Ishmael Reed on Why He Thinks Hamilton is a Total Fraud

ScottyDoesn'tKnow2
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I found an interesting article I think it worthy of discussion regarding the musical Hamilton. Ishmael Reed is presenting a play now that pretty much embodies many of the critiques of the musical that have been going around for years from some academic; progressive; and other circles.

"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."

https://observer.com/2019/01/playwright-ishmael-reed-on-why-he-thinks-hamilton-is-a-total-fraud/

"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."

There are some interesting facts regarding the Schuyler Estate and its treatment of slaves and runaway slaves.

As for what Reed says is the greatest irony of the diverse casting being used as a benchmark of the musical's success and breaking new ground, Reed said that by "giving black people jobs . . . it deflected from the material."

Even if you disagree with this interpretation of the work, I do think it provides some food for thought. Many of his critiques seem harsh, but they aren't new and posters on this forum have talked about these issues in some capacity over the years.

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uncageg
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My problem with this, and i think his big mistake, is that if you are going to go after the man who wrote the musical, see the show. Don't base this off of the book the show was based on. 

And finding the dancing distracting? I am not a fan of the show's choreography but, um, it is a musical! Dancing tends to happen in musicals.

And of course i had to pause and gather myself when he was asked if he had listened to the soundtrack. 

JMO

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ScottyDoesn'tKnow2
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I agree that the most problematic part of his critique is that he didn't see the musical but based his critiques on the Chernow biography. However, I will say that a lot of what he said has been said by others who have seen the musical and came to similar conclusions, so I give him a bit of a pass on that.

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poisonivy2
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This is like Arlene Croce's article "Discussing the Undiscussable." She had valid points to make but when she pointedly made it clear that she had no intention of seeing the work she was condemning so harshly she lost credibility and it became an ugly culture war. 

I think any harsh critic at least needs to respect the work enough to see it.

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First of all, even accepting what he says as correct for sake of argument, it is not a "total fraud." That however illuminates what these folks are actually doing, which is attempting to get attention by hijacking something that already has attention. And it also highlights what's missing here: scholarship. An article in the Kushner Gazette giving someone their contrarian 15 minutes. Whatever.

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uncageg
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It seems that he is not only going for the work but also its creator. I feel he has no right to do this without seeing the show. Go after the book.

I don't know if this has happened but i feel that with the enormous popularity of this show and that it is based on history, a lot of people probably ended up doing their own research on Alexander Hamilton and may have found these things out.

Just give the world Love.
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Lin-Manuel's biggest sin is being successful.  That is unforgivable in certain circles.  

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Err...

"I think Hamilton is probably the biggest consumer fraud since The Blair Witch Project."

WTF was fraudulent about the Blair Witch Project?!

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So, I had a couple of classes with Mr. Reed back in the day at Cal (University of California, Berkeley) and some interactions with him since then. He is a very sharp person and is not shy about his opinions.  (Although, in retrospect, I think he bit his tongue/lip quite a bit in class about certain topics and methods of storywriting)  From reading the interview article (which appears heavily edited), it does not appear he is attacking the musical or Miranda per se - but rather that he read or was informed that the Biography and the Musical both treat Hamilton as an abolitionist.  That is something Reed could not abide.  It sounds like the play Reed wrote has - in a Xmas Carol way - spirits meet with Miranda to try to enlighten Miranda (and the audience) on this particular issue.  

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I don't discount anything Reed has to say regarding historical truths. Neither do I find anything wrong, or even obnoxious about his need to write what he knows.

What I'm unsure if Mr. Reed understands, or is able to acknowledge, is that it's completely possible (and pretty common) to know what he truth is, yet still find incredible value in a work like "Hamilton", in spite of any omissions of fact, or dramatic license regarding historical accuracy. 

It's both unfair, and demonstrates immature thinking to label the musical as "a total fraud". That assertion colors how I think about anything else he writes (including what his play might be like).

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Idr him being portrayed as an abolitionist. I remember that being John Laurens
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Hamilton makes a snarky comment to Jefferson about Jefferson’s slave owning in the show.

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Updated On: 1/17/19 at 01:40 PM
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Elfuhbuh said: "Hamilton makes a snarky comment to Jefferson about Jefferson’sslave owning in the show."

Which, honestly, is pretty accurate. Hamilton was a member of an abolitionist society, and did not personally own slaves.

He just didn't see a problem with his wife's family or his friends owning slaves, or do much at all to prevent slavery political or personally. Not an abolitionist by any means, but the musical doesn't really paint him as one. I would say a bigger difference would be portraying hamilton as being pro immigration instead of a giant racist xenophobe who spearheaded anti immigration laws.

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Eh… The musical does exaggerate Hamilton's egalitarianism (he was actually very much an elitist), but this kind of hyperbolic response doesn’t really help anything.

I preface this with the caveat that I am not a historian, but… Hamilton’s writings make it clear that he had a lifelong dislike for slavery. Most notably, towards the end of his life, he publicly advocated for an end to slavery in New York and to stop the importation of slaves to the new nation. However, none of that stopped him from getting involved in the slave trade at certain points in his life, or from turning a blind eye to (for example) Washington’s ownership of slaves. That is to say, he wasn’t some grand egalitarian, and he didn’t always let his principles get in the way of his ambitions.

Of course, slavery was such a fundamental and inextricable part of 18th century American society and economics that it would have been hard for any member of the “elite” to not be complicit in that evil institution to some extent.  

That’s not to defend the whitewashing in the musical or excuse his behavior. Hamilton was a racist, but he was still more progressive than most of his peers (and almost all of the founding fathers), at least in regards to slavery. Calling him “pro-slavery,” as Reed does in that interview, seems just as inaccurate as anything presented in the musical.

Updated On: 1/17/19 at 03:29 PM
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Somebody send him a DVD of 1776 and then butter a big ol' bucket of popcorn!  

Or any musical/play/film based on actual events, for that matter.  They all take dramatic license with the facts.  Not to mention that every single popular musical gets obsessively nit-picked by either those who truly disliked it or the those who jump on the contrarian bandwagon simply because the show IS popular (BWW has been plagued by the latter since Hairspray opened).  This man's personal vendetta against Miranda, who is not actually responsible for the popularity of the musical, is just embarrassing.

"What can you expect from a bunch of seitan worshippers?" - Reginald Tresilian
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I am so pissed off that the Nuyorican Poets Cafe of all places hosted this piece of trash. They should be uplifting one of our own not tearing them down. Disgraceful and damn shame.

It's handled.
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He's not just picking at it to pick it at it. If you're familiar with Reed's work then you'll see a consistency of social critiques about this country in general for decades. Of course he'll pick on the musical because it's successful. That success garners it attention and accolades. With that success you'll have people observing the phenomena and scrutinizing it in a critical way regarding its politics and dynamics portrayed since it's a show that was praised for being socially-conscious and progressive. It happens all the time in the left, especially when you do non-profit work like I do and we have to keep on our toes about the effects of our actions. The thing that really makes me question his critiques is that he seems to have used what he heard from other social critics about what the show portrays or represents to inform his work rather than personally observing it for himself. Even as a fan of the show, I can't really take this personally (maybe because I see where the critiques are coming from) because I feel like a show that has been praised as much as Hamilton also deserves the respect of being taken so seriously that it has real scrutiny. Great theatre can be about pushing the boundaries on such things and commenting and critiquing work and how it portrays life, society, and struggles with power and I think if anything, this actually sort of gives Hamilton a bit more credibility because it's not just a show you can be "mindless" about but can generate discussion....even if some people think the points are wrong at least a substantive discussion was generated.

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Thanks Mister Matt.  Very funny.

 

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Updated On: 1/17/19 at 05:42 PM
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haterobics said: "Err...

"I thinkHamiltonis probably the biggest consumer fraud sinceThe Blair Witch Project."

WTF was fraudulent about the Blair Witch Project?!
"

Upon its initial release it was sold as 'real' found footage and that the 3 kids had actually disappeared.

Of course once it went wide the truth came out, but when it was at Sundance etc the filmmakers said it was real and it's website was set up like it was real.

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An article by a non-fan of Hamilton criticizing Reed's play and wonders why Reed seems to take it so personally:

https://theoutline.com/post/6952/the-haunting-of-lin-manuel-miranda-review-ishmael-reed-hamilton?zd=2&zi=gr4lhdxn

I think this critique of Reed's play also brings up issues people have with Hamilton and the way we brush away bad things in history in order prop up the good parts.

"A reasonable adult has many reasons for disliking Hamilton, the only musical of recent memory to become the subject of widespread cultural debate. The facts of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hopera are shaky: Alexander Hamilton is celebrated as an abolitionist, despite credible evidence that he owned slaves and felt no particular way about their cause. The casting of non-white actors as figures like George Washington and Aaron Burr gives the show an appearance of diversity, but it still centers on a historically white telling of America by valorizing the Founding Fathers who, foundational myths aside, were enthusiastic slave-owners. What’s worse, there’s the songs, which are a great example of “successful musical theatre,” but a piss-poor rendering of what they claim to be: enjoyable rap music."

So it's clear this author is not a fan of the musical nor is he impressed with the music as rap music.

Some content of Reed's Play described:

"The content of these accusatory monologues is similar to Reed’s op-eds, found online for free, in which he lays out the facts about how and why Miranda deviated from the truth. As a historical lesson, it’s explanatory; as a rant, it’s cathartic in places. It is funny to imagine Miranda getting chewed out by Harriet Tubman, after actively petitioning to keep her from replacing Hamilton on the $20 bill."

His issue with the piece as art:

"But as art, which demands more than a recitation of the facts, the play committed a cardinal sin: that of being boring."

He also goes on about Reed taking this way too personally.

As to the question why The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York’s Alphabet City is hosting this play...why not? Why can't they host a work that is critical of a work from another Puerto Rican if they find his work problematic? Here's the reception to Reed's play there:

"That said, the response to the show has been enthusiastic. The Haunting only ran for four days, and reportedly sold out each night. Judging by the audience’s frequently raucous responses to the fictitious Miranda getting owned by one of his ghosts, there’s clearly a demand for a counterpoint to Hamilton, which has been relatively hater-proof. Cultural works are so rarely validated by the critics, the market, the donor-class apparatus, and the actual president that to voice one’s antipathy for Hamilton felt purposely misanthropic, a way of intentionally ruining other people’s fun, and hope for the future. The cafe felt like a safe space for the dozens of people bunched into the narrow rows, a place to revel in one’s dislike for Miranda’s play without judgment."

He does bring up the point that as ticket prices are expensive and not accessible, many of Hamilton's critics did not see the show and that's an issue for the criticism. It's also something brought up regarding how much of a social phenomenon and how far spread can the play be can it be when not everybody has access to it.

I liked Gordon's ending paragraph:

"At the end of the play, Miranda confronts Chernow, who’s presented as a pompous hack, about his manuscript’s falsities. Chernow, unbowed, replies: “Didn’t you take the hint when the Rockefeller Foundation endorsed your play?”  . . . Should he not want to publicly repudiate the more objectionable myths his play has perpetuated, Miranda might want to stay the course, as the fictional Chernow suggests: He could write a similar play about Columbus, which would surely be a smash."

Updated On: 1/17/19 at 08:34 PM
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Hamilton had a sorry upbringing as a poor white orphaned bastard in the West Indies, and he was exposed to the conditions there where blacks were little better than animals working on the sugar plantations until they dropped. So he really was inside himself against slavery and, further, unlike many abolitionists, he did not believe that blacks were inferior to whites. But if non-opposition to slavery was necessary to accomplish some policy matter, he would go along with it. As one who desperately wanted to see the Constitution ratified, he did not oppose the three fifths compromise.

I wouldn't feel too superior to those people. If I believed that racist hiring policies were in effect where I worked, but my department head got hot over the issue, insisting that fewer blacks were hired because they were less intelligent, and at a meeting over hiring he gave his opinion and then asked me what I thought, would I stay true to my principles or sell out to keep my job and career.

Anyway, I thought that most of the Founding Father myths, and others, had been obliterated by now. Jefferson, the man of whom President Kennedy said at a formal dinner in the White House, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone" should hold the Guiness Book of World Records record for hypocrisy. "All Men are Created Equal." He was one of the largest slave owners in the South and did not even free his slaves upon his death, as Washington did in his will. (About half his slaves belonged to his wife's family and he could not free them.) Jefferson could not even manage his home estate Monticello. He fell heavily into debt and had to be bailed out by friends.

Has everyone by now been made aware of Lincoln's statements during the final debate with Stephen Douglas in September, 1858.

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.          (Fourth Lincoln Douglas Debate - September 18, 1858 - Charleston, Illinois)

And the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves. It freed the slaves in the Confederate states so Lincoln would get the Abolishist vote. It did not free the slaves in the Union border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri so Lincoln could get the votes of those states.

Hey, nobody's perfect.

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Anyone who fell for "Blair Witch Project" as being real "found footage" is probably broke and homeless from falling for every email scam in the world. It was a smart idea and concept at the time it was out...but come on, I was in college when it came out, never once did anyone I know think it was "real".

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The facts of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hopera are shaky: Alexander Hamilton is celebrated as an abolitionist, despite credible evidence that he owned slaves and felt no particular way about their cause. 

This is blatantly false. It reflects poorly on Slate. Hamilton was one of the first to join the New York Manumission (Emancipation) Society founded by the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, and Hamilton was a very active member. Anyone calling himself a journalist would be aware of this.

He was also one of the young officers who tried to persuade Washington to admit blacks into the Colonial Army in exchange for their freedom.

This is not to say that he did not let his principles slip at times when something of great personal importance was at stake.

Slavery was legal and practiced in New York until 1829. Slaves were mostly household workers and laborers. If slavery had been as important to the economy of New York as it was to the economy of the South, would New York have abolished slavery in 1829?

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Anyone who fell for "Blair Witch Project" as being real "found footage" is probably broke and homeless from falling for every email scam in the world. It was a smart idea and concept at the time it was out...but come on, I was in college when it came out, never once did anyone I know think it was "real".

Oh, I'm sure there were people who thought it was real.  Have you seen who's President?

A reasonable adult has many reasons for disliking Hamilton, the only musical of recent memory to become the subject of widespread cultural debate.

Jesus.

What’s worse, there’s the songs, which are a great example of “successful musical theatre,” but a piss-poor rendering of what they claim to be: enjoyable rap music.

They were written to be a score incorporated with a book to a musical.  They never claimed to be anything else.  Unlike how this person claims to be a reasonable adult.

The cafe felt like a safe space for the dozens of people bunched into the narrow rows, a place to revel in one’s dislike for Miranda’s play without judgment.

The only appropriate response to this: OH FFS! ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!  I'm immediately reminded of that white supremacist who posted the video of himself crying when he thought he was going to jail.  GAWD.  "We were just a small group who don't think Hamilton is all that AND LOOK WHAT THEY TRIED TO DO TO US!"  

So, the play sold out four nights at a cafe to "dozens of people".  Is this considered impressive?  Because the "sold out" part gets mentioned a lot.  I mean, I get it in terms of strategic marketing, but is it supposed to be an influential statement somehow?  My first theatre company used to sell out 6-week runs at our first space that we could afford.  It was only 3 performances a week and the space had 13 seats, but should that matter?  We SOLD OUT!

"What can you expect from a bunch of seitan worshippers?" - Reginald Tresilian
Updated On: 1/18/19 at 12:51 PM
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The fact that Reed has written a play explicitly to criticize Miranda, but staunchly refuses to see Hamilton itself and justifies that by saying his play is actually a critique of Chernow's biography, seems more than a little disingenuous. 

"...everyone finally shut up, and the audience could enjoy the beginning of the Anatevka Pogram in peace."