February was Black History Month.
My son, Randy, is the Director for Feinstein’s at the Nikko, a nightclub at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Randy seeks the talent for the weekly shows, produces the events and manages the staff on performance nights to ensure each attendee enjoys every minute of every top-notch show.
The show Hamilton was on its second tour and into its second year in San Francisco before moving on to Los Angeles. As a past Broadway producer, Randy is always reaching out-of-the-box for new and innovative entertainment. His latest creation is an original series of concert evenings, Monday Night Off that features cast members from visiting Broadway shows around San Francisco, to perform live at the Nikko on their only night off.
Back in Fall of 2019, Randy and Hamilton actor Christopher Young collaborated with an idea that came to fruition during Black History Month. I was privileged to be in the audience at Feinstein’s at the Nikko for one of the most heartfelt, tear-dropping, non-scripted performances I’ve ever seen!
Inspired by Young, the evening celebrated the music of the African-American songbook of our past to the songs of today, from gospel to pop, from Broadway to opera. Six Hamilton cast members, four men and two women, shared their life-experiences in relation to growing up Black in America as a future artist, then sang several songs that were their inspirations- to never give up their dreams of performing. The music came from the bottom of their souls, while singing their hearts out and gave the audience insight to the lives of young Black people who have given talents but must endure tremendous obstacles to achieve their goals.
As I sat and listened to the stories, I could relate their journeys with our Jewish history. Both our cultures have suffered by the hands of others. But as the stories continued, I realised the difference was that these young people were talking about the present, not the past. Our personal tragedies go back a generation or two but these 20-somethings were talking only about a decade or so ago. I put the Jewish story aside and ached inside for their realities, not so past but very present.
Every one of the six had a narrative that involved a family member or friend that was murdered in a gang-related incident, killed in a family dispute or via a police incident. The descriptions of the events were not relayed to cast blame but in a factual/emotional tone. And each actor had a song to relate to the lost loved one that inspired them to never give up their battle for success just because they were Black.
One of the women grew up being told there would never be enough story lines for her to succeed as a Black woman on Broadway. Her drama teachers continually told her, “Get a degree where you can make a living and do community theatre for fun.” The other female actor was told her big, black kinky hair would rarely get her an audition. Today, she thanks Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, for making her dream come true, a sentiment from all the actors.
Another story came from a young man, obviously from the hood in his home state, who lived among gangs with violence as a part of their everyday life. It wasn’t until his cousin was killed that he decided to take his talents and fight for his place in his high-school-for-the-performing-arts, and “worked my butt off” to finally getting his acknowledgment by making his way to Hamilton. He talked like a street fighter and sang like an angel, with an original song in memory of his cousin.
Christopher Young approached the microphone with his not-so ordinary story, in comparison to the others. From his appearance, speech and class and a degree from the University of Southern California, he had a middle class up-bringing, but still with its struggles. He remembers his parents sitting him down at 12 years-old for “The talk!” The audience giggled until he waved his finger and said to us, “Not that talk!”
As he looked back on that day, he realised the complexity his parents had to imbue upon him of the difficulties growing up as a Black man in America. “Without a second thought, whether you are right or wrong, NEVER argue with a police officer, do as they say, keep your arms up high, don’t reach for your pockets, be a gentleman, comply with their wishes.” It took a while for him to understand the deep fears they had for him.
He went on to say that he recently got engaged and his parents and his white fiancée’s parents came to San Francisco to see Hamilton. “When the six of us sat at dinner, his white mother and my Black mother exchanged the problems of raising their gay sons. My mother explained how the hardest thing was to keep me safe as a Black kid, a gay Black kid, out of the reach of gangs, problems with the police and anyone making fun of my talents. I watched my future mother-in-law react with horror and say, ‘I had to worry about my son falling off a tree and skinning his knee!’ Do you see the contrast of our childhoods? Our mothers were both scared for our safety but for very different reasons. And yet, we both grew up in America, but in different parts of the country.”
That dialogue struck me like a ton of bricks. I see it in the news, movies, books but the dichotomy of the reality with those two families hit me in the gut. What some of us take for granted and what others have to live with as a life-or-death day-to-day existence was so visceral for me. We’re in America, in the 21 Century, not the old country where our relatives had to flee to be safe.
The interesting part of the evening was that the choice of songs from the actors were unfamiliar to the majority of the audience. Most were gospel, off-Broadway show tunes or old vaudeville yet all inspiring with profound and deep meaning to the singer. Each in their own way, sang of hope for their Broadway future with a legacy for the Black American success story. But Christopher Young sang the song that made the evening. It was a Stephen Sondheim show tune from the show, Into the Woods that the entire musical audience cheered for Giants in the Sky:
There are giants in the sky
There are big tall terrible giants in the sky
When you’re way up high and you look below
At the world you left and the things you know
Little more than a glance is enough to show you
Just how small you are.
There are giants in the sky
When suddenly there’s
A big tall terrible giant at the door
And you know things you never knew before
Not till the sky.
When you’re way up high and you’re on your own
In a world like none that you’ve ever known
Where your heart is lead and your stomach is stone
And you’re really scared of being alone
But free to do whatever pleases you
Exploring things you’d never dare
And you wish you could live in between.
There are giants in the sky
There a big tall terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful
Giants in the sky.
We all have a giant in the sky, a giant that is good, bad or indifferent. To each his own experience and interpretation. But I couldn’t help wondering if our personal giants enslave us for living our best life? Is our emotional freedom being held hostage by that giant in our sky? Can slaying that giant allow freedom for ourselves and those closest to us?
I believe that getting to know our personal giant, wherever, whatever or whoever it may be, terrible or scary, awesome or wonderful, could it open the waters to our personal freedom with stories to share with others? With the current giants our world is facing, it might be time to wrestle our personal giant and let its image and effect be gone.
By acknowledging our most inner fears, especially the younger generations, can inspire them and leave a legacy of who and what shaped us, what we now know because of the giant, how its presence scared us and how we overcame its shadow. Exploring what you never dared, listening to others offer new alternative perspectives, finding answers and insights can bring a sense of clarity in such a tumultuous world.
The show Hamilton has impacted my life. Blessings to the actors who performed at the Nikko with complete transparency and to the good giants who allow creativity, talent and bravery that can result in personal freedom.
(The image is the author’s son, Randy, announcing the evening’s entertainment, six actors from the San Francisco cast of Hamilton, celebrating Black History Month in Song and Stories)