Two plays made premieres within Canada this past month, and some interesting facts are connecting these two performances from across provinces. Hamilton and Controlled Damage’s Canadian premieres (in fact the latter’s world premiere) are happening in Toronto at Mirvish Theatre and in Halifax at Neptune Theatre respectively. Hamilton is, of course, the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired by the life and history of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. Controlled Damage is a new work about the events surrounding Viola Desmond, a historic Nova Scotian woman who fought against racial discrimination in the mid 20th century after refusing to leave a “whites only” section of a theatre. And while the two are certainly very different pieces of art, they both share common ground- the $10 bill.
Alexander Hamilton has had his place on the American $10 bill for the better part of a century now. By 1929, paper currency was moving to a smaller, uniform design, and the First Secretary of the Treasury was selected as the face of the $10 bill. In 2015, however, there had begun talks of replacing his portrait with that of an influential woman in American history due to the relative unpopularity and lack of awareness of Hamilton in comparison to the other founding figures of U.S. history. But in this same year, the unexpected national sensation of Hamilton had its premiere, and in 2016 the decision was reversed in the wake of increased interest in the statesman as well as the production cementing its foothold in public popularity.
Also in 2016 was the decision to put Viola Desmond’s portrait on the Canadian $10 bill- and in portrait at that. Standing out amongst the rest of Canada’s current currency designs, Demond’s is the only one printed in portrait. Viola Desmond has long been a prominent figure in the culture of Nova Scotia, and her legacy serves as a reminder of Canada’s own ongoing issues of racism. After refusing to leave the seat of a whites-only section of a theatre in 1946, Desmond was punitively charged with tax fraud (as there was a 1 cent difference between the segregated theatre sections). She made the decision to fight these charges in court, and while unsuccessful, her legacy inspired many championing rights for people of colour in Canada and she became an icon, not unlike Rosa Parks for the civil rights movement.
While it is, of course, an interesting and serendipitous connection that both these premieres share such a specific piece of memorial for their central figures, there is a more profound relation running below the surface of Hamilton and Controlled Damage’s Canadian premieres. While Alexander Hamilton was a white, male, colonial figure, Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself a man of Puerto Rican descent, broke boundaries through both his portrayal of Hamilton and casting performers of colour as many of the white historical figures. In a climate where actors of colour are still likely to be pigeonholed by casting directors, it speaks volumes to open up the roles of white political figures who had their hands on all the levers of power at the time to non-white performers. And keeping with the recent representation in their program, Neptune Theatre hosting a piece of art that highlights such an important point in Halifax’s history regarding racism is a beneficial and necessary part of progress for the city.
Both Hamilton and Controlled Damage’s Canadian premieres highlight the growing desire and importance of representation on stage. Either in the stories being told or the actors sharing the stories, it matters having more than just the majority reflected back to the audience. It matters having the many sides of history shown and having history shown in new perspectives. And while the face on the U.S. $10 bill may be the same it’s been, if you see Hamilton or Desmond looking up at you from your wallet, remember the reason those faces are there and the unifying ideals behind those inspirations.