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.
A reasonable adult can express their opinions about Hamilton in many ways, too. They can fire off a salty tweet; they can politely reject their mother’s offer to see the show; they can withhold applause after watching someone publicly karaoke “My Shot,” something I did recently. But there are ways to go further, ways to shake off social norms in order to loudly convey how you don’t approve the Hamilton phenomenon, which has persisted since its Broadway debut in February 2015. And the truth is that if you write an hour-long play about why Hamilton is bad, as Ishmael Reed did, the simplest explanation is that you are just mad as hell (in the Biblical Cam’ron sense).
On Monday night, a friend and I convened at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York’s Alphabet City to watch a reading of The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, a two-act play written by Reed, the prolific man of letters who has spent the last four years as an explicit Hamilton hater. Reed’s objections to the show begin the same as most people: He’s offended by the warping of historical fact to enable the fuzzy feeling found in all glossy Broadway productions, and thinks Miranda failed massively by depending so heavily on historian Ron Chernow’s tome-sized Alexander Hamilton, which he regards as another incomplete record presented by a clueless white man.
But Reed’s protest of the show also feels deeply personal, as though he’s really legitimately offended that this would be the play America has elevated. Over a series of interviews and op-eds, he’s unhesitatingly and provocatively described his reservations. On the casting of a black actor, Chris Jackson, as George Washington, who owned slaves and happily massacred the Native Americans, he wrote: “Can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin’s theaters taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?” Elsewhere, he compared Hamilton to Ariel Castro, who kidnapped three Cleveland women and held them in his basement for a decade: “[Hamilton’s] groupies argue that despite his flaws — they don’t include the slave-trading parts — he was smart. Well so was Ariel Castro.”
Now, you might point out the glaring false equivalency here, and that Hamilton’s life merits more contemplation than Castro’s, who was just a monster. But Reed’s point, however outlandishly presented, is that waving off the bad stuff because of the good is basically the entire problem with the way history is remembered in America. Today, it’s considered rude to point out that George H.W. Bush was complicit in the death of an entire generation of gay people, and the criminalization of an entire generation of black people, just because he seemed nice to his wife and wore funny socks. Given Hamilton’s profound cultural penetration, Reed’s exaggerations seem almost justified. Still: Ariel Castro?
At the beginning of The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miranda (Maxx Man) is up for the prestigious (and fictitious) Great White Way Theater Award, a fantastic double entendre. However, he’s visited by the ghosts of the people whose actual experiences he erased on the way toward winning the Kennedy Center Honors: two slaves, two Native Americans, Harriet Tubman, an Irish indentured servant, Hamilton himself. One by one, they deliver a litany of complaints about how Miranda has screwed up, to his disbelief. (One exception is Hamilton, who seems thrilled about the play’s success: “I want to thank you for restoring my reputation,” he tells Miranda.) “This can’t be true!” Miranda sputters, following a claim that the Constitution is partially based on Native American law. “Chernow would’ve included it in his book!”
Still, Reed’s Miranda bends under the weight of so much evidence that Hamilton was apparently not a great guy, his moral arc traveling the full Scrooge. By the end of the play, he’s ready to donate 75 percent of his future profits to organizations like Medgar Evers College and, in the night’s largest cheer, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. 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.
It may take a systematically flawed country to elevate something like Hamilton into a global smash, but it takes only a single, blinkered narcissist to decide this is the story he wants to tell, and to not deviate once the money starts rolling in.
But as art, which demands more than a recitation of the facts, the play committed a cardinal sin: that of being boring. Even though the reading couldn’t be judged as a completed play — only a few of the actors were in costume, and there was no set nor action — it was hard to imagine how Miranda getting educated in long, unbroken chunks of dialogue could be staged in an interesting way. Reed’s hope, as described in the show’s program, is that The Haunting will exist as “a rebuttal” to Hamilton. But should he receive the funding he’s looking for to make his play a full production, it seems unlikely that the scores of supposedly misled school children will turn out the way they did for Hamilton which, artistic and political reservations aside, is by far a more engaging experience. Ironically, a better delivery system for why Miranda and his play suck, as far as the kids go, would’ve been… a rapped musical.
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.
Here I must point out that Reed has never seen Hamilton. Even though tickets are expensive, this basic fact highlights an uncomfortable truth: A lot of the people who purport to hate Hamilton haven’t seen it, and never will. Their feelings may be emotionally valid, and partially informed — you can stream the soundtrack for free, and read literally hundreds of articles about it — but without personal exposure to the completed product, still ring a little bitter. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from The Haunting is that Reed thinks Miranda is a clown, which may be true, but you can get the same effect from reading a half-dozen tweets mocking him.
Bitterness can inform energetic criticism, but for a writer as imaginative as Reed, the straightforwardness of the dissent is disappointing. Reed’s own work has frequently involved reinterpreting mythology; he’s also stated his belief that rap is a cutting edge political art form. Perhaps the root of his personal feelings is how Hamilton employs the artistic approaches he enjoys to such intensely distorted effect. A lyrical play genuinely pushing back at the myths of the Founding Fathers, instead of reifying them, is something he would’ve written, though of course he wouldn’t have produced anything hokey or upbeat as “My Shot.”
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?” It may take a systematically flawed country to elevate something like Hamilton into a global smash, but it takes only a single, blinkered narcissist to decide this is the story he wants to tell, and to not deviate once the money starts rolling in. 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.