Friday, June 18, 2021

What Goes Up Must Come Down

I have already said that I would not be wading too deep into this colorism debate surrounding In The Heights. Inasmuch as I can try to avoid doing so, I will try to stay true to my word...

Instead, I will opine about how fickle the nature of fame can be. A few years ago, no one had heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda when he was dropping rhymes on the re-booted Electric Company to help kids understand the power of the Silent E. I may need to go back to line up the dates better, but I hadn't heard of him or his first play until that White House special with the cast of Hamilton (that I had only heard of because Spelman's incoming President glowingly raved about it at some alumnae function). It was only later that year that I got hitched onto the Miranda bandwagon and I am happy to say that I am still riding.

Although I get the criticism of both Hamilton and In the Heights, as I point out to people on a regular basis, everything ain't for everybody. If you don't like Miranda's music, that is fine. Trust, there is a LOT of music that I can't stand (TRAP) and y'all love it. I cannot tell you how many IG and TikTok videos have trap music soundtracking and how hard my eyes roll. But since I don't know who any of those artists are, I don't make it a point to declare on my social media how proud I am to hate their music. I'm a Busy Black Woman with too much to do...

So the persistent hate that appears to be aimed at Miranda has puzzled me. But he isn't the only artist who has found himself served as the main course at the opposite of a love fest. I've seen it happen to Lizzo, Issa Rae, and even the Queen Bey herself. In the past, I watched it happen to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and the Oprah. I am sure that there are others who have hit the pinnacle of success only to fly too close to the sun like Icarus and find themselves free-falling back to earth. It is the ying and yang of fame.

Yet, there is something extra mean about the way certain artists and public figures get dragged on social media. I agree that no one is above criticism, but there is a tendency on these platforms for people to strap up and viciously attack people for small misdemeanor level offenses. Even I have done it, so my glass house has its own cracks. I took great joy at lampooning the last President for his clumsy mis-statements and verbal vomit, precisely because he took great joy at punching down and relentlessly bashing others for their missteps. He didn't earn the name Trumpelthinskin for being a live and let live kind of guy. And to the extent that public figures know that for all of the love, they will receive plenty of hate, it still seems as if the rise and fall of fame is a lot quicker and the crash a lot harder these days.

Take Chrissy Teigen for example. I have followed her on Twitter for years. When she left, I missed her, so I celebrated her return to the platform a month or so later. Admittedly, I had not paid close attention to her tweets unless she said something funny, so I was not as aware of her history as a bully. And that is unacceptable, so she deserves to be called out and even lose some of her commercial endorsements if she behaved as badly as has been reported. But that doesn't mean that turn-around is fair play (Candace Owens), because in a few years that could be you (Candace Owens), and it would be terrible for your children to be exposed to some of the horrible things that you (Candace Owens) have said about others and then have all of that vitriol hurled back at you.

(Yeah, CandO I won't forget how you took great glee in outing Andrew Gillum, which was one of your most egregious mean girl moments. As the old folks say, God don't like ugly and He ain't too fond of cute.) 

Bullying is ugly in all of its various forms. It is ugly when it comes from the President of the United States and it is ugly when it comes from the mean kid on the playground. It is also ugly when it comes from the rest of us average folks with marginal talent. You may not be a theatre geek, a sci-fi nerd, a political junkie, or a sports fanatic. But let those that identify in that manner be who they are. Legitimate criticism is one thing, but gleeful bashing because you can't relate is something else.

Before Hamilton was released on Disney+ last summer, I noticed that Miranda was taking a few knocks on the chin for his other work. He wrote the music for Moana, a movie that I happen to love, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2017. At the same time, he starred in the sequel to Mary Poppins, made numerous guest appearances, wrote a song for Puerto Rican hurricane relief, and was generally everywhere. Folks were taking small shots at him on Twitter, dissing his music and his acting, but as far as I could tell, it was the normal backlash that one could expect while basking in the limelight of fame. Then Hamilton was released last summer and whew...

Mind you, a few years earlier when we were not all stuck in the house during a global pandemic, trying to secure tickets to see Hamilton on stage was like trying to get a vaccine appointment back in February 2021. It was here in DC at the Kennedy Center in 2018 and the cheapest ticket sold for $200 in the back of the balcony. I had been entering the daily ticket lottery and hoped that maybe I could even score a chance to see it in London (no, I cannot justify how I intended to pay for a hotel and plane tickets but not for a theater ticket). I got my Niece hooked on the soundtrack and then my Kid, so every single day for at least a year...Hamilton became for them what The Wiz (film version) and Annie soundtracks were for me when I was their age. 

And for what it is worth, I have joked that Miranda's songs all sound the same. But so do most artists because they have a distinctive style. Go through a few of the #PlaylistProject pieces and you will see what I mean. The fact that his style is recognizable doesn't make him any less talented. 

So the backlash against Hamilton once it became more accessible was fierce. I saw many tweets that dismissed his work, much of it expressing a general disdain for musical theater, but then it morphed into diatribes against his interpretation of the history (because he chose to paint a much rosier picture of Alexander Hamilton than what was in fact true). Now with In the Heights, the barbs seem more personal, as in suggesting that Miranda intentionally chose to showcase a white-washed narrative of his own life.

Yeah, so I will have to wade into this colorism theme a bit because In the Heights is Miranda's story. And in all of the debate, it feels as if folks aren't acknowledging that part.

As you know, I am married into a Puerto Rican family from Sunset Park in Brooklyn via Aguadilla on the island. I have been a part of this family for 25 years. All of them look like the folks in Miranda's movie (which I have not yet seen). My late MIL, who was very intentional in identifying herself to me as a woman of color had brown skin only slightly darker than mine. Part of the reason why I have been reluctant to address the colorism is because I understand how that has played a role in my own life (and how it would read like I was getting defensive). Yet, my Blackity-Black non-Latinx family's color spectrum runs the gamut. We hail from Washington, DC via Southern Maryland; Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Toccoa, Georgia. So if I were to cast actors to star in the movie version of my life, how much agency should I have in making those choices? 

In asking that question, that doesn't let Miranda off the hook. He could have made different choices, and given the criticism that director Jon Chu acknowledged about his casting in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), nobody will walk away happy if they feel that their perspective is missing from the narrative. It's almost as if Miranda's words and deeds keep coming back to haunt him--who lives, who dies, who tells your story...

Because when he created Hamilton and cast it the way he did, he opened a Pandora's Box that he will never be able to close. Of all people, Lin-Manuel Miranda will always be held to a higher standard and will be judged more harshly, and that isn't fair. The producers of Les Miserables never worried about representation, not until they cast Norman Lewis as Javert for the 25th Anniversary concert in 2010, and then miscast Russell Crowe in the 2012 film. And though somebody didn't mind his terrible singing, my guess is that Crowe was cast because he is a bigger named star than Norman Lewis, who is only well-known to the New York theatre-going crowd. 

Thus, in a story written about the experience of growing up Latinx in New York City, there is no doubt that Miranda could have insisted on casting more Afro-Latinx actors. Therefore, the next question is whether that would have been enough. Aren't there other marginalized ethnic groups in New York City that would love to see aspects of their community represented on the big screen? Wasn't our complaint about shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City that while these shows were based in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, they rarely featured people of color? Or when they did, we existed on the periphery like the wallpaper? Has David Schwimmer sufficiently recovered from the dragging he got from making the suggestion of an all-Black Friends reboot?

Is it Lin-Manuel Miranda's responsibility to create space for every representation of the Latinx community, or does he need to prop the door open for others to follow him to the stage or studio in order to tell their stories? 

Okay, I will wade back into the colorism conversation with another anecdote--my daughter knows exactly who Lin-Manuel Miranda is when she sees him. She also recognizes several other cast members from the original Broadway production by name: Anthony Ramos, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and Phillipa Soo. She recognizes Rene Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom, Jr. as their characters. I never gave much thought to why she knows some cast members by name until now. Several of those characters look a lot like members of her family. In particular, Miranda, Diggs, and Jackson look like they could be her uncles and Ramos looks like two of her cousins. She pretends to be Eliza Schuyler whenever she is singing along and sometimes taps me to be Angelica...because representation does matter.

Back to Miranda's unfortunate Icarus fall from the sky--his wings got singed, but he will be alright. Like Taylor Swift (another one who has been up and down on the see-saw of popularity) sings, haters gonna hate. He can compose a new musical, write more songs for PBS Kids and Disney, release another Hamilton mixtape, and continue to make it possible for other artists of color to get their shot. 

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