I have a weird history with Hamilton and cosplay. It dates back to the day I showed up to perform for a Ham4Ham—a series of free shows prior to the ticket lottery drawing that composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda launched once it was clear how popular the show was—at Lin-Manuel’s invitation, in full Star Wars: The Force Awakens garb. Reading comprehension was not my strong suit when I responded to a tweet of his asking which of his followers knew the lyrics to one of the fastest raps in the show, “Guns and Ships.” I replied that I did, missing the important context of the tweets beforehand—if I had read them, I’d have realized that I’d just volunteered to perform said lyrics in front of the Ham4Ham crowd, which, on some days, topped out over 800 people.
My friends would have never let me live it down if I chickened out. So even though the show was on the same Saturday as New York Comic Con and I was dressed as Rey, I sprinted over over to the theatre from the convention. Out of sheer embarrassment I’ve never actually watched this video, but you can see it below.
By that point I’d seen Hamilton twice, downloaded the soundtrack permanently into my brain, written at length about the show, and studied the costumes intensely. And for me, this level of obsession generally leads to to the same result: cosplay. I made my Margaery Tyrell costume at the height of my Game of Thrones fixation, my Captain America USO dress when the Marvel movies still felt fresh and exciting, and showed up to New York Comic Con as a Beacon Hills lacrosse player when Teen Wolf was a thing I cared way too much about.
This show means a lot to me, on a deeply personal level. I’ve been attending San Diego Comic-Con for four years now and I’ve always brought costumes with me. Designing a Hamilton cosplay for the con this year was inevitable, but not only because I’m a musical theatre fanatic who can operate a sewing machine.
I’m going to repeat a common refrain of the Nerd of Color: characters that look like me are few and far between. Representation of black women and girls in media has been slowly improving over the years, but because there are so few options to begin with, the number I find myself emotionally attached to is even smaller. No white fan likes every character that represents them, so why would I? If I’m going to put in the weeks of effort and money that it takes to make a costume—from drafting patterns to finishing hemlines—then I damn well better like both the costume design and the character. With that in mind, I’ve never limited my cosplays to just characters of my own race, nor do I think any cosplayer of color should.
But that’s not to say that it’s not awesome when you can find a character who you love and who also looks like you. Someone whose skin you’ll fit into, literally. That’s what Hamilton means to me. I chose Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica Schuyler because I knew I could make her dress, but I would have happily chosen to be any one of the female dancers, or gone with genderbent versions of Daveed Diggs’ Lafayette or Thomas Jefferson, Okieriete Onaodowan’s Hercules Mulligan, or Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr. That’s five black characters from one piece of media who I genuinely love equally: a rare, beautiful thing. None of the real life figures these characters are based on were actually black, of course, but the diversity and colorblindness of the casting is what makes the show unique. These American heroes have been reimagined to look like the people who actually did (and continue to do) the majority of the heavy lifting that made America what it is.
When I designed my costume back in February, I wasn’t worried about bringing Broadway cosplay to a comic book convention. Between the show’s popularity and the bountiful choices it offers for black, Latino, and Asian cosplayers, I knew I wouldn’t be the only proud Hamilton fan there.
Spoilers? I was so right. A cosplayer dressed as King George was asking questions in Hall H, and the cast of Arrow was singing from the score at their Ballroom 20 panel. Hamilton was very much at home at Comic-Con, and I couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t be. The show’s diversity, coupled with its pop culture domination, make it one of the most prominent examples of how the media landscape is changing for the next generation of geeks and nerds.
I spent the first day of SDCC alone, hoping my costume was decent enough to be recognized without other Hamilton cosplayers to walk around with. For the most part, it was—and even when it wasn’t, it didn’t matter.
Most adult Comic-Con attendees knew who I was supposed to be (mostly). But the first child who wanted her picture taken with me had no idea what Hamilton was. She was young, black, and very excited to pose for a photo with a “princess.” So were her parents. She was bouncing and grinning, giving me the reaction generally reserved for Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. I was just thrilled. Even if she didn’t know who I was supposed to be, in a con filled with Belles, Arielles, and Auroras, she got to see a woman in a big, beautiful dress that looked like her. That’s all that mattered.
A group of six Hamilton cosplayers came together on Saturday; more than I’d ever expected to see. We hadn’t spoken in advance of the con to arrange a meetup—it was just a great coincidence. Maybe even an inevitable one, given the show’s meteoric rise. The diversity of our group—black, Asian, Latinx, and white cosplayers—reflected the diversity of the show itself. Almost all of us looked like our characters, even if we didn’t quite sound like them.
The “princess” trend continued with more kids that day, and extended to Shannon Kiang, an Asian-American woman who was cosplaying as Eliza Schuyler in her own handmade dress. Even while we were surrounded by other members of the “cast,” girls of color approached us to ask for pictures the with princesses. I was more than happy to oblige, in between meeting older con-goers who were just as excited to see what they recognized as Hamilton cosplay.
As someone who’d just nerded out at and nearly demanded a picture from a spot-on Benjamin Sisko cosplayer (of Star Trek: DS9, and my own personal childhood hero) on the con floor, I understood their excitement. Kids these days have way more options when it comes to pop culture representation than I did when I was growing up, but the scales aren’t even yet. Seeing other people rocking Hamilton cosplay, one woman’s fab Riri Williams (Marvel’s new Iron Man, a black engineering student) costume, and several black girls dressed as Disney’s Doc McStuffins, I came away feeling better about character diversity than I have since I started going to cons in 2011. When I saw Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman take the time to lean over and sign a boy’s Black Panther cosplay mask at the Marvel booth, I almost teared up right there on the con floor.
It’s great for a child to see a cosplayer of color dressed up and participating in any aspect of fandom at a con. Let me be clear again: I don’t subscribe to the notion that cosplayers of color should only cosplay as characters of their own race. That said, I’m not going to deny the satisfaction I feel when I look at pictures from this year’s con. I’ve been proud of my costuming work before—not to brag, but my Margaery was pretty spectacular—but this is the first year I’ve looked at pictures of myself in costume and really felt like I freakin’ nailed it.
And as a bonus, I know that the family I had to explain Hamilton to will go home to Google the show, and their daughter will eventually see that—unlike if I’d been dressed as Margaery, explaining Game of Thrones—the “princess” she took her picture with is actually black. That’s the power of Hamilton cosplay, and its strong showing at SDCC this year proved just how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Kendra James is a race and pop culture blogger from New York City by way of Oberlin, Ohio. She spends her days in prep schools, her weekends at Racialicious, and her nights complaining @KendraJames_ on Twitter.