During the 2016 election, I worked at a large, well known national nonprofit. The organization was firmly part of the political establishment, and among my colleagues, getting tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s frequently sold-out musical “Hamilton” was a marker of social status on par with visiting Cuba in the wake of the warming of Cuba-US relationships. I personally never really understood the appeal of Hamilton. It was everywhere, so I had of course listened to parts of the soundtrack, but it never appealed to me. Overdone. Corny. Yet it sparked something in others. At the office, murmurs would ensue when someone would enthusiastically announce that they got the coveted tickets through some feat of working their connections. Shrug. The state of popular media wasn’t particularly inspiring, but I guess it was nice to hear about something cute and feel good as the world got darker and darker.
So you may understand the quiet excitement I felt when I heard (through twitter, of course) that Ishmael Reed had written a play titled “The Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda”. Though I personally disliked the Hamilton phenomenon, I hadn’t really delved into why that was the case. And in a time where identity politics are (rightly, if clumsily) a litmus to determine the validity and importance of statements, it’s hard to hate on a play written by a Puerto Rican that employs a huge staff and gives Black performers jobs.
Reed has decided to take on this challenge and critique “Hamilton” on its own terms, through a play, which was read by the cast at the Nuyorican to raise funds to stage the work. I spoke to Reed a few hours before the first reading, and he gracefully countered identity politics concerns by pointing out the prominence that “Hamilton” has risen to in the past few years, and the fact it makes headlines when school children are given the chance to see the often sold-out musical. And that POC are cast in lead roles in “Hamilton”? “Well, The Birth of a Nation has Black people in it”. The popularity of “Hamilton” means that it’s how a sizeable amount of the American populace is engaging with history, which in turn makes it more than worthy of scrutiny and critique. And though the Times reports that Reed has not seen the play, he did mention that he read it (many times) and that he wanted to engage with the content, not the spectacle.
The play was accordingly, heavy on content but lacking in spectacle. Reed has fixated on the historical inaccuracies in the play, and the “ghosts” that haunt Miranda are historical figures there to give him a proper history lesson. An earnest and naive Lin-Manuel finds himself taking a bit too much Ambien (™) and a series of people who tend to be left out of historical narratives, from slaves to indentured servants to Harriet Tubman, appear to educate and shame him in a series of monologues. The effect is satisfying and funny, if a little pedantic at times. And though Miranda is the character who bears the on-stage brunt of Reed’s relentless critique, Reed takes just as much issue with Ron Chernow, the historian who wrote “Alexander Hamilton”, the book which “Hamilton” was based on, for being far too lenient with the fact that Alexander Hamilton “may” have owned and sold slaves. It’s a reminder that the sanctioned history we often encounter is one concocted by imperialist and colonialist interests, who would… rather avoid the genocidal slaveholding interests that shaped the founding of this country.
I appreciated the history lesson, but I left feeling that Reed’s focus on historical accuracy might have inhibited a more successful (and entertaining) critique of “Hamilton”. One of the most interesting things about the play is how it functions as a cultural text of the American ruling class. The play was beloved by the Obamas, who also served as a test audience. Michelle Obama went as far as to pronounce it “the best art she had ever seen”. In 2016 it reached across the aisle, as even conservative DC politicians who did not see the musi-cool play were considered “uncool”. And as Reed’s play was being read in NYC, Miranda was in Puerto Rico showing his own play. Yes, the island is still recovering from Hurricane Maria and Miranda is fundraising for the island, which was forgotten by the States in the wake of the hurricane.
But beyond the feel good optics of this gesture, there is a maddening message. Though he is providing aid to Puerto Rico, (which has already done a lot of its rebuilding on its own) Miranda is showing a play about the revolution that created the country that grants Puerto Ricans citizenship but no voting rights. On top of that, that country created racialized capitalism, a system which normalized the system of slavery so thoroughly we still can’t call racism racism without hurting feelings, and that has warmed the earth and created the conditions that made the hurricane so destructive. The cognitive dissonance is jarring.
Hamilton is, in essence, a presidentially sanctioned piece of propaganda, as Reed points out without actually naming it propaganda as such. To approach it as an academic text and to dissect the historical inaccuracies obscures the current nationalist forces it is upholding and upheld by. Reed himself is aware of these forces, as his off-hand remarks about the funding streams supporting Hamilton indicate. Yet, he doesn’t confront them in his work. He does point out that history as it is currently taught is a fiction of nationalism and imperialism that brightens up the viciousness and brutality of slave owners, and that obscures the complexity of black/indigenous relationships and the role that indigenous people have and continue to play in this country.
But his treatment of Miranda, in particular, is one that portrays the playwright as a buffoon. While it makes sense to portray the creator of such a highly processed celebration of America as a joke, Miranda is still in a position of power, and no amount of cute “raps” should obscure that he is a propagandist. There is a depth of complicity with and maneuvering in American empire that Reed glosses over. It reminds me of treatments of Melania Trump that portray her as a victim to her tyrant of a spouse without recognizing that she has intentionally maneuvered herself into her position. While these portrayals humanize celebrity, they obscure the position of power these figures are in and their ability to set and drive national conversations, and do not work towards establishing frameworks where these figures can be held accountable.
I believe there is a depth to Hamilton beyond the historical that Reed senses yet does not address (why else would his disdain be so sustained?). I am hopeful to see how the play evolves as it moves into being a staged production.