During the 2016 election, I worked at a large, well known national nonprofit. Tensions were high following the huge defeat, but even then, I knew there were two things so sacred that I would have to wait a couple of years to casually and publicly drag them: pussy hats and “Hamilton.” In the grand scheme of things, both seemed equally corny yet necessary. Sure, pink pussies might not be intersectional and might be cheesy. Yeah the ‘rap’ in “Hamilton” sounds like it came off a soundtrack written for children. And? It was a time of division - we needed things that could unite us.
So you can understand the quiet excitement I felt when I heard (through twitter, of course) that Ishmael Reed had written a play dragging the writer of “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel Miranda, a quiet excitement on par with the mild bemusement I felt watching the women’s march basically implode on itself following organizing drama. To be clear - I think the first women’s march was an important symbolic move and that the leadership had an important platform from which to speak and organize. But I am very wary of huge protests, because they often redirect energy that could be used getting the economically stable to contribute in meaningful ways, such as donating to bail funds, into what is ultimately a self-serving photo opportunity. Appeals to “lesser evilism” and “strategy” often dominate the political space under the pretense of creating unity and not “poking the bear,” nevermind that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has dominated the news cycle and shifted Democratic priorities to the left by basically just being honest.
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. Like, there are literal Nazis out there, so why the gratuitous hating?
Ishmael Reed has decided to take on this challenge and critique “Hamilton” on its own terms, through a play. The play was read the first weekend of the year by the cast at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a fundraiser to ultimately stage the play later in the year. 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? “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 middle class is engaging with history, which in turn makes its historical inaccuracies 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.
And well, that’s exactly what Reed does in “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”. 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 history we often encounter is one concocted by imperialist and colonialist interests, who want us to venerate genocidal slaveholders for building a “free” nation.
Will Reed’s play stop the machine that is “Hamilton”? Probably not. But should we stop pointing out when historical fiction masquerades as fact? Absolutely not. As one of my friends put it, “I don’t care about “Hamilton,” I just like seeing people get dunked on”. Donate to Reed’s fundraising efforts so the play can get staged and reach wider audiences. And then donate to a bail fund. And hopefully one day we will live in a world where the US can openly reckon with its ghosts.