"One Last Time": George Washington's goodbye from the musical Hamilton gains new meaning as Trump takes office
by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)
When Barack Obama made his farewell address last week in Chicago, he was continuing a tradition that began in 1796 with America's first President.
George Washington's farewell is considered a foundational document of the United States, as significant as the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln's Gettysburg address. Obama quoted from it as he said his goodbye to the nation.
On that night, as Obama took the stage in Chicago, Bryan Terrell Clark, an actor in New York simultaneously made his debut as George Washington in the massively successful play Hamilton.
In case you haven't heard, Hamilton is a musical with a contemporary take on the American Revolution. It has racked up awards and been praised by historians for making "an incisive historical argument."
Washington's decision to leave public life, and allow the drama of the country to continue without him, is treated as a transitional moment in the show.
But Clark says, as the Obama administration was ending, he could not resist connecting the events onstage to the transition in America, especially on the night of Obama's farewell.
There's no way that any actor on that stage can say the words that we're saying and ignore the political climate that we're immersed in right now.- Bryan Terrell Clark
"It was a magical serendipitous moment to be stepping in to play the first President of the United States as the first black president was stepping down," Clark told me on CBC Day 6.
"You can't make this stuff up. I mean this moment is something that I'll remember for the rest of my life."
One Last Time
In the play Hamilton, Washington's decision to retire plays out as a duet between Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and culminates in a lengthy quotation from Washington's actual farewell.
"I was aware," Clark says, "that Obama was going to be giving the address around the time I was singing One Last Time."
"And there's this beautiful moment where Hamilton is reading the final address and I, as George Washington, am walking down stage singing those words."
I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good lawsUnder a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trustOf our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.The hopeThat my country willView them with indulgence;And thatAfter forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zealThe faults of incompetent abilities will beConsigned to oblivion, as I myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.- "One Last Time" from Hamilton
"And so I'm walking down stage, and probably the most visceral, cathartic reaction started to happen right before the end of that song," Clark says. "My body was shaking. I started to tear up and I'm not one of those performers that can cry in a really pretty way and still sing clear as a bell."
"And there's no way that any actor on that stage can say the words that we're saying and ignore the political climate that we're immersed in right now."
A shared sense of transition
Clark says he's not alone in connecting Washington's farewell to contemporary events. He remembers meeting audience members on the night Obama spoke in Chicago, his debut performance in the role.
"The first night I went out and signed autographs and people were literally crying and weeping and they said, 'I could not help but watch you and think about what's happening right now, that Barack Obama is giving his final address.'"
"It also feels like a great responsibility because I'm aware that the audience is making the connection of watching me as a black actor knowing that our first black president has just stepped out of office."
I asked him which of Washington's words were most resonant for him.
"Near the end he says it's the 'happy reward' and then skipping down he says 'of our mutual cares our mutual labors'. It's our mutual dangers."
"I right now am watching a lot of division and a lot of divisiveness."
"And what's so powerful about the speech is the humility that George Washington has as he's stepping down from the highest seat of office. And he's saying it's all of ours. It's our mutual cares, it's our mutual neighbours, it's our mutual dangers that make this place what it is and allows me to step down and become a citizen."
The politics of diversity in Hamilton
The racial diversity of the cast of Hamilton underlines the diversity of background, class and ideology of the mostly white patriots who drove the American Revolution. At one point Hamilton, born in the Caribbean and French general Marquis de Lafayette make the comment "Immigrants. We get the job done."
It gets a huge audience reaction.
"Everybody screams during that line," says Clark.
"I think that the most powerful part of the play is that Alexander Hamilton himself is an immigrant. And it reminds me that, in the building of this nation everyone was from somewhere else first. And these young, scrappy, rebellious, strong, humble people were finding ways to create a space where we could all live together."
I wondered if the change in the political climate, a different attitude toward immigrants, would make Hamilton more or less political as the play continues.
"I don't know if it'll become a more political play," Clark says. "I think the play is political just in the very nature of this story that we're telling. But I do believe that as the consciousness of humanity shifts, particularly in America right now, again we'll be viewing this piece of art from a different vantage point as it continues to live."
When then-Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence saw Hamilton in November, the cast addressed him directly, urging his administration to be open to diversity. It was controversial and Donald Trump took a swipe at the show in a series of tweets.
I asked Clark if President Trump would be welcome at the theatre.
"I would love for President Donald Trump to come and see Hamilton for himself. I think that he would be welcomed. Hamilton is such a loving environment, it's a loving place. It really is a show that's for everyone, including President Donald Trump and it would be an amazing thing if he came."