When you imagine the people who crafted the Declaration of Independence, you no doubt envision a room filled with white, male aristocrats — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson among others.
Prepare to have that image obliterated when “1776: The Musical” opens June 6 at Belk Theater.
With a multiracial cast of female, transgender and nonbinary actors, “1776” invites the audience to see the event of that historic year from an entirely new perspective.
QCity Metro spoke with lead cast member Gisela Adisa – a Black woman who plays John Adams — about the musical, her role and how the intentional casting enhances the show’s significance.
Q. The original production of “1776” premiered on Broadway in 1969. The world was very different then. Aside from the cast, how has the musical evolved?
First off, because we are a cast of multicultural, multi-ethnic [people], and because we come from all these different walks of life, it’s different. Some of us weren’t considered human when the declaration was written, so by us being cast in these roles, we’ve been empowered to really be ourselves.
Because of that, it encourages the audience to see things from our perspective. Maybe my idea of John Adams or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson — maybe I need to shake things up. We wanted to put them on a pedestal; they’re almost like demigods. But as Franklin says toward the end of the play, “We’re men.” The nontraditional casting encourages the players to look at them in a different way.
And the music is bussing; it’s so good. I can’t listen too hard [during the show] because if I do, I’ll miss my spot. Like Brooke Simpson, who was on “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” — she is the voice. The way that she sings “Mama, Look Sharp” — no shade to the men who sang these songs before — it just hits differently coming from the voice and the spirit of an indigenous person.
[The original production] was a tough love letter to America then, and it still is. So much has changed since 1969, and so much hasn’t. When I say a tough love letter, I mean the original creators wrote this sort of as a protest to the Vietnam War, that our country was sending young boys to fight a war that we didn’t win and don’t really talk about. And while we are not specifically talking about that, there were civil rights issues happening then and there are civil rights issues happening now.
Back then, it was about a water fountain. Today, it’s about a bathroom. The fear and the hatred and the obsession around creating drama, for lack of a better word, because people want the same rights and respect is similar to then. To be specific, with separate-but-equal, you couldn’t go to the same school, you couldn’t go to the same pool. These inalienable rights were treated like privileges. And just because we fought for it and seemingly won it, doesn’t mean we aren’t still fighting for it now.
Q. How have audiences reacted to the diverse casting?
The mere fact that I’m a Black woman playing John Adams has brought up an explosive reaction from some people. I’m sure there is someone writing letters or upset and refusing to see the show because a trans person is in the show.
And I won’t lie to you; we’ve had some people walk out. But, the plus side for me is that I know they were listening; they just didn’t like what they heard. So many people maybe start off the show with their arms crossed and their lips pursed, and by the end of the show they’re clapping and they’re standing. It feels good to see audience members who look like me look up at me and see themselves.
And at the end of the day, it’s also a musical, and we find the humor and the levity where we can. Act 1 is really a lot of fun. We are just fools on that stage; we really are. In our scene work, we have a good time. It’s the sugar with the medicine.
Q. No one in the cast is a white male. What would say to people who might think the diverse casting is “woke” or think it was gimmicky?
When culturally narcissistic people feel threatened that other people are getting attention that they can’t get because they are not part of said group, they will take things used to empower that group, like the term “woke,” and redefine it, to mock them.
As a Black woman who was an African American studies minor, I know “woke” is another word for Black pride. “Woke” is another word for “I support the human spectrum for gender, different religions, mindsets.” All I have to do is replace the word “woke” with Black, Indigenous, person of color or LGBTQ, and I know what they’re really saying. But I don’t have to argue with anyone who needed a 400-year start. That’s what I would say to anyone saying the casting is just being “woke.”
And so what if it was? That’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that people who don’t have bodies that are traditional Broadway looks are leads. To those people that think it’s a gimmick or maybe use the word woke, I know where they’re coming from. They’re upset that I don’t look like them or that I’m not used to what they’re seeing in that role.
I spent years trying to fit myself in those boxes for a lot of white American theater, and the moment I stopped caring, things changed. I stopped thinking, “My roots are growing, I gotta get a relaxer.” And I’m healthy but not obsessive. I stopped fitting the Barbie-doll template of what a leading lady should look like That’s the moment those [leading] roles started to come my way.
Q. How did you prepare for the role of John Adams? Did you study him?
You know, usually, I do that. I get all cyberstalky and look up all the things. I’ve played real-life people before – Eartha Kitt, Natalie Cole. But for this one, I thought maybe I should just walk in there as myself and play this role. I didn’t want the way anyone else played him to influence me.
During the out-of-town production when I understudied the role, I spent all my free reading up on him and Abigail, his wife. I’d be on stage whether I was ready or not, so I wanted to be ready. Then we moved to Broadway from September ‘22 to January ‘23, and I only had to go on once, toward the end of the run. I feel like I really lucked out that I was offered the lead role after all those months of preparation [as an understudy]. And I’m not the only one. Oneika Phillips understudied John Hancock, and now she’s playing him. Liz Mikel played Hancock and understudied Ben Franklin and is now playing him. And Nancy Anderson played George Reid, understudied Thomas Jefferson and plays him now. It was a lovely little leveling-up for the next rung of it. We had all that time to get off book, learn the [placements], learn the music, and really learn who these men were. And the experience evolves and changes with every audience we get, because the audience is the last character.
Q. If you could talk to John Adams, are there any questions you would ask him?
Yes, but they would be tough ones. From what I’ve read, he definitely had a chip on his shoulder about other people getting the credit. His drive to be remembered and to be great is what drove him to unrelentingly go toward making sure we were our own country. And if it wasn’t for obnoxious people like him, we might still have the queen on our money…. I would ask him something like, “You were against slavery, but you were [hiring] out people who were enslaved. Did you pay them or their enslaver?”
Q. What might he think of your portrayal of him?
He would say, “I don’t walk like that.” I decided to give him this really graceless walk. It’s said over and over again that he’s this obnoxious man, and I think he probably was impatient and would fit in in New York City and just be walking like, “Hey, I’m walking here!” So I have this walk and he would probably say it wasn’t how he walked. I think he would also think, “You’re Black, and you’re a woman,” and [me playing him] would blow his mind.
Q. Without too many spoilers, what’s your favorite part of the show?
I think my favorite part are my first few lines before the curtain even opens. On the curtain is a projection of the [John] Trumbull painting — all these white men singing this document. I use the first few lines of the document, but as myself, to kind of react to what I’m seeing. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone coming to see it, but it sort of sets them at ease for the two-hour show ahead.
Q. What do you hope people who see the show leave with?
First, I hope they had a good time and that they’ll tell their friends, “Go see it.”
Second, I hope it inspires them to look up some of these historical moments. Not everything is one-hundred-percent historically true; some things the original writers dramatized. I hope they look at Thomas Jefferson, look at John Adams and think if they were just a few dudes hanging out, drinking and making really important decisions for our future, what are [elected officials] doing now? They’re just men and women too. They’re not so far away. I hope it entertains them, they tell their friends and it encourages them to take part in their own local government and state government.