Teens tell America's story with help from 'Hamilton,'

Students from Hillside High School perform on Hamilton's stage on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 as part of the EduHam initiative. (Lorena Rios Trevino/The Charlotte Observer via AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kaycee Hailey got hooked on "Hamilton" when she watched the 2016 Tony awards with a friend. Not only did Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical sweep the theater awards, but the African American teen from Charlotte saw a parade of performers who looked like her.

Fast forward two years. "Hamilton" had come to Charlotte, where some tickets sold for more than $400.

Hailey, now a senior at West Charlotte High, had fallen hard for Miranda's catchy tunes, witty lyrics and fresh telling of America's story through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton. She had listened to "Satisfied," her favorite song, maybe 100 times.

On Nov. 1, Hailey and two friends, Kaliyah Landrum and Shazaria Hoover, walked into the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center — not through the lobby but through the stage door. They passed dressing rooms where costumes were laid out for the upcoming matinee.

Violin case in hand, Hailey looked out at the towering brick backdrop where she would soon see "Hamilton" come to life.

But first, the trio of 17-year-olds would have to deliver their own performance, an original poem about Sally Hemings' life set to music. And they'd have to do it in a theater packed four layers deep with teens.

Despite her nerves, Hailey says, she felt a surge of power. In their telling, Hemings wouldn't just be the slave and mistress of President Thomas Jefferson. She would be a black woman whose pain, sacrifice and courage are the story of America.

Hailey struck up an original tune in a minor key. By the time Hoover and Landrum recited their final lines — "For Lady Liberty to stand tall / So many black women had to fall" — the audience was applauding wildly.

EduHam in Charlotte

Welcome to the Hamilton Education Program, commonly known as EduHam.

The arrival of the road show in North Carolina — the Charlotte run recently finished, and a month-long stint in Durham has begun — stirred a frenzy among fans who lacked the money or opportunity to see Hamilton in New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

Behind the scenes, educators, philanthropists and arts backers were working to ensure that about 2,000 students from 22 schools would get a chance not only to see the show in Charlotte for $10 — "a Hamilton" — but to engage with American history in ways that speak to their own experience.

EduHam came about when historian and author Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton was the basis for the musical, told the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History about a former seventh-grade English teacher who had composed an off-Broadway musical about the first U.S. treasury secretary.

Education director Tim Bailey says he was skeptical but went to check it out. "Yeah," he recalls saying, "I think we can do something with this."

The Institute, Miranda, Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York City Department of Education pulled together an educational tie-in in the fall of 2015, open to students in high-poverty Title I schools. Charlotte is among 14 cities taking part as the show tours the country in 2018-19 (Durham isn't among them).

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation and Blumenthal Performing Arts kicked in to make the local program happen.

Hurricanes and history

It's not enough for participating schools to meet the poverty guidelines and ask for discounted tickets. They must agree to a rigorous lesson plan that will be used in American history classes, with each student's work submitted to the institute.

For many of the North Carolina schools, including those in Charlotte, that meant meeting tight deadlines despite school closings forced by two hurricanes.

At West Charlotte High, enthusiasm more than offset the hurdles. The school has played its own role in Charlotte history — as a focus of African American pride school during Jim Crow segregation, a national role model for desegregation in the 1970s and a symbol of resegregation today.

Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones likes to talk about rewriting the headlines — countering reports about academic struggles and violence in the surrounding community with a vision of a mostly-black school that's generating pride and success. Last year West Charlotte revived its theater department, staging Miranda's previous musical "In the Heights."

Barnes-Jones and her teachers hoped EduHam would provide another chance to shine.

Hailey, the young Hamilton fan, was ecstatic. She had asked her mom to email the principal about EduHam as soon as she heard the show was coming to Charlotte.

Other students weren't sure what the fuss was about. "Some were like, 'Ugh, a musical,' " recalls history teacher Ayanna Perry.

How do you know?

During a class in early October, Perry had students listen to "Helpless" and "Satisfied," songs about the complex relationship between Hamilton and sisters Eliza and Angelica Schuyler. In the musical, the sisters are both single and smitten, with Angelica yielding to let her sister become Hamilton's bride.

In reality, Perry told the class, Angelica was already married by the time the sisters met Hamilton.

The students talked about how the scenes remind them of relationship drama in their own lives. A female student mentioned "the girl code" against moving on someone else's boyfriend. A male classmate responded that "Hamilton started it."

"Everybody's a gossip," another student said. "How do you know what was true?"

If EduHam could be boiled down to one question, that would be it. The goal is to teach students how to find and interpret original documents and understand how history is filtered through the voice of the teller.

Perry says she can grab interest with music and videos in a way that might not happen with texts. "If I know how to pull a song apart," she said, "I know how to pull a document apart."

In one exercise, all EduHam students read colonist Samuel Seabury's defense of staying loyal to King George and Hamilton's rebuttal. Then they analyze how it compares with "Farmer Refuted," in which Hamliton sings lines like, "My dog speaks more eloquently than thee."

Hailey chuckles when she recalls that lesson. "Some of those insults were not in the original text," she said, but the spirit was true.

Whose story to tell

In order to attend the show, each EduHam student has to create a two-minute presentation based on a figure or episode from the period of history encompassed in "Hamilton."

For some, it was little more than a traditional oral report. Others turned to music, poetry, rap and drama.

The West Charlotte trio brought a mix of skills to their project. Landrum and Hoover are both visual artists. Hoover also likes to write.

Hailey is a violinist and writer whose opinion pieces about education have been published in the Observer and EdNC, an online education newsletter. And she had been fascinated by Annette Gordon-Reed's book "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." The three decided to tackle Hemings' story, relying partly on an 1873 account written by Madison Hemings about his parents, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

At first they just worked on a poem. But when Hailey attended an event that included a spoken word performance set to music they expanded their vision.

The result was a poem that opens with Landrum and Hoover, dressed in black, reciting in the voice of Madison Hemings, "If my mother's life were a song I'd play it in a minor key / With accidental majors thrown in she / Kept singing along for dear life / Her time and her skin only brought her strife." Hailey accompanies with a haunting violin melody.

Students who wanted to be considered for a stage performance had to submit a video to West Charlotte faculty. For Landrum the idea of reciting in front of a group was a stretch — "When I present projects in front of the class I get really nervous, like my voice shakes" — but she wanted to help Hailey realize her dream.

The faculty decided they had two outstanding performances: This one and a piece on poet Phyllis Wheatley, done by Hailey's twin sister Kamryn and classmate Niya Friday. The students say the teachers let them decide which would be submitted to the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Kamryn Hailey says her sister's passion for Hamilton made that group the logical choice.

Show time

Even that didn't guarantee a shot at the Belk Theater stage. Twenty-two schools — one from Chesapeake, Va., and the rest from around North Carolina — submitted their best pieces. West Charlotte was one of five Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in the mix, along with Garinger, Harding, West Meck and Vance.

The institute chose 14 to perform at the Nov. 1 event. The West Charlotte trio was the only one from CMS. And they would close out the student performances.

By then, hours of rehearsal at home and at school had made all three confident in their roles. As the young performers arrived they were greeted by "Hamilton" ensemble cast member Tyler McKenzie, who graduated from Central Academy of Technology & Arts in Union County.

Backstage, McKenzie led the students in breathing exercises and gave them a pep talk, Hailey recalls. McKenzie also served as emcee for the student performances, urging the audience to be "mindfully lit" and making sure every act got an enthusiastic welcome.

Donovan Moonie from Hunter Huss High in Gastonia delivered a powerful rap on the slave experience.

Dorrian Perkins and Mason Gumbs from North Forsyth High used a ukulele to accompany their song about the Boston Tea Party. Students were dancing in their seats and cheering as the duo chanted their chorus of "Dump the tea, dump the tea, dump the tea — Dump it!"

There was a pair wearing colonial garb above the waist and jeans and sneakers below, acting out the duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. There were historic lyrics set to tunes ranging from Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" to Nicki Minaj's "Chun-Li."

Finally it was time for West Charlotte. As they took the stage Hailey thought she was calm, though she saw her fingers shaking as she placed them on her violin. Then she played a few notes and "it felt like it was me and my friends."

After that came the fun part: Hearing cast members answer student questions, scrambling for a quick lunch and coming back to watch the show.

Hailey, Hoover and Landrum left beaming.

Bailey, the history institute official who helped give birth to EduHam, says the program has three goals: Inspire students to learn about the American Revolution. Teach them how to research and analyze documents.

"Lastly," he said, "I wanted them to walk away with an experience they would never forget."

Mission accomplished.

___

Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com

 

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