Hamilton Education Program showcases talent, creativity of Bay Area teenagers that would make Lin-Manuel Miranda proud

Illustration of Hamilton
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Just a few years ago, the name Hamilton meant very little to the average American student, other than the fact that it was a name that they were forced to learn during high school history classes. Today, however, the name has become synonymous with Broadway, rap music and impossibly hard-to-get tickets.

Combining hip hop with musical theater and a cast composed almost entirely of performers of color, “Hamilton: An American Musical” made rapid waves when it premiered at The Public Theater and moved onto Broadway in 2015. In San Francisco, the touring show has made its home at the Orpheum Theatre for the past year, with an open run that was recently extended through May 31.

With a long-standing residency at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, multiple national tours, a West End production and upcoming productions in Germany and Australia, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus has become a cultural behemoth to theater and nontheater fans alike. The musical has done the seemingly impossible — it has made both theater and history cool to high schoolers.

How does a hit show, Broadway darling, Tony and Grammy-winning musical resonate with Gen Z? The answer: EduHam.

Partnered with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the musical has created an interactive educational experience that brings the Founding Fathers and other historical American figures to life beyond textbooks and essays. Through the Hamilton Education Program, or “EduHam” for short, local high schoolers are given access to a database filled with resources on historical figures and have the opportunity to create and perform “Hamilton”-esque art pieces of their own. In San Francisco, dozens of high schools have brought their students to the Orpheum Theatre this year to watch selected students perform their pieces on the historic stage.

Creativity runs deep within Bay Area high schoolers — at the Nov. 13 showcase, for example, some students performed spoken word, while others wrote songs or enacted scenes. One group combined poetry with interpretative dance at a level of talent that is astonishing given the age of the teenage participants. Another student wrote a rap performed entirely in Spanish that left the whole theater moving along to the beat and speechless at the same time.

What’s ironic is that several of these high schoolers had no initial interest in American history. For high schoolers Belen Suarez and Mylon Turner, who performed an amazing spoken word poem about Sally Hemings, the often looked-over slave and purported mistress of Thomas Jefferson, their work started off as another inconsequential assignment from their history teacher.  As Turner explains, it wasn’t until she researched more about Sally Hemings and the injustice in her life that she began taking the assignment more seriously and showing interest in Hemings beyond school.

“When I knew that poem was done, I just kept going — looking up stuff about her just to find out more about her,” Turner quipped. The duo’s dedication to Hemings showed in Turner and Suarez’s performance, which was met with a roar of applause and cheers from their peers and educators.

A similar story is found with high schooler Ari Grim, whose school had previously participated in the EduHam program. “I didn’t take the first one seriously,” Grim laughingly conceded. But one would never have guessed that with Grim’s impassioned performance; a self-proclaimed “poet at heart,” the student’s spoken word showcase discussed American history from Black Americans’ perspective, calling out the Founding Fathers and their active roles in the United States’ grim history of slavery. It was brilliant and chilling, and the audience’s reaction was reminiscent of when Lin-Manuel Miranda himself first performed a simple rap piece that would become the opening song to “Hamilton” at the White House 10 years ago. That is, everyone was awestruck at the sheer genius of Grim’s words.

When asked about the inspiration behind the poem, Grim credited Jay-Z and Frank Ocean’s “Oceans” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” This demonstrated a fascinating mix of two very different cultural texts that Miranda himself would approve of.

Suarez and Turner’s Sally Hemings tribute and Grim’s poem are only two of the incredible student-helmed performances from one week of EduHam. Now imagine that creativity tenfold, with performances by students every week and all across the country — from Chicago to Nashville. EduHam has brought a new facet to the global phenomenon that is “Hamilton” and continues to give talented teenagers the opportunity to breathe new life into American history.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].