For better or for worse, it’s hard to remember a time when Hamilton wasn’t ubiquitous. The hip-hop musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton—with music, lyrics and a book penned by the rigorously philanthropic Lin-Manuel Miranda—is perhaps the most decorated show in Broadway history. It not only won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, but also swept the Tony Awards that year, netting 11 trophies including Best Musical. It has earned upwards of $1.45 billion (and counting) in ticket sales. And Michelle Obama referred to the extravaganza as “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”
But ever since its debut, detractors have been rushing to take Miranda’s vaguely utopian vision to task. Critics and academics claim the show erases critical facts about the founding fathers from its narrative, chief among them that Hamilton himself, supposedly an abolitionist, participated in the purchasing of slaves. Now, novelist, poet, playwright and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Ishmael Reed has responded to the Hamilton brouhaha with a theatrical work of his own: The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a two-act play that serves as a rebuttal to Miranda’s roaring success.
In Reed’s play, which was read to sold-out audiences in a series earlier this month at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City, the character of Miranda, who is floundering in the midst of the writing process, is suddenly visited by manifestations of slaves, Native Americans and white indentured servants who were conveniently left out of the book upon which he based his musical: Alexander Hamilton, by historian Ron Chernow. Distraught, Miranda listens as the facts are laid out for him one by one and his preconceived notions about America’s OG Federalist are shattered beyond recognition.
Reed spoke to Observer about the genesis of his play, the reasons behind historical revisionism and why Hamilton is ultimately one big sham.
Observer: When did you first find out about Hamilton?
Reed: There’s been a sisterhood revolt in the American historical establishment. These are members of a younger generation of women excluded from the good old boys’ club, and the reading of Hamilton as an abolitionist is disputed by one of them, [scholar] Michelle DuRoss. These are women who are raising the alarm about the portrayal of Hamilton and [his wife] Eliza as abolitionists.
Somebody wrote that I hated Hamilton, but I really let Miranda off the hook. He’s really a sympathetic figure in my play. What I really despised is the fact that Hamilton, this monarchist and pro-slavery person, said that cows and property and blacks were interchangeable—the fact that this would be exposed to thousands of children and others. According to his grandson, Hamilton bought and purchased slaves for others.
Have you listened to the show’s soundtrack?
Annette Gordon-Reed, who teaches history at Harvard, showed up to the reading of my play the first night. She’s on the payroll at Hamilton—her job is to point out the inaccuracies in the script as part of the traveling museum of Hamilton [officially called “Hamilton: The Exhibition”]. She asked, and other writers at The New Yorker asked, where I’d seen it. I don’t need to see it, because [in my play] I quote from [Chernow’s] book, which is wrong. Anyway, I would find the dancing and the hip hop distracting.
It’s a global phenomenon, and people ask me, “Why take on a global phenomenon?” You know what else is a global phenomenon? Gone With the Wind. I think Hamilton is probably the biggest consumer fraud since The Blair Witch Project.
Why do you think historians are so willing to glaze over the uglier truths about the founding fathers’ lives?
They want to get awards. Andrew Jackson’s portrait is in the White House, and he slaughtered thousands of Native Americans. He exterminated the Creek Nation. He’s very much like [our current] president. He tried to ban publications that were fully abolitionist. What historians do is take these men and try to turn them into marvels. I try to inject a little humanity. These were human beings—they weren’t gods.
I read that one of the actresses in Hamilton referred to the Schuyler sisters as the Kardashians.
Incredible ignorance. I found out through the tourist guide of the Schuyler mansion that there were runaway [slaves]. As evidence of Hamilton being an abolitionist, they point to his membership in something called the Manumission Society. But old man Schuyler [Eliza’s father, Philip Schuyler] captured runaways. When blacks ran away from the plantation, he put up reward posters. They brought a black woman named Diana back, and there’s no evidence that Eliza Schuyler, supposedly an abolitionist, ever did anything to intervene on behalf of Diana, who was returned to the plantation and punished. There was a team of archaeologists who dug up the remains of the slaves of the Schuyler plantations, and they found that these slaves were subjected to back-breaking work, and their short stature indicated that they suffered from malnutrition. This was no beautiful kingdom. The Schuyler home was a house of horrors.
You propose that it’s ironic that people point to the diverse cast as an indicator of Hamilton‘s success.
This musical gave black people jobs, which was ingenious because it deflected from the material.
Reed is currently raising funds to mount a staged version of The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in May.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.