Education, Democracy, and Hamilton at the EMK Institute
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate is founded, in part, to encourage participatory democracy, but who would have thought its mock Senate chamber would host a participatory rap performance?
When Daveed Diggs stepped up to the front of the chamber during the institute’s 2016 gala, that’s exactly what happened. The Hamilton star (he played both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway cast), along with Aaron Burr actor Leslie Odom Jr., were in Dorchester as headliners at the EMK Institute’s annual fundraising gala on Monday, October 17.
After admitting to the crowd he had initially turned down the EMK gig because of an expectation of Hamilton tunes, Diggs launched into a three-song set with producer Rafael Casal. The Black-ish actor and rapper, who fronts the Los Angeles hip hop group Clipping, opened with a call-and-response track and got the crowd of well-heeled benefactors to sing along.
Odom, who just released a self-titled solo album of jazz standards, sang “Autumn Leaves” and “Look for the Silver Lining.” Then, he said Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda created “a masterpiece,” and it is his “pleasure and privilege” to have the songs in his repertoire. Odom’s backing trio of a pianist, bongo player, and acoustic guitarist accompanied him on “Dear Theodosia,” and Diggs joined him to rap a verse of “Wait For It,” to the crowd’s delighted applause.
Before the short but fiery sets, Odom and Diggs took questions from gala co-chairs, Massachusetts Sen. Mo Cowan and Boston Globe managing director Linda Henry. Cowan asked the actors when they realized Hamilton was connecting so deeply with audiences.
“The show honors the music and lifestyle kids are already participating in,” Diggs said.
He recalled, early on in the Hamilton lifespan, student matinee performances where school groups would come early to stage their own adaptations of poetry at the Richard Rogers Theatre. Diggs said he ended up on Broadway accidentally, but seeing those kids helped him realize the show is changing the perception of who has ownership of spaces like that.
It was a similar experience with students who watched the stars’ soundcheck at the EMK Institute that afternoon, Diggs said. Before the gala, the institute hosted about 40 kids, ages 4-12, who are in Boys & Girls Club music programs based in Dorchester/Blue Hill, South Boston, and Charlestown, says communications director Natalie Boyle.
Performing at the EMK Institute was one of many unique experiences the actors have had since Hamilton. “The show opened doors and continues to,” Odom. said. “I find myself in places where people clap when I say hello.”
Senator Ted Kennedy used his long career in public service in part to help champion the education and arts. That includes oration, which is the avenue Odom took to get into acting, he told the crowd.
“Whether it’s a school group from Malden negotiating the finer points of an amendment to the Compromise of 1850, or the students from the neighborhood I grew up in here in Dorchester articulating the need for the renewal of the Patriot Act legislation, the students who come to the institute are learning by being engaged in a conversation about the importance of participation in our democracy,” institute president Jean MacCormack said. “We are hosting tonight’s gala because these student programs, and our mission to inspire the next generation of leaders, wouldn’t be possible without your support.”