His­to­ri­ans irked by musical ‘Hamil­ton’ es­ca­late their duel

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - Mark Kennedy AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

NEW YORK – Ever since the his­tor­i­cal musical “Hamil­ton” be­gan its march to near-uni­ver­sal in­fat­u­a­tion, one group has no­tice­able with­held its ap­plause – his­to­ri­ans. Many aca­demics ar­gue the por­trait of Alexan­der Hamil­ton, the star of our $10 bills, is a coun­ter­feit. Now they’re es­ca­lat­ing their fight.

Ish­mael Reed, who has been nom­i­nated twice for a Na­tional Book Award, has cho­sen to fight fire with fire – col­lect­ing his cri­tique of Lin-manuel Mi­randa’s ac­claimed show into a play.

Reed’s “The Haunt­ing of Lin-manuel Mi­randa” is an un­com­pro­mis­ing take­down of “Hamil­ton,” re­mind­ing view­ers of the Found­ing Father’s com­plic­ity in slav­ery and his war on Na­tive Amer­i­cans.

“My goal is that this to be a coun­ternar­ra­tive to the text that has been dis­trib­uted to thou­sands of stu­dents through­out the coun­try,” said Reed, who teaches at the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley and whose lat­est novel is “Con­ju­gat­ing Hindi.”

Reed, whose play had a re­cent read­ing in New York and who is rais­ing money for a four-week pro­duc­tion in May, is part of a wave of “Hamil­ton” skep­tics – of­ten soli­tary voices of dis­sent amid a wall of fawn­ing at­ten­tion – who have writ­ten jour­nal ar­ti­cles, news­pa­per opeds and a 2018 col­lec­tion of es­says, “His­to­ri­ans on Hamil­ton .”

Mi­randa’s glow­ing por­trayal of a Hamil­ton who cel­e­brates open bor­ders – “Im­mi­grants, we get the job done!” – and who de­nounces slav­ery has in­censed ev­ery­one from pro­fes­sors at Har­vard to the Uni­ver­sity of Hous­ton to Rut­gers .

They ar­gue that Mi­randa got Hamil­ton all wrong – the Found­ing Father wasn’t pro­gres­sive at all, his ac­tual role as a slave owner has been white­washed and the pro-im­mi­grant fig­ure on­stage hides the fact that he was, in fact, an anti-im­mi­gra­tion elit­ist.

“It’s a fic­tional re­write of Hamil­ton. You can’t pick the his­tory facts that you want,” said Nancy Isen­berg , a pro­fes­sor


of Amer­i­can his­tory at Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity who has writ­ten a bi­og­ra­phy of Aaron Burr and is the au­thor of “White Trash: The 400-Year Un­told His­tory of Class in Amer­ica.”

It’s not just the por­trait of Hamil­ton that has drawn fire. Crit­ics also say Mi­randa’s por­trait of Burr is hor­ri­bly dis­torted and ar­gue that Hamil­ton’s sis­terin-law, An­gel­ica Schuyler, was in no way a fem­i­nist, as she is por­trayed in the musical. Reed con­sid­ers “Hamil­ton” so prob­lem­atic that even ed­its to it wouldn’t help. “I think the cor­rec­tive would be to close the show,” he said.

Reed’s own play bor­rows from Charles Dick­ens in por­tray­ing a naive Mi­randa be­ing vis­ited by a suc­ces­sion of ghostly slaves, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and in­den­tured ser­vants – people Reed ar­gues never made it into the Tony-, Grammy-, and Pulitzer-win­ning musical. Reed, who has not seen “Hamil­ton” but read it, crit­i­cizes the musical as just the lat­est piece of en­ter­tain­ment that is sym­pa­thetic to slave own­ers. “I say this is a suc­ces­sor to ‘Gone With the Wind,’” he said. “But at least in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ Hat­tie Mcdaniel had a speak­ing part.”

In Reed’s play, Hamil­ton is un­masked as a slave owner who once worked for a slave-trad­ing firm in St. Croix. “You’ve been up to your blue eyes in the slave trade from the time you were a child,” he is told. A slave tells Mi­randa that the Schuyler fam­ily, which Hamil­ton mar­ried into, were bru­tal slave own­ers and life un­der them was “no damned musical comedy.”

A hor­ri­fied fic­tional Mi­randa is even­tu­ally con­vinced by the ev­i­dence. “I have to undo the dam­age that I have done,” he wails at the end. “Be­cause of me, thou­sands of school chil­dren are trapped in­tel­lec­tu­ally in the same lies as I was.”

Per­haps the true vil­lain of the piece is his­to­rian Ron Ch­er­now, who wrote the award-win­ning bi­og­ra­phy of Hamil­ton that Mi­randa re­lied upon. (“You should have read books by black people,” a slave tells Mi­randa in Reed’s play.) At the play’s con­clu­sion, the fic­tional Ch­er­now ad­vises the fic­tional Mi­randa to stop mak­ing a fuss and just en­joy their “good hus­tle.”

Lin-manuel Mi­randa, cen­ter, and the cast of “Hamil­ton” per­form at the Tony Awards in New York. Many aca­demics ar­gue the on­stage por­trait of Alexan­der Hamil­ton is a coun­ter­feit. EVAN AGOSTINI/IN­VI­SION/AP

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