In the feature for this week’s issue, Darcy Brown-Martin writes about the white supremacist push-back a fund-raiser for Black theaters received simply for existing. The question that arose seemed to be, “Is there a need for Black theater at all?” Attempting to understand the motivation for such a question, our journalist quotes a study done by a Boston University professor which states, “Racism—which has long been masked by color-blind norms, subtle offensive interactions, unconscious bias, and covertly embedded in institutions—is being unmasked through online racial discourse.”
The operative word in the quote is “unmasked,” which could allude to several long-overdue discussions taking place in the worlds of art, literature and theater along with all other aspects of American life. In theater, take the case of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit “Hamilton,” which was re-released as a movie by Disney Plus in July. During its initial release in 2015, there was nothing but praise for the “hip-hop re-telling of the founding fathers” with most of the primary parts being played by Black performers. During the era of the Obama administration, there was very little pushback. The only exception being Oakland’s own, Ishmael Reed, who wrote “‘Hamilton: the Musical:’ Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween” for Counterpunch in August, 2015. In the article, Reed unmasked the history of the founding fathers, pointing to the contradictions and inaccuracies of Miranda’s musical.
“Like other founding fathers, Hamilton found slavery an ‘evil,’ yet was a slave trader,” he wrote. “The creepy Thomas Jefferson also appears in ‘Hamilton.’ He was even a bigger hypocrite in his blaming King George for the slave trade, a contention that was deleted from the final version of the Declaration of Independence…. In the musical, black actors play Washington and other founding fathers. Are they aware that George Washington is known for creating strategies for returning runaways? That he was into search and destroy when campaigning against Native American resistance fighters.”
Reed debuted his play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in January, 2019. In the play, Miranda is visited by several historical figures missing from the musical in a style similar to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, echoing the many critiques made by historians, including the whitewashing of Alexander Hamilton. Though the original play was just a script-reading, it did eventually become fully staged at the same location by May 2019.
The re-release of “Hamilton” during the Age of Trump saw a day of reckoning that, once again, put Reed on the right side of history. In July, 2020, USA Today offered, “Lin-Manuel Miranda says renewed criticism of Disney+ musical ‘Hamilton’ is ‘all fair game.'” The article points to a tweet that Miranda made concerning the criticisms of Reed, writer Roxanne Gay and several others, “‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda even admitted that ‘all the criticisms are valid’ on Twitter Monday. “The sheer tonnage of complexities and 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.” This is in stark contrast to Miranda’s position in 2015, where the critiques and concerns for his musical fell on deaf ears.
The article also points to Reed, who had to deal with the ire of the mainstream theater establishment for five years, saying, “The criticism around the musical has bubbled over the years as it became a Broadway sensation that won 11 Tonys. Author Ishmael Reed collected his thoughts on ‘Hamilton’ and its creator into a play, ‘The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda’ (partially funded by the late Toni Morrison). In an interview with the Associated Press last year, Louisiana State University history professor—and Aaron Burr biographer—Nancy Isenberg called the musical ‘a fictional rewrite of Hamilton. You can’t pick the history facts that you want.”‘
Unmasking white supremacist history does happen with Black artists in all fields, including theater. When the mainstream, predominantly white, establishment attempts to use Black bodies, and a Black musical form, to re-frame and whitewash slave-holders into humanitarians, and plays like Ishmael Reed’s are forced into short-runs far afield from “The Great White Way,” the need for Black theaters, Black publishers and Black movie studios remains necessary, not just for marginalized voices, but to preserve the truth itself.