Performing Truth

Twelve years ago I went to the Grand Canyon. While in a town nearby, a couple of guys dressed as cowboys did a shootout. Blank firing guns and all; twelve year old me thought it was real cool. This past Thursday, part of my school trip here in South Africa had us watch a group doing a collection of traditional dances. Also cool. Were they authentic? A cowboy shootout isn’t particularly typical of modern Arizona and Tribal dances celebrating a good hunt aren’t exactly common in South Africa anymore. But it’s what we expect of these places,


There’s this concept of performance, which, put simply, is when we do something we are performing what it should be. We perform politeness, which looks different in the United States compared to China. And we perform culture, which is part who we are and part what’s expected of us. So those cowboys in Arizona and the dancers in South Africa were both, in some way, performing culture. The dance the other night, for example, had a piece of choreography ripped right from Marty McFly’s concert at the end of Back To The Future. Air guitars were probably not a thing when these dances were first done, but contextually it makes plenty of celebratory sense. Authentic or not, it’s true.

Which brings me to Hamilton, the broadway musical about the titular American Founding Father. It’s biographical, but unlike many other biographies it chooses to dispense wholesale with any concerns of historical accuracy. Not to say that the play  takes egregious liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life, but rather decides to play fast and loose with exact way of presenting this truth. For starters, Hamilton himself is played by a Latino actor. And Aaron Burr is black. And not only is there singing, but there’s rapping; these showtunes are hiphop anthems. Even if we can forgive the presence of songs — which all musicals do —, the racelift and music genre is a fairly egregious bastardization of ‘authenticity’ that essentially throws out any semblance of an accepted interpretation of reality. But it makes the story of Hamilton’s life surprisingly accessible and relatable. The spirit is preserved. Like a man dressed as a Zulu warrior strumming an air guitar, Alexander Hamilton rapping about not throwing away his shot mayn’t be accurate, but it’s true. Hamilton performs a subversive version of the truth that allows it to better capture the youthful energy of revolution.

Fiction is inherently a lie. There’s no such thing as hobbits, magic rings, or Mount Doom. We don’t have superheroes, and we don’t have spaceships. But a show like Firefly [is able to better capture the feeling of life on a ship than anything else. The Lord of The Rings speaks beautifully about the indomitable nature of hope. Sex Criminals contains the best discussion of depression and intimacy I’ve ever seen. A good storyteller is full of crap; anyone who says otherwise is wrong (or writing a different essay). In story, as Tim O’Brien puts it in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” We don’t need things to be accurate — Hamilton being a white dude or an African not strumming an air guitar — but we need things to be true. When Hamilton raps we don’t think about the factual inaccuracies, instead we get lost in the feeling of excitement and energy of it all. The truth of a strong story lies not in it perfectly matching reality, but rather in it moving the audience. The truth of a story lies in its emotional core; we’ll willingly swallow the most boldfaced lie about the world so long as deeper within the lie is a truth of being.

There was a thrill to watching those guys dance the other day. An excitement[?] that overruled any care about the question of authenticity. They may not have performed a reflection of reality, but they performed the truth. We don’t need a factual blow by blow for a story to bury itself into our heart, we just need it to be true.

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