Home Sculptor Business Ishmael Reed Picks Hamilton Apart, Bit by Revisionist Bit

Ishmael Reed Picks Hamilton Apart, Bit by Revisionist Bit

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The cover of The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Archway Editions, 2020 (photo by Zhaleh Afshar for Hyperallergic)

Ishmael Reed’s play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda is a corrective to the revisionist missteps of the Broadway musical, Hamilton. À la A Christmas Carol, the titular character is led through a series of truth-telling apparitions which represent the marginalized groups absent from Hamilton. Each “haunting” deconstructs Hamilton’s abolitionist, anti-hero portrayal of the founding father, delivered with Reed’s incisive, impeccably researched satire.

Hamilton has been internationally revered as a harbinger of theater’s more inclusive future since its sold out Broadway debut in 2015. Playwright and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda based the work on Ron Chernow ’s highly-regarded biography, Alexander Hamilton, a book critiqued for its glowing, savior-esque narrative. Despite criticism, Hamilton remains a crowd pleasing hit to its loyal and dedicated fans, with the filmed version of the musical now available on Disney+ .

In contrast, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which debuted at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in May 2019 and was published in October by Archway Editions, reframes Hamilton’s origin story by  emphasizing the years he spent working for a slave firm in St. Croix. After immigrating to the US, he settled in New York and married Eliza Schuyler, who came from a family of high society, slave-owning New Yorkers. While Hamilton was a member of the Manumission Society, a group of “do gooding” abolitionists, he never ceased enslaving people himself, a fact which seems to trip up many historians and fans of the musical alike.

In Reed’s telling, Hamilton’s first ghostly visitor is “Ben,” an enslaved man who was owned by the Schuyler family. He is followed by a host of characters, such as “Negro Woman,” “Native American Man,” and “Native American Woman”  —  a mechanism meant to disrupt Miranda’s sentimental characterizations. Later, Harriet Tubman delivers the most memorable monologue in the play, describing the spiritual encounter that awakened her from her enslaved condition into a consciousness of choosing one’s life. 

Reed also deflates the simplistic, neoliberal concept of “colorblind” casting” a premise only successful when the narrative stakes reflect historical accuracy, breathing expansive new life into perceived classics. (In a recent, stunning example, Wendell Pierce portrayed Willy Loman in the 2019 revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at London’s Young Vic Theater.)  However, when these initiatives fail, within their binaried scope of intent, they venture into minstrelsy. In Hamilton, the casting of Black and Latinx actors placed many of them in the role of slave owners, of which Reed’s “Indentured Servant” character instructs, “by romanticizing people who treated human beings as animals you are playing along with the system as well.” 

Near the end of the second act, Reed does allow Miranda a moment of redemption when the character confronts a stuffy caricature of Chernow. It is via the biographer’s dismissive rejection of him that Reed invites compassion for Miranda, the playwright, as a symptom of broader systems of racism. 

In the aftermath of the unconscionable realities of slavery and native genocide, the pretense of the underdog and other limited archetypal framings, will never produce anything more than a comfortable, entertaining ride towards resolution. The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda illustrates that in order to truthfully engage with history, we need to rid ourselves of tired conventions, willingly interrogate historical truths, and commission stories from those typically ignored.

The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Archway Editions, 2020), by Ishmael Reed, is now available on Bookshop

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