For the fourth consecutive year, Wesleyan has awarded its prestigious Hamilton Prize for Creativity to three students whose creative written works best reflect the originality, artistry, and dynamism of Hamilton: An American Musical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, Hon. ’15 and directed by Thomas Kail ’99.
Brianna Johnson of The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, N.Y. was awarded the grand prize—a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to attend Wesleyan. She was recognized for three songs comprising an album/mixtape titled, “Tell ‘Em The Truth.” In addition, Wesleyan awarded two honorable mentions along with $5,000 stipends to Luka Netzel of Kansas City, Mo. (The Pembroke Hill School) for his musical, “Heartful Dodgers,” and Chiara Kaufman of Rye, N.Y. (Hackley School) for two works of flash-fiction, titled “The Maid” and “The Burials.”
The winning works were chosen from a pool of over 400 submissions this year. Faculty members reviewed entries, while an all-star selection committee of Wesleyan alumni in the arts, chaired by Miranda and Kail, judged finalists.
About the Honorees
Johnson was honored for “Tell ‘Em The Truth,” an album/mixtape comprised of three songs: “Dreams to Reality,” “These Chains,” and “Damages of Duality.” She wrote these songs, among several others, in 8th and 9th grades as she struggled to acclimate to a predominantly white school as one of the only black students in her classes. Around the same time, the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American man, by a white police officer, and many other senseless killings of black people left her feeling scared and resentful.
“My own America wanted to eradicate me, dehumanize me, make me feel like I was nothing. I was a blank corpse with no identity, no face and in America, no voice,” she wrote in her submission for the Hamilton Prize. “I wanted to change that and so I traded in my anger and disappointment for a pen and paper. I transcribed my emotions into lyrics.”
“When experiencing Brianna’s work, I was struck by the honesty, perspective and structure already present in what she’s creating,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, ’02. “I’m so glad that she’s chosen Wesleyan as the place to continue developing her artistic talents. I look forward to following her artistic journey.”
Committee member and actress Beanie Feldstein ’15 called Johnson’s work a “powerful, moving example of infusing one’s own life-experience into art,” with Johnson putting “her whole being into each lyric, each melody, each performance. […] Her work is wholly raw, vulnerable and masterful. In addition, her art displays radiant strength and an essential commitment to morality that is inspirational. I was rapt and enthralled. It is the work of a young artist you know will do great things and help heal our society.”
Netzel received an honorable mention for his musical, “Heartful Dodgers.” Set in Cleveland, Ohio in 1969, the play follows twins Barry and Fitz who decide to dodge the draft by joining a nearby Amish community after they are conscripted to serve in the Vietnam War. There, they meet Sarah Ann, daughter of the town’s Minister, who longs to experience the world outside the Amish community.
Author Mary Roach ’81 said she had a “big goofy grin on my face” while reading “Heartful Dodgers.”
“Everything about this piece is fresh, pitch-perfect, professional. Luka has so expertly and lovingly nailed the classical musical genre—the stage directions, the characters’ moves and their back-and-forth singing. And the lyrics! Hilarious and charming. I could see and hear Luka’s vision so clearly in my head as I read. I expect to one day be seeing some of that same creative vision on a Broadway stage.”
And Kaufman received an honorable mention for two works of flash-fiction. “The Maid” is a stream-of-consciousness narrative from a distressed woman, a wife and mother contemplating a grim future. Committee member Carter Bays ’97, executive producer and writer of How I Met Your Mother, said “The Maid” “captured the mature, complicated voice of a character that I can’t imagine a teenager being able to access.” Kaufman’s other piece, “The Burials,” tells the story of a family, generation after generation, with a dark, secret history.
About the Hamilton Prize
The Wesleyan University Hamilton Prize for Creativity was established in 2016 in honor of Miranda and Kail’s contributions to liberal education and the arts and named for the pair’s hit Broadway musical, which that year won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score. A filmed version of Hamilton will be released on Disney Plus beginning July 3.