Monday, December 5, 2016

Don't Call Hamilton Curtain Speech Bullying

Brandon Victor Dixon of Hamilton addresses Mike Pence
The tempest in a teapot over the speech delivered by Hamilton cast member Brandon Victor Dixon to audience member and Vice-President-elect Mike Pence appears to have finally died down. It has elicited a firestorm of comments on both sides of the political aisle. The hashtag #BoycottHamilton trended on Twitter, but it appears the box office has not been significantly affected. A pro-Trump audience member get rowdy at a Chicago performance, but there have not other reports of a major backlash. On a public bus I was standing right next to a group of young people talking about Broadway in general and how difficult it is to get tickets to the hip-hop Tony winning show. "But it may be easier now because some people are calling for a boycott because of the lecture they delivered," said the young man.


"It wasn't a lecture," I snapped without thinking. I don't think I was being rude. It didn't say it in a nasty way and the group smiled at me and went back to their conversation. I reacted so quickly because it enraged me to have Dixon's remarks which were reportedly partially written by the show's author Lin-Manuel Miranda, characterized as a lecture. Dixon was unfailingly polite in his delivery, even calling on the audience not to boo Pence and expressed genuine concerns about the Trump administration's racist (or at best race-baiting) rhetoric during the campaign. The cast were asking the future VP to remember ALL Americans should be treated equally and to think about the founding of our country as depicted in the show they had just performed for him.

In a piece for the website Times Square Chronicles which she co-owns and publishes, Suzanna Bowling labelled the speech "bullying" and cast Pence as a victim of the mean old cast members. This I have a problem with. We can debate if the speech was condescending, elitist, or a lecture, but I don't see how you can call it bullying. I was bullied all through elementary and high school and I know what bullying is. It's being threatened with physical violence by someone much bigger, stronger, and more powerful than you. When it's used as a verb, the dictionary defines bullying as to be intimidating or domineering someone weaker. How can the cast of a Broadway show threaten or intimidate the second most powerful man in the free world, surrounded by Secret Service agents and NYC police?  What were they threatening him with? A few moments of slight discomfort? Disapproval? Bad seats? Pointing out his own bigotry and homophobia?

Bowling also points out the event was covered by television crews as if the media had been tipped off about the speech and they were laying a trap to embarrass Pence. The new Vice-President who campaigned with a racist agenda attending a show celebrating American diversity is big news, so of course they would film it. I'm pretty sure there were photographers and camera crews when Obama attended Hamilton, A Raisin in the Sun, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. BTW, when Hillary attended Hamilton, she got booed too--and she received some cheers as did Pence.

I guess what really irks me most about Bowling's calling the Hamilton cast bullies is that Trump is biggest bully going. He set the combative tone by threatening those who disagreed with him during his rallies, making personal insults his default response against opponents rather than offering constructive alternative opinions, and generally being a harassing jerk. Trump is the dictionary definition of a bully. And his mouthpieces like Kellyanne Conway, Pence, and Paul Ryan have the gall to call him "refreshing" and that he "tells it like it is."

Bowling wrote a follow-up piece in which she defended her characterization of the event and cast her critics as bullies because she has dared to have a different view than the stereotypical liberal New York one. She states she has lost friends because of her stance and that people are vilifying her because she is in the minority among the theater crowd. Bowling has a right to her opinion and to express it in whatever terms she choses. I, in turn, have the right to criticize her use of the word "bullying" and call into the question the right's twisting and warping of language and to point out that theater is not necessarily a "safe space" for elected officials and public figures.

Rue McClanahan and Stacy Keach in MacBird (1967)
Art and theater have always dared to be speak truth to power, or at any rate they should. Eartha Kitt spoke out about the Vietnam War and the poor conditions of African-American youth when she was invited to the Johnson White House. LBJ was satirized by Barbara Garson in a parody called MacBird. Gore Vidal skewered Tricky Dick in his play An Evening with Richard Nixon as did Peter Ustinov in a comedy called Who's Who in Hell. No doubt there will be satires aplenty on the Trump administration. Will that be considered bullying?

Pence has stated he was not offended by Dixon's remarks and did not need an apology. Although I disagree with everything Pence stands for, he at least has acted like a mature adult while his boss has behaved like a spoiled child, twitter-ranting about the Hamilton speech and whining about SNL mocking him. How would Trump have handled an audience booing him? Probably he'd have cried like a baby on Twitter. That's how bullies are, they can dish it out but they can't take it.

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