“America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me!”
Echoing one of the most compelling lines in “Hamilton,” the hit Broadway production in which he stars as George Washington, Bryan Terrell Clark told a group of Furman students the United States of America is a “beautiful song that is still being written. We can be whatever we want to be, but what do we want it to be?”
Clark is more than an actor – few people in his profession or any other speak as eloquently or with as much passion and moral clarity as Clark on issues of race, inclusion and equity. He covered all those bases and more during a Cultural Life Program in March that students attended via Zoom.
From its hip-hop score to its casting of actors of color to play the roles of some of our nation’s most consequential historical figures, “Hamilton” has been held up as an example of diversity and inclusion at its best, signaling to some through its colorblind casting that America’s racial healing is in full bloom. The full picture, of course, is much more complicated, as Clark pointed out.
There is a difference between diversity and inclusion, and true equity, Clark said. Clark – a Black actor who plays the role of the country’s first president – said he has loved starring in Hamilton. At the same time, Clark said, the optics of Hamilton’s cast must not obscure the fact that behind the scenes of the production, progress toward racial equity has been halting, if at all. From ownership stakes in theaters and production companies to backstage jobs, people of color are largely missing from the marketplace.
“Black people being celebrated for being able to sing, dance or play a sport is nothing new in this country,” Clark said. “What we are asking for is true equity and equality. … It’s one thing to be hired to do the thing, it’s another to be invited to help make decisions. There is a deeper conversation than ‘Are we being treated well?’ The next step is how do we have a real stake in the equity of the marketplace?”
Indeed, racism, Clark said, is “much deeper than ‘I don’t like you.’ It is about owning land and assets. It is about the ability to inhibit someone’s way of life.”
All too often, Clark said, he hears the refrain of “we don’t know where to find” people of color to fill the hundreds of backstage jobs on Broadway. Helping to elevate people of color and ensure they have access to that marketplace is one of the ways Clark is investing his time to work toward racial justice. He recommended students motivated to help but wondering how and where to get involved to likewise start with people and places close to them.
“For those wondering how to enter the conversation, I recommend starting within your sphere of influence,” he said. “You might not know what organization to get involved with, but you can start with your neighborhood, with your family. You can start by taking a stand at home.”
The talk was hosted by Furman’s departments of history and theatre arts and was part of the history department’s series on “Race and Ethnicity in the American Past.”
“Clark’s talk was enormously useful because students really got to see behind the proverbial curtain, to get a sense of what the theater business looks like from someone who has actually been ‘in the room where it happens’ (apologies for the ‘Hamilton’ joke there),” Jason Hansen, associate professor of history, said in an email. “It’s easy to focus on abstract ideas and say, ‘I oppose racism, I’m for equality.’ But you can’t bring change without knowing the specifics: How far have we come over the past 20 years? Where are the areas where greater effort is still needed?”