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When You Mess With Creation Myths, the Knives Come Out

I would have ended my challenge to “Hamilton, The Revolution” after a four night reading of the script that took place at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe last January. It was one of the actors, Robert Mailer Anderson, a filmmaker (Windows on the World) and novelist, who said that he’d put up money for a full production. He doubled the amount that he promised. The second largest contributors were the late Toni Morrison and her son, Ford, who saved us big bucks by making their New York apartment available to us during rehearsals and performances. Plus audience members sent us donations.But even with the reading, which cost me $5,000.00, the backlash from “Hamilfans” was furious.

First, they insisted that I had no right to write a play about a musical that I hadn’t seen, even though I had read Lin-Manuel Miranda’s book for “Hamilton, The Revolution” many times, and also quoted from it in the script. So I saw it. I revised my script based upon what I’d witnessed and wrote about my experience in The San Francisco Chronicle[1] and spoke about it when interviewed on HBO’s “Vice News.”[2] I’ve kept revising. For example, I added some lines about the historian Ron Chernow’s speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which he ended by condemning slavery after spending the first minutes honoring slave owners.

Lin-Manuel Miranda says he based his musical on Chernow’s book. Yet, those who criticized me for not having seen “Hamilton, The Revolution,” are among those who have criticized my play without having seen it. The ad hominem attacks in the comments section of The Times merely reflected the damage that an emphasis on European studies has done to American intellectuals.

Having visited Europe many times since my first trip at the age of 17, I can say that they don’t even get Europe right. These brightest and best, who responded to the January 2019 reading and the following May-June production of my play, know very little about American History and depend upon imports to influence their intellectual grounding. For a project, I examined The Village Voice’s cultural coverage for the summer of 1985. You couldn’t help but notice the popularity of French film and literature. Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet were big. William Barett, the author of The Truants,[3] writes about how the 50s New York Intelligentsia eagerly awaited French intellectuals to arrive in New York to give them guidance.

One refreshing item about Miranda’s “Hamilton” is that it does include American characters. I agree with my critics the “Hamilfans” that Miranda has the right to take liberties with their histories, but in doing so, he covered up their crimes. Some of those who should know better have endorsed this billion-dollar entertainment. President Obama aided the production by recording George Washington’s Farewell Address with a Black choir humming softly in the background. George Washington raffled off slave children to pay his debts.[4]

When I saw Black students who were “Hamilton” fans, pose with Lin-Manuel Miranda, I was wondering whether they knew that in 1793 Hamilton’s in-laws, the Schuylers, agitated for the hanging of three Black Albany teenagers based on trumped-up charges. Random House will publish my poem about the incident.

Because I have cred with the Black media, I haven’t been dependent upon acceptance from mainstream critics. My play, “The Final Version,” (2013) saw successful attendance even though temperatures were so cold that some performances were canceled. It was the Black media and word of mouth that filled the seats at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. And so I wasn’t surprised that The Times printed a hit piece. “Hamilton” has been good for their revenue stream. It was written by a critic who came to the United States from Europe in the 1980s. She objected to the way that the play treated Miranda and Ron Chernow, whom she referred to as “Ron.” Most of the performances earned standing ovations and packed houses. The audience response was often raucous as audience members shouted their approval or disapproval with the actors’ lines. The Times critic, however, said that she didn’t find the play, “engaging.” For Black playwrights of the 1950s and 60s a negative review from The Times would have been career-ending. James Baldwin became distraught after such reviews of his play, “Blues For Mr. Charlie.” They ended Amiri Baraka’s career with “Dutchman,” even though he continued to write brilliant plays. According to a recent Times’ article, some Black playwrights still sweat the response from mainstream critics. This situation has changed with the advent of online sites like CounterPunch and social media, where writers can appeal to broad audiences directly. Another hit came from NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me,” whose panelists spent five minutes or so ridiculing my script and me without having read the script.  I’ve sent three letters to NPR asking for a chance to reply only to get the runaround. NPR is now involved in a heated controversy as the Black and Hispanic staff have signed a letter objecting to remarks made by the new director.[5]

The Nation assigned a Harvard undergraduate to review the play. I could tell that she hadn’t seen the play, and based her review on an early version of the script that they requested. She ended the review by implying that Amiri Baraka could have written a better play. She’s not aware that she was invoking the old Pat Juber, which is the slavery term for pitting one Black person against the other for the entertainment of White onlookers. Pat Juber has been a form of entertainment for the Manhattan intellectual elite dating back to before the 1920s. I appreciate Baraka’s work so much that I published two of his books and an excerpt from his unpublished novel in my magazine Konch, when nobody else would publish them. The editors at The Nation invited me to engage in a back and forth with this student. No. I asked her to have an exchange with me at my magazine Konch, at ishmaelreedpub.com. So far, no response. When The Nation published a poem that indicted the homeless as chislers, I responded with a poem that indicted the banks as the real chislers. It was rejected.

The high point of the June run occurred when the nine-year-old grandson of Diana Ross said, during the question and answer period, thank you for acquainting me with American history. He introduced the performance that night by reading a poem written by Langston Hughes. I want more students to see my play so that they can hear the comments of slaves, Native Americans, and indentured servants about the Hamilton and Schuyler families. My characters don’t humiliate Luis Manuel Miranda as “Hamilfans” have charged. They educate him!! We have all been victims of an Anglo-centered curriculum.

I’ve written to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which bought 22,000 tickets for students to see “Hamilton,” to purchase tickets for students to see “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.” Powerhouse Books is going to publish my script so that at least some of it will be available to some students. Random House will distribute them. A Puerto Rican group is interested in mounting a performance there. A group in Toronto wants to do the play next year to coincide with the opening of the “Hamilton” bonanza in Toronto.

Because of our efforts, the “Hamilton” people have had to retreat from their portrayal of Hamilton as an “abolitionist.” In their failed Chicago exhibit, their marketing line became that he was opposed to slavery.[6] Opposed to slavery? When the 1791 revolt in Haiti occurred, Hamilton sided with the French slaveholders.[7] The new line was featured in the Chicago exhibit “Hamilton” which had to close. We’re running for another month. From the first week in Oct. to the final week. Details at Nuyorican.org. I’m putting up thousands of my dollars because for me this has become a mission. We cannot challenge the new lies unless we contest the old ones. Some contributions have come through from Go Fund Me. Unlike their “Hamilton,” we don’t have support from the Rockefellers. Our support has come from those whom Hamilton called the rabble. We rabble have to put Broadway on notice that they can no longer sugarcoat the careers of slave masters and genocidal maniacs like Andrew Jackson without a vigorous challenge.

Ishmael Reed’s latest book is Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico. His poem, “ Just Rollin’ Along,” appears in the recently released Best American Poetry, 2019

Notes.

1) https://datebook.sfchronicle.com/theater/ishmael-reed-says-hamilton-is-a-bad-jingoistic-history-but-nice-eye-candy

2) https://video.vice.com/en_asia/video/do-you-hate-hamilton-now-you-can-see-a-play-about-how-much-it-sucks/5d02c478be40777a314bedea

3) Barrett ,William The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals,Anchor Press/Doubleday,New York January 1, 1982

4) Wiencek, Henry An Imperfect God, George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York,2003

5) http://journal-isms.com/2019/09/uproar-over-race-at-npr/#News%20Leader’s%20Statement%20‘Baffling%20and%20Insulting’

6) http://www.chicagomag.com/arts-culture/August-2019/The-Hamilton-Exhibition-Was-Doomed-From-the-Start/

7) Wills,Garry, “ Negro President” Jefferson and the Slave Power, A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York. 2005

 

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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