By Daniel Paiz
Despite the goal of truly representing the diversity across the US, the Hamilton play was never meant to champion America. In some instances, it feels like it was meant to critique this country, and for good reason. However, it also falls a bit short on fully capturing the situation of the times, with regards to both slavery and the treatment of Indigenous peoples.
There’s a few reasons as to why that is.
Storytelling at the cost of accuracy
Let’s be honest here: to fully encapsulate the treatment of both slaves and Native Americans in this play would’ve ruined it. Not because those aren’t American history topics that are both important and essential, per say. But because look at the medium in which this play arose.
Broadway has a history of not casting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in a majority of roles, not just leading cast spots. This is not to excuse Hamilton from glossing over slavery and completely ignoring the treatment of Indigenous peoples. It’s to state it might’ve both detracted from the story and made it a bit unwatchable.
I think a good deal of the criticism for ‘Hamilton’ is just. “Cabinet Battle #1” is the only time slavery is mentioned beyond a whim, and only one of the slave owners (Jefferson) coyly alludes to how Virginia and the South “has it made in the shade”. Again, do you really think Broadway, of all places, is going to rally behind a play that dives into slavery any further than saying it’s bad?
Here’s why I keep kicking this dead horse: to expect an establishment whose primary objective is to earn a profit would do anything to damage their investment is asinine. It’s the same as walking into Marvel’s Black Panther and expecting any mention of Huey P. Newton or Bobby Seale. Or, expecting Wonder Woman to pander towards the Women’s Suffrage Movement in her film.
The arts are of course crucial areas for discourse and a way to express creative ideas and stories. But to expect certain kinds (like Broadway) to deliver an actually scathing take on anything controversial is not tempering your expectations.
Look at the source material
Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton book clocks in at 738 pages (818 pages if you count the notes section). It’s written like a textbook because Chernow is a historian. Think about how much content Lin-Manuel Miranda had to sift through in order to get a three hour, 46-song play. There were songs cut from the final production (including one about slavery that resulted in nothing being done, true to historical form).
The textbook provides plenty of detail about the times. But, like the play it inspires, it doesn’t discuss slavery and interactions with Indigenous peoples as much as the historical figures dissected. One might venture a guess that Hamilton really didn’t focus much on those two groups, preferring to instead focus on what he cared about. That’s up to your research skills about the man.
The funny thing about the play crafted after this textbook is how it presents the main characters. The rapping, singing, and choreography abilities of the cast provide a distraction from how awful these characters really are. In essence, the tragic backstory of Alexander Hamilton somewhat masks his selfish demeanor. So too does charisma exuded on stage by those playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
These three characters in particular are interesting yet self-serving leads. They show us both the supposedly unique “American” values of working hard and working towards one’s goals. They also display just how often selfishness is masked as hard work and dismisses how many might be wronged on the climb up.
Perhaps the perspective was wrong the entire time
In a way, this play could be from a different perspective than we might all initially expect. The play is assumed to come from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton. However, the play is called Hamilton, with no mention of a first name. Quite possibly the only character that isn’t too cringeworthy or completely self-serving is the one that’s supposedly helpless.
Perhaps we’re all just watching Hamilton from the viewpoint of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Watching a nation rise while a society continues to burn. That explanation could be enough.