The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Hamilton story: ‘I learned a lot about history. It was cool.’

Duke Ellington School of the Arts students Eleanor Orzulak, 16, from left, Talli Basile, 16, and Kierra Poindexter, 15, perform Wednesday at the Kennedy Center before a free performance of “Hamilton.” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The history lesson of the Founding Fathers resonated with Janelle Lott. She saw parts of herself in Madison Hemings, the son of the enslaved woman who bore six of Thomas Jefferson's children. A fatherless child who Jefferson never claimed as his own.

So Lott, a senior at Ballou STAY — an alternative high school in Southeast Washington — performed a spoken-word poem in front of a packed audience at the Kennedy Center.

“Thomas Jefferson,” she said. “Father. Former president. Former vice president. Writer of the Declaration of Independence. Hypocrite.”

The packed audience of her peers roared in approval.

They had come Wednesday to the District’s palace of the arts, the Kennedy Center, some 2,000 strong, for a free performance of “Hamilton,” the Broadway phenomenon that chronicles the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. Tickets to the rap-heavy musical — when they can be found at all — can cost hundreds of dollars, or more. Most of the students who were at the show attend a traditional public or charter school in the District and come from low-income families.

Something remarkable happened: silence. No glow of cellphones. Only rapt attention.

There were loud but brief cheers when characters shared a kiss, and a collective jeer when Aaron Burr revealed that he was sleeping in a married woman’s bed. And after the final act, a thundering ovation.

“I did not know anything about our history before George Washington was president,” said Elvis Ohia, a 16-year-old student at Paul Public Charter School. “I learned a lot about history. It was cool.”

Ohia’s friend D’Mitryus Cox, a newly converted Hamilton enthusiast, said he now wants to see the musical “Titanic” if it comes to the Kennedy Center.

A third classmate, DeJuan Price, said he think more history should be taught in a creative format, similar to “Hamilton.”

“The play makes it easier to learn than to read it,” Price said. “To see it, it’s better to understand.”

For many students, this was their first time seeing a professional theatrical production. Teylan Harrod, an IDEA Public Charter School student, said he has been to plenty of movie theaters, but never a live theater performance. Harrod’s favorite part of the musical was the tense duel between Burr and Hamilton.

“It was pretty cool,” said Harrod, who also noted that he was surprised to learn that Hamilton was born in the West Indies. “I’d like to see more stuff like that.”

But before they saw “Hamilton,” the students had to deliver their own performances, inspired by American history, at the Kennedy Center.

Lott recited her poem. A student from National Collegiate Preparatory rapped a pithy explanation of the Bill of Rights. A trio from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School composed a rap called “Hands up 13 Colonies.” And a group from IDEA Public Charter School sang an acoustic narrative of the Boston Tea Party.

“In my community, we don’t talk about things like this,” said Lott, who had never heard about the “Hamilton” production before her teachers told her about it. “So it’s a big day for me.”

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes the study of American history, teamed with “Hamilton” to provide the experience for students.

Its Hamilton Education Program, which covered the cost of the tickets, receives grants from organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation and Google. To be eligible for a ticket, students must be enrolled in an American history course and complete an intensive multiday American history curriculum created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

Based on what they learned, the students created a performance to showcase their knowledge.

“It’s more than an honor,” said Anthony Contee, a junior at IDEA Public Charter School. “Because after I heard about the price tag, I was like, this is serious.”

About 2,000 more Washington-area students are expected to attend a matinee Thursday.

“History is the most important subject,” said James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. “We can live our lives without being chemistry and French experts, but without a foundation in American history — or without caring about it — we’re done.”

Students also had a question-and-answer session with the cast before the performance. They asked about stage fright, requested career advice and wondered how they persevered to make it to the big time.

“Always keep the mind-set of wanting to learn,” Jennie Harney-Fleming, a performer who played Angelica Schuyler, the sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, on Wednesday, told a student.

Stefanie Dreizen, an instructional coach for English and social studies at Ballou STAY, worked with students before the “Hamilton” performance on bringing history to life. She said the lessons they prepared brought new energy to the material they are required to learn.

“I’m hoping this is a game changer,” Dreizen said. “We hope our kids see that history goes beyond what we’re learning in school, that it doesn’t have to be dry.”

Genesis Palmer, a 16-year-old junior, said she heard about the show from relatives and could scarcely wait to see it. Her coveted ticked sparked envy in her family.

“They were very excited,” she said of her parents. “And quite jealous.”