Special “Hamilton” program engages students in U.S. history

Students from area high schools performed onstage March 14 at The Paramount Theater for EduHAM, an educational program developed around the show “Hamilton.” (Photo by Christopher Nelson.)

At the Paramount Theater last week, Highline High School students Maria Arevalo, Valerie Tran, and Anita Chung got onstage and sang the refrain of their original spoken word poem “Boston Tea Party” inspired by the musical “Hamilton.”

“Why you gotta be so goddamned greedy?” they sang, with their words resounding to the roof.

When it comes to elevating student voice, EduHAM, an educational program connected to the hip-hop inflected Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” makes it happen.

EduHAM is a national program created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which offers an education-focused performance of the show to students attending high schools with a high percentage of low-income families.

Local and national sponsors of the special event brought the show’s ticket prices, which ranged from $250 to $1,000 for the general public, down to an affordable $10 each. Seattle’s run of the show included two EduHAM performances.

Arevalo, Tran and Chung were among the 2,800 students and teachers from Seattle- and Portland-area high schools who took part in EduHAM at the Paramount.

The extended program included performances by students, a question and answer session with Hamilton cast members and an exclusive matinee performance of the full-scale “Hamilton” production.

Hamilton cast member Conroe Brooks also called for moments of silence in honor of the 17 students and teachers who died in a shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The March 14 performance took place at the same day as the national school walkout, an organized protest of gun violence. At the Paramount, student performers lined up on stage, and one by one, spoke out the names of the people whose lives were taken that day.

After the memorial, student performers were called in turn to perform their artistic renditions of what they had learned through weeks of studying a multi-media curriculum about Alexander Hamilton and the era around the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States of America.

For many students, creating an original performance piece based on their studies was a prerequisite to attending the performance. The most compelling were chosen to be performed at the EduHAM Seattle event.

Molly Monahan from A.C. Davis High School in Yakima opened the performances with a rap, bass beats pumping through the auditorium’s speakers. Lee Louveda of Olympus High School in Tacoma finished the performances with an original acoustic song, “Common Sense, Do You Have Any?”

Arevalo, Tran and Chung, the three Highline High School students who wrote a poem about the Boston Tea Party, said they wanted to portray the stark contrast of the colonists’ and the British leaders’ points of view, in events preceding the Revolutionary War, in their piece.

The girls have had experience in performance as members of their school’s dance team, but this was the first time they have presented a piece of spoken word, Chung said.

“As minority women, we have to fight a little harder for what we want to get across,” she said. “I’m motivated that what I say matters and can inspire others to find and share their voices.”

The girls said they were not always ardent fans of U.S. history. But Chung said it was the “artistic ability that gets you to learn.”

Rainier Beach High School student Esai Contreras’ “Hamilton” rap was met with the youthful enthusiasm of exuberant applause that ran as an undercurrent of the day’s event.

Contreras, 18, said he related to the main character, Alexander Hamilton and his studious attitude and interest in politics.

“When I’m involved in something, I want to get on it,” Contreras said. “I feel like he had something to prove, and so do I.”

Cast member Conroe Brooks said that “Hamilton’s” level of engagement with audiences sets the show apart for him.

“It’s a show that changes people’s lives; we hear that a lot,” he said.

According to industry statistics, musical theater audiences are largely older, white and wealthy.

For those audiences, Brooks said “Hamilton” challenges them to “embrace the vision of seeing minority actors playing powerful people—to know that we have a voice and can tell this amazing, powerful story of our history.”

For EduHAM — where the high school audiences have been more diverse than general audiences in ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds — the impact can be personal.

“The fact that people of color get to play these roles allows students to see themselves up there,” Brooks said.

Ultimately, these students might garner inspiration toward future artistic and political engagement.

Following every number of “Hamilton,” the students offered uproarious applause filled with cheers and an effervescent energy.

Vicky Lee, director of Education and Performance Programs for Seattle Theatre Group, called that cheering crowd “the future voices of America.”