were clearly present in the minds of many involved in producing the show. On Saturday, July 9, 2016, Leslie Odom, Jr. took the Broadway stage as Aaron Burr for the last time. In the hours leading up to his performance, he wrote: “For me, today is for Alton, & his children, & the struggle. For Orlando, & Philando, & the slain officers in Dallas…#BlackLivesMatter” (White, quoting Odom, Jr. 2016). In November 2016, Brandon Victor Dixon (who played Aaron Burr that night), famously addressed vice-president elect Mike Pence, who was in attendance at a performance of Hamilton, calling him to remember that “we, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us… defend us and uphold our inalienable rights…we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us” (Mele and Healy 2016). With this sort of engagement, as well as other similar engagements by cast members of Hamilton, those involved in the production of this show demonstrate the same kind of activism as was written into their characters.

Part V ~ Concluding Thoughts

Both South Pacific and Hamilton function to draw audiences into reflection about both the nature of real-life issues, particularly issues of racial tensions in the US, as well as the just response to issues of social injustice. As part of a legacy of works dealing with these open wounds in American society, Hamilton looks back to and draws from South Pacific, with its spirit of initial confrontation of the problem of racial prejudice in America. More than that, though, Hamilton casts a vision of a more equitable America, one shaped by social activism and honest engagement with the culture around us, where further racial reconciliation is possible if we have eyes to see and the will to work toward it.

 

References

Beidler, Philip D. “South Pacific and American Remembering: Or, ‘Josh, We’re Going to Buy This Son of a Bitch!”. Journal of American Studies, vol. 27, 1993, p. 207.

Carp, Benjamin. “World Wide Enough: Historiography, Imagination, and Stagecraft”. Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 37, no. 2, 2017, pp. 289-294.

Healy, Patrick and Christopher Mele. “’Hamilton’ Had Some Unscripted Lines for Pence. Trump Wasn’t Happy.” Nytimes.com, 19 Nov. 2016. Accessed 19 April 2018.

@Lin_Manuel. “WHEN ARE Y’ALL GONNA REALIZE I’M PLAYIN CHESS, NOT CHECKERS.” Twitter, 27 May 2016, 9:57 AM. Accessed 4 April 2018.

Lovensheimer, James. “The Musico-Dramatic Evolution of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.” 2003. Ohio State University, PhD dissertation.

Maslon, Laurence. The South Pacific Companion. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

McCarter, Jeremy and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton: The Revolution. Hachette Book Group, 2016.

Most, Andrea. “‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.” Theatre Journal, Volume 52, Number 3, Oct. 2000, pp. 307-337.

Rodgers, Richard, et al. South Pacific: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical. Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2014.

White, Jessica. “Leslie Odom Jr. Dedicates Last Performance to #BlackLivesMatter.”   Broadwayblack.com, 11 Jul. 2016. Accessed 5 April 2018.

 

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