Finding something new — and true — to bring to a portrayal of historical figures as well-known as Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock is a challenge. But for the actors in the cross-gendered and racially diverse revival of the beloved musical “1776,” at the American Repertory Theater through July 24, history has proved a tool as well as a burden.
Informed by their own research and input from scholars like Annette Gordon-Reed, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, the female, nonbinary, and trans cast was able to bring fresh perspectives to Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1969 Tony Award winner, which depicts the Second Continental Congress struggling to draft the Declaration of Independence during a hot summer in Philadelphia.
To better understand her character, Jefferson, for example, Elizabeth A. Davis traveled to the statesman’s home, Monticello — twice. “The first time was right before we were going to start rehearsal,” back in 2020, said Davis. The current production — created by Diane Paulus, the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director at A.R.T., and Jeffrey L. Page, co-director/choreographer — was originally scheduled to open that spring. “It was the day Monticello closed down for the pandemic,” Davis said.
When she was able to return, she stayed at the Clifton Inn, originally the home of Jefferson’s daughter. At this former estate, which the Founding Father designed, Davis felt the disconnect between “how beautiful and how aesthetic everything was” in the house and gardens and the former slave quarters. “We know that he was brilliant and did extraordinary things and also owned 607 people in the course of his lifetime,” said Davis. Being there, she added, helped her “really feel that contradiction.”
For Liz Mikel, who portrays John Hancock, research resulted in a more pleasant surprise about her character, who served as the president of the Second Continental Congress. “From what I could gather, John Hancock never bought or sold anyone,” said Mikel. Raised by an uncle after his father’s death, Hancock was one of the wealthiest Founding Fathers. “He inherited slaves after his uncle’s death, but he himself never bought or sold any person, so that’s good.”
An importer of wine and other goods, Hancock may have been at least partially motivated by a desire to evade heavy British levies, Mikel found. “He did not necessarily want to pay all of those taxes on all of those imports he was bringing in,” she said, noting that Hancock “went under the radar on some things” to avoid tariffs.
“He was a complicated man,” she said.