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MLK Day program explores the history and diversity in a Broadway sensation

A poster for the Broadway musical, Hamilton, in front of an image of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., with the quote, "Out of the mountain of despair comes a stone of hope," during Monday's MLK Day observance at the School of Dentistry's Kellogg Auditorium.

Themes in Alexander Hamilton musical pertinent today

Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 17, 2017 -– The historical themes of a smash Broadway production, along with its groundbreaking use of rap and hip hop music to emphasize diversity, were examined Monday during a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day at the School of Dentistry.

Complementing U-M’s campus-wide MLK Day theme of “Sounds of Change,” the program focused on the history and lessons found in Hamilton, the musical about American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hit has advanced the country’s understanding of one of the lesser known founders. Equally important, speakers said Monday, is that the production’s multicultural cast, unique blend of music and rapid-fire lyrics demonstrate the importance of diversity, motivation and inspiration in the history, fabric and success of our nation.

Dr. Todd Ester, representing the school’s Multicultural Affairs Committee, which organized the program, noted that the popularity of the musical has helped the country reclaim history it may have forgotten or never knew.  Alexander Hamilton is on the $10 bill and most know he was the first Secretary of the Treasury, but much of the rest of his history was little known: growing up poor in Nevis in the Caribbean, the son of a Scottish father and Creole mother, becoming an orphan at a young age with little hope for his future, working as a lowly shipping clerk, sent to the American colonies by a group of supportive merchants so that he could obtain an education.

At a time when race and immigration policies are two of the leading and often contentious debates in this country, Ester said it’s remarkable that the musical has come along to renew Hamilton’s history as an immigrant of mixed-race heritage who worked himself up from humble beginnings to become one of the intellectual leaders of the American revolution.  “What if the world had known more broadly that one of our Founding Fathers had a mother who was Creole, (which is) French and African descent?” asked Ester, who is director of diversity and inclusion for the School of Dentistry. “What if we had known that 200 years ago? … We know it now, so let’s reclaim our history.”

Celia Alcumbrack-McDaniel, the school’s social media coordinator who helped lead the program Monday at the Kellogg Auditorium, said Hamilton’s music and lyrics are captivating and inseparable from the important history and themes that Miranda set out to explore. “In our political system right now, there’s so much that’s going on around immigration.  And it’s so interesting to view this, the historical side of immigration.  We think of the Founding Fathers of being of this country, but (they were) another wave of immigrants. … That was one of the things that spoke to me about the musical and really made me think.”

She said Miranda’s choices about how to stage his production have made it accessible to people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. “One of the things that has made Hamilton such a revolutionary play is that they deliberately cast it using a multicultural casting call.  They wanted it to look like America,” she said. “ … He really made a deliberate choice that he wanted it to be inclusive to everybody.”

Another presenter, Dr. Renée Duff, assistant dean for student services, said she took her sons, ages 10 and 12, to a production of the musical in Chicago.  Expecting to focus on the new history she would learn, Duff said the impact was much broader because of the many life lessons and themes intertwined throughout the musical.  She said many of the signature phrases and lyrics have meaning for parents helping kids navigate today’s world:

   • “Rising up.”  A reminder about resiliency.
   • “I’m not throwing away my shot” is about presenting yourself with opportunities, or when an opportunity presents itself, claiming it and not letting self-doubt or fear stop you.
   • Keeping hope and moving forward, which Hamilton embodied. “We really can’t control what’s swirling around us. We can only control how we react and how we move forward from these things,” Duff said.
   • To embrace all, not just some, which is what the founders did in those early days of the country.

Duff also cited Miranda’s catchphrase “America then, told by America now” in reference to the diverse cast he intentionally created.  “It just makes the play so much better, just like diversity makes us all better in everything we do – just the richness, the talent and the beauty of the cast,” Duff said. “It made it amazingly, visually rewarding to watch, and the music was brilliant.”

Ester said the message of Martin Luther King, Jr., echoes throughout Hamilton during what many would describe as a turbulent time in the country’s history. “No matter how you fall in the sphere of this past fall’s election, we are going through a different time.  But there’s hope,” he said.  Noting several of MLK programs around campus earlier in the day, Ester said a common theme moving forward is “about not being silent and not being allowed to be silent.”

“This play represents respect and inclusion and tolerance from all of us being together” Ester said. “To me, it’s just a beautiful representation of what we can do as a nation.”

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.

Contact:
School of Dentistry writer Lynn Monson at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.