Until Wednesday, Adamaris Saavedra and Danny Gallardo-Arias’ performance credits had amounted to this: a few minutes in front of their advanced placement human geography class.
So nothing could quite prepare the two students from Hubbard High School on the Southwest Side for the blinding stage lights, the shrieking and the floor-rattling applause of nearly 2,000 people inside The PrivateBank Theatre.
“We were both extremely nervous,” said Saavedra, 17. “But the message behind our poem was really what drove more excitement than nervousness.”
By “the message,” Saavedra meant the spoken-word piece she and Gallardo-Arias performed Wednesday for their high school peers, teachers and cast members of the Chicago production of “Hamilton” — one of 13 such student pieces, all inspired by the life of the American founding father Alexander Hamilton.
After their own performances, the students — from 30 Chicago public high schools — were treated to lunch and a matinee performance of the wildly popular show.
Wednesday’s program, which originated with “Hamilton” on Broadway and was launched in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, was the first of 10 all-student “Hamilton” Chicago matinee performances in the coming weeks, expected to draw a total of 20,000 CPS students. Prior to seeing the show, students spent several weeks in their classrooms studying Alexander Hamilton and the nation’s founding fathers.
“What’s up Chicago?!” bellowed the emcee, “Hamilton” cast member Wallace Smith. “We’ve got 13 performances that are going to knock your socks off. Are you excited to be in the room where it happens?!”
The crowd responded with a frenzied roar.
There were Jovan Castillo and Julio Mendez, two students from Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, who created a rap version of the 1804 duel between Hamilton and then sitting Vice President Aaron Burr, which ended with the V.P. mortally wounding his bitter rival.
The students drew on historical letters to help reimagine the duel, which ends with Hamilton collapsing on stage.
“Aaron Burr was a lot more aggressive during the rap because in his letters, he’s a big instigator,” Mendez explained.
Several performers made 21st century references in their work, including Castillo and Mendez.
“You’re the worst V.P. to step in D.C. since the goof Mike Pence!” spat Castillo’s Hamilton to Mendez’s Burr, referring to the current vice president.
Saavedra and Gallardo-Arias’ piece also referenced the current political divisions, talking of the need to fight against inequality in the same way the forefathers battled the “Red Coat enemies.”
“Isn’t this the land of the free? The home of the brave?” said Saavedra. “Washington must be rolling in his grave.”
Saavedra said a little later that she was referring to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
“You can’t ban immigrants,” said Saavedra, who is Hispanic. “We are the ones who made America. We still make America.”
The students’ proud teacher, Nail Sabanagic, said he didn’t encourage them to be political but didn’t mind that they were.
“It’s important that we stand up and speak out against things we feel are wrong,” Sabanagic said later. “They came up with that on their own.”
After the student performances, several members of the “Hamilton” cast sat on stage and participated in a Q&A, talking about the life of professional actors, researching their roles and the appeal of the show.
“Everybody listens to it,” said Chris De’Sean Lee, who plays Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. “People who look like you listen to it. Eighty-year-old white women and men are quoting . . . hip-hop lyrics. That’s beautiful.”