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If only the reward for turning in every group project was a ticket to Hamilton.
That dream incentive came true Tuesday for the entire junior class at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Every student completed a multi-disciplinary American history and literature project, and every student came to the Kennedy Center to see Hamilton.
“Our policy was you do your project, you get a ticket. They did their projects,” said Tiffany Jackson, a proud American literature teacher at the Georgetown school. She and her colleague Stephen Edge, who teaches history, led the largest of more than a dozen student delegations to the Kennedy Center for a student matinee known as “EduHam.” Over 1,000 D.C. students from traditional public and public charter schools filled the Kennedy Center Opera House, along with, randomly, a contingent of uniformed Walmart employees who had received free tickets. (A donation from Walmart helped fund transportation and lunch for the D.C. Public School students, and company volunteers were invited to stay for the show.)
The kids screamed. The girls squealed. The Walmart ladies yelled “Oh no, girl!” Some catcalled when Hamilton merely kissed Angelica’s hand and some booed when King George sang a line about killing all your friends and family to remind you of his love.
It was not your typical Hamilton crowd. And that was only what the response to Act 1.
But it was, perhaps, a test of resiliency for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s material. Can the Tony-winning juggernaut captivate teenagers who may be on their maiden trip to the hallowed red velour halls of the Kennedy Center and may be seeing a musical for the first time?
It can. But the reactions of Tuesday’s crowd indicate that teachers taking students to see Hamilton should make sure students are familiar with the Reynolds Pamphlet as will as the Federalist Papers.
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The Kennedy Center student performances—another group of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia schools sent kids on Thursday—represented a homecoming of sorts for EduHam. The curriculum, developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, was road-tested in Washington two-and-a-half years ago, when the original Broadway cast of Hamilton performed at the White House for a select group of students, and those students performed for them.
As the curriculum was implemented at Duke Ellington this fall, Jackson and Edge worked together to teach both history and rhetorical principles. For example, Jackson explained to students that before writing Hamilton, Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography. Meanwhile in history class, Edge emphasized the importance of studying primary sources that are not necessarily in reprinted in textbooks. The EduHam curriculum includes many documents mentioned in the musical, including the Federalist Papers as well as Samuel Seabury’s “Farmer’s Letters” and Hamilton’s response, “The Farmer Refuted.”
“We actually had the resources that we normally have to scour for,” Edge said. “It was a lot more streamlined, and I got to work directly with [Jackson]. It was excellent to share the load.”
“We were looking at context, we were looking at images, we were looking at documentaries on PBS, and we were looking at transcripts,” Jackson said. “It was good, but it messed with my unit plans.”
The two teachers spoke Tuesday while herding their students up to the Kennedy Center’s terrace level, where caterers waited with hundreds of turkey sandwiches.
One pair of students linked arms and spontaneously decided to be theater majors and roommates at NYU. Another told Edge it was so awesome that Hamilton “makes people who hate history want to learn history.”
And a one poor girl faced serious claustrophobia issues in the Kennedy Center elevator, and was comforted by Jackson, as well as other teachers wearing bright orange vests that marked them as Hamilton chaperones, but also made them resemble well-dressed crossing guards.
The chaotic lunch followed a morning performance featuring students from 10 low-income schools on the Hamilton stage. Duke Ellington chose three students to perform a spoken word scene inspired by the Continental Congress, but their top five projects also included an original dance and a violin sonata,
“I’m glad we didn’t chose a rap. There was lots of rap,” Jackson said.
Jamari Ross of National Collegiate Preparatory School riffed on police brutality, while two girls from Paul International High School carried a tea tray out onstage and attempted to recount the story of Paul Revere and company dumping tea in the Boston Harbor.
“Come on Britain. You so dang wack,” they said, dissolving into laughter midway through their big moment.
All won praise from Hamilton cast members, six of whom came onstage to answer questions submitted in advance. Given the sort of advice kids asked for, the actors easily could have responded with platitudes about studying hard and trying out for the high school musical. They didn’t. They were brutally honest about the perils of pursuing a career in theater.
“There are going to be some years when you get to buy a designer bag and then you are going to have another year when you look at the bag in the corner and want to sell it on eBay. It is a field of ups and downs,” warned Jennie Harney-Fleming, an standby who went on in the role of Angelica Schuyler at the Tuesday matinee.
To the student who asked what the professional performers were like in high school, the actors had plenty of cautionary tales. “I was ignorant and irresponsible,” warned Chaundre Hall-Broomfield, who plays James Madison in this touring production. Raymond Baynard, an ensemble member who went on as Phillip Hamilton’s duel partner George Eaker, urged the students to obey those teachers wearing orange vests.
“They’re not on your back because they hate you,” he said. “They are on your back because they see something in you.”
During Act 2 of the musical, when Baynard “shot” young Philip, many students in the audience howled and hollered “Noooo!” The only other scene in the show to elicit such a strong response was the founding father’s hook-up with Maria Reynolds. (“I thought this show was supposed to be PG,” a surprised Walmart employee exclaimed over the din of student catcalls.)
Perhaps when he wrote the music, Miranda thought teens would be more enticed by the Cabinet Battle rap scenes than by a sex scandal. If so, he was wrong: The majority were more engaged by the soap opera, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t learn something.
In the musical’s penultimate scene, all the actors freeze just before a fatal bullet lodges near Hamilton’s heart. Burr narrates the tragedy at Weehawken, explaining why he shot his rival rather than firing into the air.
“They won’t teach you this in your classes, but look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses.”
Perhaps that was true before 2016. But this is 2018. And now, if they are lucky—and if they do their projects—the classes come to Hamilton.
This post has been updated with additional information on the roles of Walmart and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in this project.