With Mike Pence at Hamilton: Thoughts from My 13-Year-Old Sister
Finding Love and Grace in the Face of a Politician Who Would Criminalize Identity
I had already packed my bags for New York, had loaded the car and was ready to leave first thing in the morning, had made a fire to sit beside with a book until bed with the modest hope of a few hours peace of mind, when a frenzied series of text messages from my mother arrived in all caps, announcing that she was seeing Hamilton with my 13-year-old sister, and that she would have more to say after intermission but that Mike Pence was in attendance and the audience was raising hell.
This was the latest in a thread of texts that included my entire family—my mom and sister, my dad, a brother in Brooklyn, another in Alaska—that had been the chief means of communication among us for a number years, and that since the election had been a more or less unceasing volley of rage, fear, and despair. The log I’d just added to the fire had burnt to embers by the time further news came, and in the interval I’d been unable to focus on the pages I was reading—the opening chapter of Cloud Atlas, which concerns the racism that underlies even the best of white men’s intentions—for more than a few minutes at a time; the very thought of Pence sitting erect in his seat, surrounded by Secret Service agents and body-men, with his tiny face affixed implacably to his weird head, sent specifically, as I could guess, to ruin everyone’s good time, worked me back into a helpless, debilitating furor. And so I sat there watching the flames until my phone began to buzz again.
It was my sister now, who after a long string of emojis that suggested she was terrifically excited, explained that Pence’s presence in the audience had heightened the impact of the play immeasurably; there was a palpable alertness in the crowd, a sense she had that the entire audience and even the actors on the stage were hearing the performance through Pence’s ears, so that each line—and I happened to know my sister knew each line by heart—took on new resonance; and that the most resonant lines, Immigrants get the job done, for example, or Oceans rise, empires fall, caused such voluble eruptions of feeling that the actors had to pause and wait for quiet before they could resume; and that finally the cast had come out to address Pence directly as he left the room, a video of which address my sister attached for the rest of us to see; and that she had never so acutely felt the strength of a crowd accrue to her, a gay teenager with blue hair; that she had never been quite so proud, that she had never experienced pride as such a visceral phenomenon, felt it swell inside her and tingle on the surface of her skin.
In the morning as planned I left Charlottesville, where I live off Monticello Avenue, drove due west and then north up I81. Somewhere in Pennsylvania I saw a flock of what I assumed to be starlings, a massive black cloud of them that whirled in the sky over the highway in the powerful easterly wind, a sight that amazed me all the more because only a few nights previous a friend of mine, Ryan, had explained the mechanics of starlings’ near-perfect synchronization, which as with schools of fish was a matter, he said, of an inborn attunement to the position and trajectory of each other’s bodies, a highly developed kind of swarm intelligence that guided them through the air and protected them from, for example, hawks or peregrine falcons.
This had been at a birthday party in a gay bar, that he told me this—the only place in town, leaving aside fraternities I suppose, where it was possible to do any dancing—at which a program of karaoke was underway, and as is often the case with karaoke, each performer’s inhibition amplified the inhibitions of each performer that followed, an almost impossibly awkward succession, in this case, of country western and Bon Jovi renditions that was finally broken only when a woman in Coke-bottle glasses, whose name I’d missed but who from what I gathered was a PhD candidate in the History Department, got up to perform the Spice Girls’ 1996 debut single “Wannabe,” and blew the fucking doors off it.
This small act of bravery returned to me now in the car as the starlings twisted in the wind—an act all the more courageous, perhaps, for a woman of color in so overwhelmingly white a room. It was a performance, I realized, in which her physical presence, as she danced along, became a perfect conduit for a force exterior to herself; while meanwhile, as she sang, shifting effortlessly between vocal registers, between vocal and emotional registers, between characters that she seemed to invent on the spot, her voice became an active agent of that same force—that is, of the music that subsequently got inside the rest of the bodies present, and completely transformed the tenor of the night.
Stigmergy, Ryan had told me when she finished, far afield from starlings now and reading off his phone from what I assumed was Wikipedia, was a mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions, by which the trace left in an environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent, such that subsequent actions might reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity. So when another friend of ours, Rob, a poet of tremendous whiteness, got up to sing R. Kelly’s 2003 hit “Ignition,” he did so in his own voice and in his own style, but with a trace of the body confidence of the woman in Coke-bottle glasses who had gone before him, with a trace of her bravery, and likewise brought down the house.
On my own phone there were only two albums, and I intended to listen to only one of them. It had repeated perhaps five times by the time I saw the flock of starlings: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which is in fact the only music I’ve listened to with any regularity since its release in April; and it was perhaps with a trace of that same confidence and bravery, together with a residue of the pride and excitement my sister had expressed, together with the physical and emotional defiance in the face of physical and emotional vulnerability that the album itself expresses better than anything else I can think of, that I had sung along at the absolute capacity of my lungs, while meantime performing a kind of gestural approximation of the choreography at the wheel, in so far as I was able within the confines of my seatbelt, for the length of the ride.
By the time I arrived in Brooklyn, where I was staying with my brother and his husband, the rain had begun, a cold and driving rain that persisted for the entirety of a visit my brother and I made to the restaurant where I’d worked for seven years, on Smith Street. It was there that just a week before, a Trump supporter, a short man in his forties, as a former colleague of mine told me, who having left in a huff after a protracted confrontation with a woman at a neighboring table, had returned to punch the woman in the face before fleeing the scene to his car, where his date was waiting with the engine running.
Now with the rain coming down, though it was Saturday night it was quiet; the music was low, people were speaking in their softest voices. Anyone who came through the door stood for a few stunned moments in the entry, where the water that had collected on his or her person soon formed a puddle on the floor that continued to grow larger and larger as the night went on. Perhaps the most galling thing, another former colleague of mine said, mixing drinks, was that the assailant, wherever he was, no doubt thought of himself as the victim of the events of that night, and in fact throughout the night he had repeatedly invoked status as an argument to have the woman ejected from the restaurant—do you know who I am, he’d wanted to know.
In connection with all this, my brother mentioned the confrontation, if that is the right word, between Mike Pence and the rest of the theatergoing world, and how proud it had made our sister to be a part of it, how included and how protected she had felt, to understand that she was—as she put it—with her people.
We’d ordered French fries, to which, as I was touched to see, the bartender, the busboy, and the food-runner all helped themselves whenever they stopped for a few moments to chat. The bartender said that he was glad something positive came of Mike Pence’s experience on Broadway, but that it put him in mind of a piece he’d read some months before—he couldn’t remember where—in which a young woman of color finally walked out of a lecture that was being given by a “renowned iconoclast,” a white woman who had donned a sombrero in order to assert her indifference to giving offense, and who then enumerated the many ways she felt oppressed when members of other cultures expressed their feelings in public, and insisted in so many words that to write about other cultures however she pleased was her inalienable right as an artist, which it was small-minded and ridiculous to challenge.
Perhaps we could imagine, the bartender said, how desperate and isolated this young woman had felt in the crowd, to see how well this sentiment went over with the overwhelmingly white majority of the room. The French fries by this point were gone, and the puddle of rainwater that people had brought in with them had reached our own feet, and had to be mopped up; but we lingered in conversation until after the bar had closed, and when we finally left the rain and wind had yet to relent in the least way.
The following morning—that is to say, Sunday—I rode a Metro North train out of Grand Central, through East Harlem and a stretch of the South Bronx, to the Connecticut suburb where I grew up, and where the benefits of white privilege, well beyond even those benefits my former colleague the bartender had described, are to be found in appalling concentration.
I took a taxi to my parents’ house, and invited my sister for a walk. She had just the previous afternoon, while I was on I81 singing along to Lemonade, refreshed the blue dye in her hair, which had begun to fade since she’d first dyed it in September, in advance of her first week of eighth grade. Dyeing her hair blue, she told me, was a statement as well as a matter of convenience—a way, in so homogenous a community as her school, of saving people the embarrassment of assuming she was straight, a strategy she had since the election doubled down on by buying a number of t-shirts that said, in big letters, I’M GAY.
We walked down to the water, and looked out over the Long Island Sound, where a flock of seagulls, if flock is the word, were circling helter-skelter, squawking chaotically, making sporadic nose-dives at the water’s surface, nose dives that invariably ended with a little splash that my sister said sent a shiver down her spine. She was dressed warmly—she’d evidently gotten over her youthful resistance to wearing a coat in even the coldest weather—and at intervals breathed into her cupped palms to warm her hands. I asked her to expand upon her feelings about Mike Pence and the experience of seeing the hateful ideology he represented so powerfully rebuked, of being, in fact, by her very presence an instrument of that rebuke.
To begin with, she said, there was the infuriating irony to be found in Donald Trump’s response on Twitter, which—though it may have been a deliberate smoke screen for the more nefarious aspects of his transition to power—nonetheless demonstrated the type of leader he would become: a vain, petty tyrant of the exact sort as King George as he is portrayed in Hamilton itself.
There was to consider, as well, the bravery on the part of the cast in standing up in the face of a powerful force of hate, a bravery they had drawn throughout the performance from the audience’s own energy, and which would, she hoped, by the traces it left in the world, inspire further acts of bravery as things continued to get worse and worse, as they would doubtless continue to do for quite some time. But more importantly, she went on, as she’d turned the moment over in her mind it had become clear to her that what had affected her so powerfully, and what she believed had affected everyone in the audience so powerfully, was the idea of a white statesman watching a play in which historical white statesmen are all played by people of color—in which, further to that, the hero was played by a gay, HIV-positive Latino man—and that it was perhaps not too much to hope that as he sat there he imagined a future in which his own role in history would be dramatically interpreted by a person of color, by a gay man, even; that he would even imagine himself as one of the people he despised as a matter of public policy; that it would be impossible for him not to realize, if only for the length of the play, that the only honorable way for a straight white statesman to proceed would be to follow the examples set by non straight-white-men, that this was the only way forward to a more equitable world: that if white men in general expected to find a place in the future—she said in closing—their only option would be to follow the leads of the very people they’ve spent centuries marginalizing so effectively.
That struck me as sound, I told her. Later, I drove her to swim practice, and rather than find someplace else to be for a few hours, or sit in the parking lot where someone might see me trying to keep up with Beyoncé, I sat in the poolside gallery with Cloud Atlas. But again I found myself unable to read more than a few sentences before my attention drifted away, before my thoughts returned to what my sister had said to me at the beach, and to the pride with which she’d said it, the pleading; and even here in the pool, it seemed to me that she was practicing what I don’t think she’d object to my calling a politics of love; and so I put the book aside and watched her swimming intervals with her team, in a tight formation across four lanes, each of them close enough to touch the next girl’s toes, breathing in precise rhythm, executing flawless flip turns, sending elegant dolphin kicks down the lengths of their bodies before they’d surface and break into strokes; and there was nothing I admired so much as the commitment of this kind of bodily knowledge to muscle memory, the day-in, day-out repetition of movements in pursuit of a goal that my sister described in the car when practice had ended, breathless with endorphins, her blue hair still damp, as becoming native to an element that wasn’t her own.