By Emma Sarran Webster | March 28, 2017 | People
Miguel Cervantes and Ari Afsar onstage in Hamilton.
Ari Afsar is a busy woman, taking to the PrivateBank Theatre stage eight times a week to play Eliza Hamilton (née Schuyler) in Chicago’s production of Hamilton. You’d think someone with that grueling of a schedule would use her free time to relax—but Afsar seems to be just as busy off-stage as she is on, mostly with helping others. Since coming to Chicago, the 25-year-old performer has made a point of getting involved in community outreach and philanthropy, whether by participating in events like the United Nations Association of Chicago’s “Give the Globe a Shot” panel or through her ongoing partnership with the ACLU of Illinois. And she’s not alone: Kelly Cervantes—whose husband, Miguel Cervantes, stars as Chicago’s Alexander Hamilton—is equally devoted to affecting change and serves alongside Afsar on the ACLU of Illinois’ Next Generation Society.
The women’s latest mission? RiseUP, a benefit concert to support the ACLU of Illinois. On April 3, Afsar and other Hamilton Chicago cast members and Chicago artists will come together for a night of music and entertainment at Chicago’s Moonlight Studios—and Chicagoans are welcome to join them. (You can purchase tickets here.) We caught up with both Afsar and Cervantes to learn more about the concert, their experiences in Chicago so far, and why they think Hamilton is so relevant right now.
Tell us about the event on April 3.
ARI AFSAR: Kelly and I both have been joking saying the wives of Hamilton have come together to create this event and partner with the ACLU. We actually reached out to ACLU individually and realized that we both had the same thought process, of this turmoil that we’re living in, to find solace in ACLU and see how we could give back. And we have an amazingly talented cast in an amazingly talented city, so we wanted to be able to reach out to fellow Chicagoans to provide an event that raises awareness and financial aid for the ACLU.
What can people expect at the benefit?
KELLY CERVANTES: It’ll be cast members from Hamilton performing some original music, covers of songs, and then there’s [going to] be a few local artists, and some pretty awesome special guests. It feels like a partnership with the city of Chicago in a way. The Number Project [a local Chicago production company] is helping us produce the event and we're working with Bucketfeet. It feels very local and very supportive of the ACLU of Illinois, just really giving back to the community, which is something that's personally important to me, and to Ari as well. I feel like the city of Chicago has welcomed us with open arms and has just been so incredible. We really love it here, and this is such an awesome way that we can give back to the city and specifically to the ACLU.
Ari Afsar in Hamilton.
Ari, you participated in the Women's March here in January. What did you take away from that experience?
AA: One of the best parts of being in Hamilton is the fact that I now have the luxury to find my voice—[everyone] involved in Hamilton [does], and Chicago cares about it. So that’s one of the coolest things, reaching out to the Women's March, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or Girl Rising. Here in Chicago, we are able to actually work together and figure out how we can use each other’s skill sets for the particular organization. At the Women’s March, it was the most incredible experience being able to speak out [with] our individual voices and in that same moment see these signs saying, "Include women in the sequel" and, "History has its eyes on you."
Speaking of, Hamilton is obviously popular because it’s an amazing show, but it feels like people are paying attention to it even more now because politics have taken such importance in our society. How does it feel for you?
AA: I think one of the best parts [is] not only the lyrical content such as, "Immigrants: We get the job done" or, “History has its eyes on you," but this color-conscious casting paired with the lyrics—the fact that I'm half Bangladeshi and my [character’s] last name is Schuyler and my sisters are completely different ethnicities, yet nobody questions it; or that our George Washington is black. We have such a different take on what history was. We’re talking today, and we're looking like we look today, but talking about our founding fathers. I think that provides hope and excitement and dreams for the future, while we’re still reliving the past.
KC: Miguel has talked to me about [how] people will often ask him, “Do you get bored performing the show night after night?” And he said he keeps finding new pieces of the show that mean different [things] to him in the context of the world, and as the world is changing, and whatever is coming out in current events. Different lines will all of the sudden take on an entirely different meaning than the day before; most notably, of course, the day after the election. I think even though all of this happened 200-plus years ago, it is still so relevant today, and what you can take from the show any given week could be different than what stood out to you the week before. The relevance of that is a testament to Lin-Manuel’s brilliance, but there’s something transcendent and pretty incredible about that, that it can speak to such a variety of people in a variety of situations over the course of such a short period of time.
Ari Afsar onstage with Hamilton costars.
Back to the ACLU partnership. You’re both on the board of the ACLU of Illinois’ Next Generation Society. What does that entail, and what do you do with them?
AA: The Next Gen Society is a group of young professionals coming together at a different level of financial support to the ACLU, as well as figuring out how we can contribute to the ACLU outside of financial support, [like with] these type of community work events or outreach programs.
KC: Prior to being the offstage wife of Hamilton, I was a planner in New York City. So it gives me an outlet that I can bring those skills to the ACLU on a volunteer basis, and contribute in helping put this event together and events in the future. And I think that’s something that’s really amazing about the Next Gen Society, it’s these young professionals coming together with varied backgrounds who all have different experiences and they are volunteering their time with their various skill sets and everyone's brainstorming different ways that they can help contribute.
Speaking of outreach, let’s talk about “#EduHam.”What is the program like?
AA: The initiative [is to have] 20,000 students come in this year from Title I school districts. We’ve had three EduHam experiences where the whole audience—close to 2,000 seats—was full of 11th graders from around Chicago. They have been studying Hamilton for the past two months and then have the opportunity to perform on the PrivateBank stage, [to share] their experiences and their relationships with Hamilton, what they've learned so far, and then they can get to see the matinee. It’s an incredible experience.
You’re both very busy with performing and outreach, but when you do have some free time, what are some of the things you like to do in the city?
KC: I think that I have been to Lou Malnati’s more times that I can count on fingers. We have so many visitors come into town and everyone wants deep dish pizza, so we are regulars at Lou Malnati’s. And also, we have a 16-month-old and a four-and-a-half-year-old, so we have been to the zoo several times. My son absolutely loves going to the zoo. We moved to Chicago in the middle of September, so we are so excited for the weather to get warm and to be able to experience Chicago—the Riverwalk, the beaches, Navy Pier, and all of these things that we haven’t been able to do yet but we're super pumped to do when the weather is a little nicer.
AA: I went to Pilsen recently and it was breathtaking. All the murals were incredible, and we are actually able to work with an artist—Sentrock [who] partners with Yollocalli—for the ACLU benefit. The community is so intertwined and connected and willing to give back, that I just can’t wait to explore the city more to see what other connections we can [make] in the future.
It was recently announced that Hamilton Chicago was extended, yet again, through January 2018. What were your reactions when you heard it was getting another extension?
KC: Woo hoo! Miguel and I have every intention of being in this city for as long as the show is here, as long as Chicagoans will have us. We have made this our home and we really love everything about Chicago, so we’re excited to be here and we’re excited to give back to the community in all the ways that we can. And this partnership with the ACLU just fits in so perfectly with the ACLU’s mission and how they talk about a community, and not talking about individual segments—not talking about individual gender identities or religions and not picking one, two, or three causes to get behind but supporting everyone. And when all of the minorities come together you form a majority, and it’s all of those voices together that will really be able to make change and support this incredible organization that’s out there fighting the fight in the court rooms. As individuals we can’t make that difference, but we can support this incredible, nearly 100-year-old organization that can.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOAN MARCUS (HAMILTON)
January 4, 2019