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The theater doesn't have to be 'safe'

Theater goers queue up to enter the Richard

Theater goers queue up to enter the Richard Rodgers Theater for the 3 PM performance of Hamilton, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Actually, President-elect Mr. Trump, the theater doesn't have to be "safe."

It's best, at times, when it's not.

Sure, you can go to see a show that's filled with bright colors and happy dancers and melodies without dissonance and a story without depth or sadness or fear or conflict. There are plenty of those - and they're often a respite for reality.

But dating back even to the days of Rogers and Hammerstein and shows like South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I, the best of musical theater challenges its audiences to think and feel differently. The theater is a place where you are forced to confront uncomfortable truths, where you leave with new ideas, new knowledge, and perhaps even a different way of looking at the world. It's a place where writers, directors, actors and musicians have the freedom to speak and sing in their own voices, even if you're not used to their words, or when perhaps you prefer opera but are hearing hip hop. Theater can change you, shake you, and leave you raw.

When Vice President-elect Mike Pence arrived at the Richard Rogers theater to see "Hamilton" last night, he might have expected only the bright colors and happy melodies.

But he left, challenged. Not just by the music, the mostly minority cast, and the messages deeply rooted in history regarding leadership, freedom, and immigration.

He was greeted with boos from others in the audience, probably unnecessary and somewhat inappropriate for the setting. And then, fully appropriately, he was challenged by the cast of "Hamilton" itself, when during its curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, spoke directly to Pence, who was already leaving the theater.

"We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us." Dixon said, as Pence stood in the hallway just outside the theater and listened.

Dixon told Pence of a broad concern that "your administration" would not protect and defend all people and their rights. He noted that the show's cast included people of different races and orientations, perhaps a nod to Pence's homophobic track record and refusal to support gay rights legislation.

Of course, Dixon's remarks took place after the scripted show had ended but they were still part of the theatrical experience. It was still a moment of theater, and it was still in its own way, a piece of art, meant to carry an important message from artists to one of their new leaders. Indeed, Dixon's message was itself scripted, written in part by Lin Manuel-Miranda, Hamilton's composer.

Enter the president-elect, who tweeted today that Pence was "harassed" by the "Hamilton" cast.

"The Theater must always be a safe and special place," Trump wrote. "The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!"

Dixon wasn't "rude" to Pence - and he certainly wasn't harassing him.

It's worrisome that Trump would even suggest such a thing, as our freedoms to speak, to create, to sing and to act are oh so important - and Trump must not even suggest the notion that such speech was inappropriate or unsafe or required an apology. It's a dangerous and slippery slope from there to silencing the speech and darkening the art with which we do not agree. Trump shouldn't be even stepping out on the edge of that mountain-top.

Last year, actor and writer George Takei brought his musical, Allegiance, to the Broadway stage. It was a story based on Takei's own experience in Japanese internment camps. It was a beautifully-told, important story that taught and resonated with many a theater-goer. Takei publicly invited Trump to come see the show, to learn about the results of what Takei called "a politics of fear."

As far as I know, Trump never saw the show.

If he had, he would've known that the moments where theater makes you most uncomfortable, where actors and writers can make you rethink what you know and what you believe, where they can remind you of history that might make you sad or angry, where they can speak directly to you, are exactly what makes theater so "special."


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