Last month, a prison theater group at Marion Correctional Institution performed The Hamilton Project, 23 songs from the hip hop musical on the life of Alexander Hamilton.
The men in Theater of Conviction at Marion Correctional have tackled big ideas before, including Hamlet. It was after that performance, that they approached their director Jessie Glover, a theater professor from Otterbein University, and said, “Hey, when are we going to do Hamilton?"
As a major fan of Lin Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical, Glover first responded to the men, “No, let’s do something else!” Glover recalls, “I was scared of that idea. I was really intimidated by the idea of trying to put it up on its feet.”
For Glover, the show was too big for a prison stage. Instead, she led a class focused on the musical where the men studied the history, the musical styles, and the play’s themes. And the men kept pushing. Catherine Roma leads a choir with the same men and offered to direct the music. On behalf of the men, Roma encouraged Glover. Roma remarked, “I started saying I think this is possible, and I knew that their interest was really high because they had had this course.”
As they shaped their version of the show, the group recognized the emerging theme of prison and control. They brought that out in the song, “The Room Where it Happens” when Aaron Burr is shut out of the back room deals between Hamilton and Jefferson. Glover pointed out that “many of the men have said that they resonate with this idea of wanting to be in the room where it happens, the room where decisions are made and never really being able to.”
The men also wanted to portray the complexity of men’s relationships in prison. So their version of Hamilton focused on the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that leads to their famous duel. In prison, the man who played Hamilton goes by the nickname Tron. Tron described these male rivalries: “So you got Jefferson against Hamilton, you got Burr against Hamilton, and so forth, so it’s all these, they’re butting heads all the time, you know, but they’re all trying to climb to the next level in their careers and life and you see a lot of aggression coming out even to the point of...murder.”
Tron is a talented rap composer and is planning on using music to support community development. He identified with Hamilton’s ambitions for himself and society. Tron reflected that, “when Hamilton is thinking about America in that way and how he can restructure things and bring people up to a higher place, especially financially and how they view America, that’s how I view the communities where I come from. So I just want to bring them up to a whole other level and that scares me because it’s so much responsibility. Then it takes so much discipline.”
Tron also understands the nearness of death in Hamilton’s life. He recalled these lines from the play, “'I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory. See I never thought I would live to see past twenty.' I’m thinking about my little cousin Trey, him being murdered at the age of nineteen. When I’m speaking those lines, I’m picturing his face.”
The principle actors also read biographies and histories of the founding fathers. Tron observed about Hamilton, “The bleeding and the fighting, between all the reading and writing,” you know. So he’s going to that place of protecting the people and being there for them, and that’s where I go too. You see my stature, I’m a little guy, but I’ve been a protector all my life.”
Aaron Burr, the man who committed treason, is played by Scienze. That’s his nickname. “Burr wants to rectify him being a villain,” Scienze said,” he doesn’t want the book of life to close on him as a villain. I mean his life just took a downward spiral, but he didn’t want to end that way.”
When Scienze asked what the play Hamilton meant to him, he reflected on the theme of one’s historical legacy. Scienze commented that “the very last song is 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.' And I think even though I am sentenced in prison, I still can write my narrative. You know, it’s this small window in my life where I’ve made this mistake that I strive to reconcile, that I strive to make an atonement.”
Now, Scienze most wants to contribute to community. The Hamilton Project further inspired his education to become a paralegal. For Scienze, “the greatest part of being an American citizen is diving in and getting your hands dirty to help create the society that you want to see. So I’m very focused on leaning towards constitutional law when I’m done. My last exam I received a hundred. You know, so I’m striving.”
“You do have men here who may never be going home, “Scienze reflected. “But if they can pour into the life of individuals who are going home, especially particularly in this choir, then I think they’ve done their civic duty.”
To learn more about the arts in Ohio’s prisons, visit: https://www.ohioprisonartsconnection.org/
This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.