'A Confederate statue on stage': Ishmael Reed explains why people should rethink their love of Hamilton
The acclaimed author says 'I don't think people are comfortable with slave holders being honoured on Broadway'
By almost any measure, Hamilton is one of the most successful musicals of all time.
It's been heaped with acclaim, set box office records, and landed a record 16 Tony nominations and 11 wins in its first year. In 2016 it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
It's spurred productions in London, Chicago, Sydney, San Francisco, Seattle and Puerto Rico, among other locales.
When tickets went on sale for a Toronto run, people lined up for hours, and even bought season tickets for the Ed Mirvish Theatre to gain access to presales. (The run was postponed because of COVID-19.)
The show was not only praised for its inventive approach to recounting history, but also for its inclusive cast and for using hip-hop to tell the foundational American tale.
But despite its success, Hamilton is not without its detractors. And with the televised version airing on Disney+ at the same time the U.S. and other countries are experiencing a reckoning over systemic racism, many are raising concerns about the show — in particular, what it includes and what it leaves out.
Earlier this month, the hashtag #CancelHamilton was spreading on Twitter.
Since “Hamilton” is trending and it’s July 4th, reminder that Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean island of Nevis and fled to the North American mainland to escape impending slave rebellions and capitalize off slavery. He’s no hero. From historian Gerald Horne: (thread)—@petersbumb
Among the detractors is renowned author, poet, playwright and essayist Ishmael Reed, who penned The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a play in which the Hamilton creator is visited by ghosts of the historical figures he excludes, including slaves owned by Alexander Hamilton's family.
Reed points to the fact that in Albany, New York, people are talking about removing a statue of revolutionary war figure Philip J. Schuyler, who was a slave owner, and yet his daughters feature in Hamilton.
I have a lot of thoughts about Hamilton and the way it idealizes the founders, and how such a brilliant musical dangerously elides they realities of slavery but Leslie Odom Jr. put his FOOT in that performance. So talented.—@rgay
"His plan for Native Americans was extermination, just like Hamilton's plan and George Washington's plan was. And he's responsible for the execution of three Black teenagers in 1793 on the trumped up charge of arson," says Reed in a q interview with Tom Power.
Reed adds that historical records show the slaves owned by Schuyler's relatives were malnourished, and were subjected to cruel treatment and hard labour.
"So this is not a very pleasant family, and I can't understand why they want to take down his statue — Philip Schuyler, the patriarch — and keep those individuals on Broadway. It's sort of like a Confederate statue on stage."
'All the criticisms are valid'
Reed says Hamilton is a pricey production with a big ad budget, and that the marketers' message has shifted with the criticism.
"First they said he was an abolitionist and we made them back up from that. Then they said he was opposed to slavery. Well, we cited the fact that when the Haitians revolted in the 1700s, both Jefferson and Hamilton were on the side of the slaveholders," says Reed.
"Now Miranda is saying he couldn't get everything on stage — sort of implying that he did write about Hamilton and his cohorts being slaveholders, but they cut it."
Rather than objecting to the criticisms, in public statements Miranda has said he agrees with people's concerns.
"All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn't get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical," he wrote in a tweet. "Did my best. It's all fair game."
Appreciate you so much, <a href="https://twitter.com/brokeymcpoverty?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@brokeymcpoverty</a>. All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game. <a href="https://t.co/mjhU8sXS1U">https://t.co/mjhU8sXS1U</a>—@Lin_Manuel
Reed says he doesn't accept Miranda's argument, and questions why he won't respond to more detailed criticism.
"They're still promoting Hamilton as somebody opposed to slavery. That whole family was involved in slavery. Hamilton was involved in slavery from the time he was a child. The child's mother owned for slaves, and he inherited a slave named Ajax when he was a young person," says Reed.
"Then he went to work for a slavery outfit that imported slaves. And his job was to groom them for resale. And then he went to New York and he said, 'New York is a wonderful place, the greatest city in the world.' Well, for him."
'I would want to see it shut down'
Reed is in the process of compiling an anthology called Bigotry on Broadway, in which Native Americans and others talk about what they find offensive about portrayals of their groups in Broadway shows. It's slated to be published by Baraka Books in Montreal.
He also applauds the next generation of historians who are looking at history through a different lens.
"The first people to point out the flaws in Hamilton were women — Nancy Isenberg, Lyra Monteiro, Michelle DuRoss," says Reed, who adds their criticisms were relegated to more fringe publications.
"So what's happening is that the younger historians — Latinx, Black, women — are challenging the old guard whose job it was to write these bestsellers that glorify slave owners and those who believe that Native Americans should be exterminated."
So when it comes to Hamilton, what would Reed like to see happen?
"Well, I would want to see it shut down. I would like to see alternatives. You know, there are a lot of Black and Latinx and women historians who've written plays, but they don't have a chance of being mounted," says Reed.
"I think if you go to Broadway, you have to cater to the investors."
— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Ty Callender