Arts & Entertainment

‘Hamilton’ Gives CPS Students Their Shot

With resale tickets occasionally exceeding $700, the opportunity to see the Tony Award-winning musical sensation “Hamilton” isn’t accessible for many. But the recently unveiled Hamilton Education Program, #EduHam, is allowing nearly 20,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) students to see the hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton for, well, a Hamilton — $10.

Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller initially devised the program with the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The innovative educational program launched in New York City in April 2016 when the show partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation.

Following the program’s smashing success in New York City, Chicago groups such as the Crown and Goodman families, The Joyce Foundation and the Polk Bros. Foundation, all stepped up to bring #EduHam to the Windy City. The March 15 program marked the third of 10 student performances set to take place through May.

Before seeing the show, the program distributes material to the students so they can learn about Hamilton’s life. But Carmen Villagomez, a student at Epic Academy Charter High School, said they weren’t just typical lesson plans.

“My history class just gives us papers and expects us to read and annotate them.But for this, my teacher actually made us listen to songs, get into the songs, look up what documents inspired the songs, why did it inspire it,” Villagomez said. “It got me to see [the Founding Fathers] in a different light. That they, like many of the cast said, were human. They’re just like us. They struggled and did a lot of other things.”

Carmen Villagomez, a student at Epic Academy Charter High School, performs her original song during the Hamilton Education Program at the PrivateBank Theatre. Courtesy of Nick Coulson

The daylong program began with an introduction from the very enthusiastic and encouraging emcee Miguel Cervantes, who plays the title role in the Chicago company of “Hamilton.” The actor helped ease the nerves of the 23 students who would take the stage for the next hour in front of nearly 1,900 of their peers.

The 12 student acts were composed of raps, skits, songs and spoken word on topics surrounding the topics they learned in their lessons on Hamilton and the foundational period of America. Students worked on their performances during the weeks leading up to the show. All of the student-created acts were then submitted to members affiliated with the educational program who selected the winning entries.

Darnell Jackson, a student at Camelot Academy in West Garfield Park, performed a rap about the British troops alongside two of his classmates. For Jackson, being able to take part in the Hamilton Education Program and being one of the acts selected was incredibly humbling.

“We felt good, we felt special, we felt wanted,” Jackson said. “It makes me feel like there’s people out there that actually care about us and want us to have good things [and] see good things.”

Cast members Miguel Cervantes, Jonathan Kirkland, Samantha Pollino and Candace Quarrels take questions submitted by students. Courtesy of Nick Coulson

Immediately following the student performances was a 30-minute question and answer session with four “Hamilton” cast members: Miguel Cervantes (Alexander Hamilton), Jonathan Kirkland (George Washington), Samantha Pollino (Ensemble) and Candace Quarrels (Ensemble).

The group answered questions submitted by the schools that covered topics like what their favorite Chicago food is, but they also delved into more serious questions, including what it’s like working in the industry as a person of color.

“It’s been a challenge, but it’s also been very rewarding. In the theatre world, the biggest challenge … is understanding that at the end of the day, you have to be yourself,” Kirkland said. “All you have to do is do your job, be the best at what you do and block out the noise. There are a lot of exterior voices telling you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But you throw that away and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And then you blaze that trail and you get there.”

Following thunderous applause from the students, Quarrels added on to Kirland’s statement.

“Right now is an amazing time to be a person of color. We’re so privileged in this business right now because to be black or Latino, is in. It should have always been in,” she said. “It’s amazing to see people who look like me in positions of power and on TV and onstage and to be like, ‘Look I can do that, and I should be doing that.’ Because what’s different? If this is what you want to do, you can do it. Be you. Wear your curly hair, be swagged out.”

“Hamilton” portrays the nation’s Founding Fathers as people of color, a casting decision that resulted in immense national dialogue. The spirited embrace of diversity on the stage and in the Q&A discussions was noticed by Hezekiah Shaw Jr., a student from Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School.

“It means that you know there can be change because everyone isn’t who you think they are. Everyone doesn’t fit into that statistic or that first thought people think when you see a certain race,” Shaw said. “It lets you know that there is change happening.”

Nearly 2,000 CPS students gather for a performance of the hit musical “Hamilton,” which currently has an open-ended run at the PrivateBank Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Nick Coulson

After a lunch break came the moment everyone was waiting for: A matinee performance of Miranda’s masterpiece. With an occasional outburst and over-the-top hoots and hollers during the show’s more intimate moments, it likely wasn’t a standard performance for the Chicago cast. But it was one that appeared to be genuinely appreciated by its younger audience.

Romainne Kelley, a middle school and high school English teacher at Camelot Academy, said she believes the program has immense power for students on both a personal and education level.

“I just think it’s a very beautiful, blessed, fortunate opportunity that those kids get to have, as well as myself,” Kelley said. “To give them the opportunity to come to this fancy theater, to perform in front of hundreds of students, to learn something in a creative way … I love the entire program, I want to do it every year.”

#EduHam will continue expanding its reach to other cities, including San Francisco.

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