For young Diana Falcón, the moment was overwhelming.
The 17-year-old junior from Downtown High School in San Francisco rarely speaks in front of a crowd and says she struggles with social anxiety.
So for Diana to set foot on the stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical,” the hottest show on Broadway, in order to deliver a speech to about 2,200 of her peers and other educators was an achievement of epic proportions. And despite the fact that the moment caused her to pause and take a deep breath right in the middle of her words, hearing the crowd cheer and implore her to continue gave her all the confidence she needed to finish what she started.
Diana’s two minutes of a speech she called “Big Bad Wolf,” a spoken word piece that is directed at President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, was one of 10 unique performances from 15 San Francisco high schools who were part of this past Wednesday’s “EduHam,” an educational program that allows Title I high schools in the Bay Area to fill the Orpheum Theatre at select mid-week matinees. On four separate occasions through the course of “Hamilton’s” five-month San Francisco run, Bay Area students witness songs, poetry and dramatic performances from their peers, followed by a question and answer session with members of the “Hamilton” cast. And the highlight – a full performance of the show, the story of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and founding father Alexander Hamilton, written by Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The high school performers offered their unique perspectives on all sorts of topical issues, even creating their own versions of rap songs between principal characters and founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. There were also takes on historical events such as the Boston Tea Party, a guitar and vocal performance, and thoughts on what it means to be an immigrant since the most recent presidential election.
Diana knew what this day meant. While students settled into their seats before the program started, their classmates and friends set foot on the stage one school at a time for some quick staging and last minute directions. And each group of students was met with massive applause for merely walking on stage with a “Hamilton” attendant.
“There were definitely people who were by my side, such as my classmates, and people backstage,” said Diana. “It made me so much more confident to go up, and even just taking deep breaths helped me a lot.”
Two international students from China could be considered some of the more courageous performers, offering poetry in both their second language of English and then in their native Chinese.
One of the students, 17-year-old junior Yawen Yu, a student at San Francisco International High School, has only been in the United States for a year. If speaking in front of so many people was daunting, it was doubly hard to do it in a non-native language.
“It felt amazing when the audience gives you applause, and not just people from my school yelling for us,” said Yawen. “It was exciting.”
Her classmate, 17-year-old junior JingHao Huang has lived in the United States two years longer than Yawen. But for him, this was a continuation of a longer process of personal growth since he arrived at the school as a freshman.
“People look at me as a quiet person, but doing this is such a huge change for me from the way I was in the ninth grade,” said JingHao.
The one thing that is hard for their families back in China to grasp is just how big “Hamilton” is in the United States. Even Yawen and Jinghao were a bit confounded by the show’s popularity.
Their teacher quickly added some clarification.
“I think the chaperones are more excited to see the show than our students,” the teacher said with a hearty laugh.
“Hamilton” tickets are not just the hottest tickets in theatre at the moment, but also the most expensive in unprecedented ways. Getting a balcony ticket that was face-valued at $100 for anything under $300 can be considered an absolute steal on the secondary market. So in a victory for poetic justice, kids who may have never attended a play in their lives were now sitting among the most coveted set of chairs in all of theatre without having to pay a dime.
Adee Horn is a peer resources teacher at San Francisco’s Lowell High School. She estimated that of the 60 students her school brought to the show, nearly all of those had never attended a play before. And for someone like Horn, who is credentialed in social studies, it cannot be put into words as to how special this opportunity is for history education. For her students, it’s an opportunity to see such an acclaimed Broadway and popular culture phenomenon, especially one that makes this generation’s music at the heart of the score.
“This show has made history accessible with its music,” said Horn. “Hip-hop music is youth culture, and it uses music to even teach about dynamic issues in our current time.”
The Lowell students she spoke of sat in stone silence as they watched the show. One young student even remarked that she forgot about her scoliosis while she was watching, but was reminded of her discomfort at intermission when she stood up to stretch.
The students throughout the theatre also shared their pleasure at key moments in the show, saving their loudest collective scream for one of the show’s signature lines, one that certainly has become something of a battle cry: “Immigrants – we get the job done.”
Emceeing the pre-show event and hyping up the crowd was the task of Emmy Raver-Lampman, who plays Angelica Schuyler and has opened all three “Hamilton” casts. As a person of color, Raver-Lampman certainly remembers going to New York City from her native Norfolk, Virginia, and seeing a show with characters that she connected to culturally, and what that meant for her own dream of making a career on a Broadway stage.
“I saw a lot of shows like ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Cats,’ and ‘The Lion King,’ but the day I saw ‘Ragtime,’ starring Audra McDonald, the wind shifted a little,” said Raver-Lampman. “I was a kid who loved shows, but that’s when I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can do that.’
“For me, it was the first time seeing a strong Black woman on stage. The first time realizing you can do that for a living and look like you look, because she looks like she looks, that really changed me. That’s probably the show that really moved me, in the way I started thinking after that show.”
Raver-Lampman understands that there may have been someone in that high school audience using her as an inspiration to shoot for the stars. Even Joshua Henry, who plays Burr, shared with the audience a touching story of a young Black girl who was mesmerized by him after the show, and he told her at the stage door, “You can do this too,” while her parents looked on.
Getting a chance to give back to the community and help facilitate another generation to find their voice and control their narrative is key for that young person who might someday write the next “Hamilton.”
Raver-Lampman is crystal clear on just how important that is.
“The fact that it’s rare for the youth of America to be heard, understood or respected is a shame,” said Raver-Lampman. “But events like these are why I do this. Whatever through line they get and watching kids create art from learning about this part of history and what’s now going on in the world is very beautiful.
“It’s amazing to see how this show is changing the world, but changing these kids lives and letting them feel like they have a voice is special.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHN presents “Hamilton: An American Musical”
Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Based on the biography “Alexander Hamilton,” written by Ron Chernow
Through August 5th
SHN Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Through Aug. 5th
“EduHam” was created by Miranda, producer Jeffrey Seller, the Rockefeller Foundation, the NYC Department of Education and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
“Eduham” is supported in the Bay Area by Google, Facebook employees, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the Panta Rhea Foundation and GitHub.
The run of the show is sold out. For updated ticket and lottery information, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com