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Aline Dolinh

How HAMILTON Lets Me Be a Part of the Narrative

The following piece is by my niece and contributor, Aline Dolinh, who’s starting college this fall. Whaaaaat? Remember when she was 12 years old and contributing book and theatre reviews to PCN? But I digress. Read on about the very personal impact the smash musical Hamilton had on her.—PCN

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IMG_2588You’d be forgiven for viewing the Hamilton hysteria with some cynicism. Crowned last month with a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, the hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has been met with unprecedented reverence since its Broadway debut in August 2015, having been hailed as a savior of everything from musical theatre to the Grammys themselves.

The hype? To quote a similarly recent pop culture phenomenon, “It’s true. All of it.”

I’m only a little ashamed to say I broke down into loud and uncontrollable tears when I saw Hamilton in December, alongside thirtysome members of my high school drama department. (I apologize to anyone who was also at the December 10 matinee performance and was in the general vicinity of mezzanine seat E1).

By the time Alexander had fallen to his frenemy Aaron Burr’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) bullet near the end of Act Two, I was inconsolable. My friends were sympathetic, but understandably a little confused by my mascara-streaked breakdown. After all, everyone involved had died over two hundred years ago.

Only hours later, during the insomniac bus ride back home, did I realize why I’d identified so closely with Alexander. It was one of those requisite late-night, teenage soul-baring sessions where every secret seemingly carries the weight of sacrament, and as my friends and I whispered our greatest fears to one another, I couldn’t stop thinking about a single line from the show: I imagine death so much, it feels more like a memory.”

There’s something in Miranda’s frenzied delivery of the verse that follows, the way it perfectly encapsulates Alexander’s fatalistic, ragged-edged ambition, that still strikes a chord within me. It’s the exact same existential anxiety that’s kept me restless for years, but I’ve never heard it articulated so honestly. Hearing those lines now felt validating instead of fearful.

As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I’m acutely aware that I’m not the kind of person the Founding Fathers envisioned as their quintessential American. And yet in Hamilton, where the titular character is portrayed as a “young, scrappy, and hungry” Caribbean migrant, fraught with both brilliance and hubris, I found a reflection of myself where I least expected it.

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My HAMILTON shrine

I identified with his inexorable obsession with legacy, his neurotic fixation on overcoming his poor, rootless origins. Throughout the show, his political rivals such as Burr and ideological nemesis Thomas Jefferson deride him in distinctly othering language. Alexander, to them, is simply “this immigrant [who] isn’t somebody we chose,” a man “desperate to rise above his station.”

We are constantly reminded of his status as an outsider, despite his dizzying verbosity and hypercompetence. His relentless work ethic and sensitivity to perceived slights all make sense as the hallmarks of someone who was born—as Burr jealously reminds us—a lowly “immigrant, orphan, bastard, whoreson,” and could never truly leave that identity behind.

Alexander’s arc is constructed in flight motifs and suggests a constant, American Dream-esque fantasy of social mobility, from his enterprising calls to “rise up,” his diligent “rise to the top,” and later, in his disgrace, as an “an Icarus who has flown too close to the sun.” As a second-generation immigrant myself, it was a narrative I’m intimately familiar with but had never seen expressed so fully. Watching Alexander die felt achingly personal.

I’m well aware it’s a little ridiculous to have this much emotional investment in history, but I believe that Hamilton’s propensity to provoke such visceral reactions is a good thing. The musical’s uncanny ability to wring flesh and blood from the Founding Fathers, who’ve long been regarded as infallible figures within the pantheon of American history, allows viewers to have a more complete understanding of their times.

Players like Hamilton, Burr, and Jefferson are portrayed as men who created the pettiness of the partisan fray rather than staying above it. It’s an impression that remains especially relevant today in our polarizing political climate. The fact that audiences are able to relate and root for (or against) these characters, in all their uneven and bickering glory, is a celebration of history rather than a degradation of it.

Hamilton resonates even more strongly in the classroom, as a way to imbue our conventional wisdom of the American Revolution with the urgent, pulsing vitality of declarations like “when you’re living on your knees, you rise up.”

Much of Hamilton’s ingenuity lies in how contemporary it feels, despite the subject matter. The repeated rallying cries of “rise up!” in the rousing “My Shot,” a number that depicts the simmering, nascent moments of the American Revolution, call to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s demands for justice, a comparison that Miranda welcomes.

The line “Immigrants—we get the job done!” uttered by Lafayette to Hamilton on the eve of the decisive Battle of Yorktown, was met by at least five seconds of deafening applause in the Richard Rodgers Theatre; it’s easy to interpret it as a sly retort to the xenophobic vitriol of Donald Trump.

As an Asian-American girl who’s been involved in theatre for the last six years, seeing the half-Chinese Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton feels like its own form of revolution in an industry where Asian women are often relegated to the roles of submissive, sexual stereotypes or domineering dragon ladies. Theatre, for all its imagination, has traditionally read ​white​ as the default, and designated all other identities aberrant.

That’s why ​Hamilton‘​s choice to cast people of color as the movers and shakers of American history—as Miranda says, “the story of America then, as told by America now”-–is so radical. It explicitly affirms those forgotten identities and humanizes history.

With cast member Daveed Diggs (far R.), writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda (next to Diggs), and other National Student Poets

With cast member Daveed Diggs (far R.), writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda (next to Diggs), and other National Student Poets

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Book Review: MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins

This review of Suzanne Collins’s final book in the Hunger Games trilogy was written by contributing writer Aline Dolinh, 12, who’s been reading since she was 3 and writing short stories since she was 7. The review contains MAJOR SPOILERS.

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I got Mockingjay on a Friday night and devoured it in less than four hours. It was one of those books that even if the quality was trash, I still would have kept reading. It was only after I finished those last few pages that I sat down on the couch and reflected on the whole thing.

I was liking the beginning a lot—there was crackling tension, nice dialogue, and a lot of badassery going on with Katniss Everdeen and Co. One of the most memorable scenes involved Katniss and her friend/love-interest Gale, all in black, shooting down planes with bows and arrows a la the Na’vi in Avatar while everything around them was exploding.

The underground rebel stronghold that is District 13 has finally made its face known—sending out armed squads to attack the Capitol, the center of government itself. Katniss is dispatched to the city as part of a sharpshooter squad with the best of the best. Her comrades include Boggs, a District 13 guard who’s my favorite new character, and of course some old friends: the gorgeous and kick-ass Finnick Odair, freshly engaged and the winner of a previous Hunger Games; and Gale, whose relationship with Katniss at this point is nothing but complicated.

A major subplot includes Peeta, one of Katniss’s significant love interests, rescued from the oppressive government by the rebels, only for people to realize he has been brainwashed by this government to the point of showing homicidal tendencies toward a person he was formerly in love with.

I had always preferred Gale both as a character and love interest for Katnis anyway but I liked this twist—Peeta portrayed in a much more disturbing and ultimately realistic light. Even those most opposed to his personality can’t help noticing the stark contrast between this unstable, potentially murderous Peeta and his former Dr. Jekyll-esque persona and it makes one appreciate the previous character more.

Collins throws a few more characters in the squad to round it out but they feel like cardboard extras, a notion supported when pretty much all of them are later killed off hastily and thrown aside. This is sad because wasted characters are authors’ Satan.

I’d like to say something here and I know some people will disagree: I disliked the last third of the book. When I put down Mockingjay, I just sort of sat there and thought, Well, that’s it?

The scenes where the squad crawls in the tunnels under the city bored me a little—think the parts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry, Ron, and Hermione were on the run and living in their tent. I was saddened when Finnick died; my inner fangirl will probably mourn him forever. I can certainly stomach a main character dying but the fate Collins wrote for him was undeserving. I can take his being eaten up by horrific, mutated lizards, sure, but I don’t like the lack of reflection on it afterward. You wouldn’t have known that Finnick was a major supporting character from the second book Catching Fire onward by Katniss’s reaction to his death. Even Annie Cresta, his widow and implied love of his life, doesn’t seem to be majorly fazed by it when you see her at the end. This is made stranger by the fact that all previous context  has her as mentally unstable. Any normal person would be shaken if someone they love died; I would think someone who has been portrayed as sometimes insane up to this point would be a little less pulled together than how Annie behaves in the end scenes.

But the award for Saddest Death comes later.

Prim, Katniss’s 13-year-old sister, dies. She was sweet, lovable, and basically was what Katniss fought for since the beginning. Prim’s death turned me into a blubbering mess but I understand Collins killing her off—I more or less predicted it—and thought Collins wrote the death well.

The very end was my least favorite part. I had to read it over a few times because it seemed a bit convoluted to me. I even thought it was a dream sequence at one point but no, after the third time, I realized it was just, well, muddled. Everything seemed a little too easily resolved despite all the deaths; the Capitol and its supporters have all been more or less crushed, and a rebel system of government is quickly put in power within a week. It just seems a bit unrealistic.

And Gale, our old friend, gets shipped off to another part of the country, District Two, leaving Katniss with a pretty much mentally restored Peeta. No only did my fangirly self hate this; as a critic and reader I was immensely dissatisfied by the fact there is no explanation given for this. Peeta and Katniss together is not a problem, but suddenly throwing Gale out of the picture is an insult to his character and wipes away every single moment between Gale and Katniss like they never existed. A lot of my favorite characters from the other two books—like Madge, the daughter of the mayor and one of Katniss’s few friends, as well as Cinna, her stylist—were simply erased from Mockingjay’s memory and this seems an insult to their characters as well.

I think I would like the book a lot more if Collins had made it a few dozen pages longer. I suppose I would still recommend it despite the ending because the story as a whole was decent.

If you’ve read Mockingjay, I’d love to hear what you think about it—the more differing opinion, the better. Polite comments are very much appreciated.

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Book Review: WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON

Since this is a YA novel, I thought my contributing writer, Aline Dolinh, 12, who reads at a 30-year-old’s level, would be a better reviewer than I.—PCN

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan is an enjoyable read. The story is told from the perspectives of two teens coincidentally named Will Grayson, alternating every chapter.

The first Will seems more or less normal; he goes through life abiding by two rules: 1) Don’t care too much and 2) Shut up. He has an overly theatrical, large, gay friend named Tiny Cooper, who seems to be Will’s polar opposite despite being his best friend out of the few he has. In fact, much of the book is focused on Tiny and how both Wills feel and are affected by his actions.

The other Will Grayson is a somewhat troubled and clinically depressed guy who seems less than amiable at times. His first sentence is “I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me,” which gives you a sense of what he’s like. His narration is distinguished from the other Will in that nothing is capitalized and all dialogue is in script form. The lack of capitalization is probably supposed to convey his indifference about the world, but sometimes it comes off like someone trying to show off his indifference to the world. The writing style felt forced in a few places and some of the emotion is lost through the script format.

These guys don’t meet until the middle of the book, which is plenty of time for their respective lives to branch off into what seems like completely different directions. Will Grayson No. 1 forms a maybe-crush on a girl, goes along with Tiny and puts up with his sometimes-over-the-top gay behavior, which is stereotypical and slightly irksome. Will No. 2 has a mild addiction to the Internet due to an online relationship with someone named Isaac, who seems to be the only person in Will’s life he actually feels happy with.

I don’t want to reveal any crucial plot points; I will just say by the end of the story, both Wills have discovered a few things about themselves. The character development in the book is pretty good, even if some characters aren’t particularly likable. At some points I got tired of Will Grayson No. 2, with his constant lack of enthusiasm for almost everything; he sometimes comes across too whiny for my taste. Sometimes, I found myself rooting for one Will or looking forward to that Will’s chapters over the other.

But the book is well written for the most part; both characters have distinguishable styles and there was nothing too purple-prose-y or painful to read. The story leads up to a climax during Tiny Cooper’s musical production of epic proportions and has a satisfying ending. This—mixed with originality, a few sprinkles of humor, and a theme that’s thought-provoking yet not too preachy—makes it a book worth reading.

I would recommend it to kids twelve or older, since there’s strong language as well as some parts that are suggestive and not entirely ethically correct. It’s definitely not appropriate for any kid younger than ten.

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