By Nawal Arjini
His new play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, is an extremely earnest attempt to show Miranda the many errors of his blockbuster musical.
Ishmael Reed has spent much of his career rewriting American history. His best-known novel, 1972’s Mumbo Jumbo, is an ironic reimagining of 1920s Harlem as the focal point in a centuries-old battle between two shadow forces: a group representing European institutional order, and Jes Grew, a virus/movement/pleasure-seeking principle originating among black artists. A subplot about the much-speculated black ancestry of Warren G. Harding ends with his assassination once he’s suspected of being infected with Jes Grew. More real-life figures, as well as barely disguised stand-ins for Madam C.J. Walker, Malcolm X, and Carl Van Vechten, turn up in the course of the quest for a long-forgotten text from ancient Egypt.
It’s all part of what Reed once called “artistic guerilla warfare against the Historical Establishment.” In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed wants his reader to question how—or even if—we remember the US occupation of Haiti, the many facets of the Harlem Renaissance, and precolonial African culture and philosophy. The establishment, as he puts it, is too invested in the supremacy of white culture, white institutions, and white heroes to notice the contrary currents of black art, thought, and social life running underneath. “They can’t tell whether our fictions are the real thing or whether they’re merely fictional,” Reed observes; hence he rewires the past, transforming a stand-in for Van Vechten, the exploitative white patron of Harlem artists, into a 1,000-year-old veteran of the Crusades in disguise. “This is what we want,” Reed says: “To sabotage history.”
The (justified) paranoia animating Mumbo Jumbo is the forebear of the ghosts plaguing the creator of the musical Hamilton in Reed’s latest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Rome Neal at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe through June 16. In the two-act play, an Ambien-addled Miranda is visited by the historical figures from which Hamiltondraws, as well as the ones that it excludes: Ben, the enslaved man owned by Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, and Ben’s unnamed mother; “Native American Man” and “Native American Woman”; an anonymous white indentured servant; a runaway from the plantation of Hamilton’s in-laws; and even Harriet Tubman.
A relentlessly cheery juggernaut, Hamiltonpromised to liven up the familiar textbook history, injecting song, dance, mild sexual intrigue, and—above all—color into the life of its subject. The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, by contrast, takes the play, its creator, the biography it’s sourced from, and the founding father himself to task; by the end of Reed’s play, we’re supposed to believe the ghosts have convinced Miranda of the error of his project.