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A.R.T.’s ‘1776’ musical reimagines Founding Fathers with diverse cast

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A.R.T.’s ‘1776’ musical reimagines Founding Fathers with diverse cast
Crystal Lucas-Perry and Allyson Kaye Daniel in rehearsal for “1776.” PHOTO: Nile Scott Studios

United States history is getting a long overdue rewrite in “1776,” running at the American Repertory Theater through July 24. The humorous musical about the Founding Fathers, written originally in the 1960s, has been reimagined with a cast of diverse female, non-binary and transgender actors, the people excluded most from history.

Mia Neal, hair, wig and makeup designer, at first day of rehearsal for “1776.” PHOTO: courtesy American Repertory Theater

Mia Neal, the hair, wig and makeup designer who recently won an Oscar for her work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is used to creating elaborate styles for dramatized characters. But in this vision of “1776,” keeping the actors aesthetically close to their own styles was important.

“They wanted people to remain themselves, they didn’t want to lose the individuality of the cast,” says Neal.

The use of genuine and diverse hairstyles is a stark contrast to the powdered wigs typically associated with the Founding Fathers. It illustrates not only the more contemporary interpretation of this production, but also the societal progress that has been made in celebrating individuality. Black hair has been demonized in this country, from the period of the Founding Fathers through the present day, and now Black and brown hairstyles take center stage in “1776.”

For Crystal Lucas-Perry, who plays central character John Adams, Neal wanted a statement-making hairstyle that was true to Lucas-Perry’s identity. “I did this really long ponytail that makes her completely stand out,” says Neal. “It’s a kinky texture of hair and it’s 30 inches long, and I feel like when she’s on stage, the way she moves and the way this ponytail moves, you just can’t keep your eyes off of her.”

Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page in rehearsal. PHOTO: Nile Scott Studios

“1776” is sometimes referred to as the Baby Boomer generation’s “Hamilton.” The show is highly comedic, but also probes the dark underbelly of our country’s origins, where people of color were enslaved and women were designated as objects.

As the Founding Fathers prepare to sign the Declaration of Independence, a central debate among the group is about the legitimacy of slavery. Eventually, in order to arrive at a consensus, even the most forward-thinking of the Founding Fathers agree to keep slavery legal. The deep-rooted racism of that decision reverberates through every bit of society to this day. Perhaps if the original Founding Fathers had looked more like this cast, everything would be different.

“This goes against everything you’ve been trained to see as far as history and our Founding Fathers,” says Neal. “I hope it gives [the audience] a little more belief in humanity and insight to how far we have come. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re doing the work — and seeing this on stage is crucial to that.”