Humane: Do Some Good
“When in the course of human events...” so begins the Declaration of Independence. This document was written as a declaration to the King of Britain to let all know that these men who had left the King’s shores for a new life in America would no longer submit to his rule.
The document lists twenty-six reasons why they felt it necessary to “dissolve the political bands” and to state “the history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
They then list these Facts which point out their grievances and the inhumane treatment they have had to endure under the authority of the King.
The Facts start off:
“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
Other grievances follow, such as:
“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.”
The last complaint shows our forefathers’ view of Native Americans, portraying them in subhuman parlance. Words that echoed the attitude that the writers of this Declaration exhibited toward their African slaves. Words that justified inhumane behavior toward their fellow man.
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
On July 16, 2015, a new show is opening on Broadway in New York City which will tell the story of the slave trade. The title of the play, “Amazing Grace” is beyond timely.
The New York Times has an article today which is not just a review of the upcoming production. It’s a powerful piece on what it means to portray the stories of these slaves with bare honesty. To do this in the arena of live theatre brings the story much closer than the experience of watching a film where the actors are on a distant screen, where you cannot smell the sweat of their toil, nor feel their heaving emotions pulse from their throats.
Here is an excerpt from the NYT on “Amazing Grace”:
“Amazing Grace,” which is in previews for a July 16 opening at the Nederlander Theater, is a sweeping historical musical, set in England, Africa and the Caribbean, about John Newton, a British slave trader born in the 18th century who, after briefly being enslaved himself in Africa, had a religious conversion, became an abolitionist and wrote the words for the hymn from which the show takes its name.
[...] The show, which cost $16 million to bring to the stage, is not the first to depict slavery on Broadway, but its treatment of the slave trade is both extensive and stark, and has posed a challenge for the creators, who have toughened their treatment of the subject throughout the musical’s long development, and for the cast, many of whom have struggled with playing uncomfortable roles.
At junctures in the writing process, consultants and critics had pressed the show to go deeper in exploring the brutality of slavery; as they did so, the cast and crew had to pause during rehearsals to share their feelings about what exactly they were doing onstage.
“The first time I saw cast members being pulled out of a cage, it was very intense,” said Harriett D. Foy, who plays an African princess who is herself a slave trader. “I could not stop crying.”
The show’s director, Gabriel Barre, said that the act of chaining people, even actors playing a role, had given everyone pause. “No matter how much you’ve been exposed to it, to touch a piece of chain, and to wrap it around somebody or to have it wrapped around you, is absolutely gripping,” he said. “So we dealt with it carefully, and talked about it with everybody.”
“Cinema allows somewhat of a safe distance from the events that are being depicted,” he said. “In the theater, we concentrate on honoring the ancestors of the people in our cast and our audience who went through this by portraying it truthfully, but at the same time understanding that it’s difficult to watch. No one has accused us of shying away from the brutality, which is important to us, but no one has said it’s impossible to watch. That’s the balance.”
[...] For some of the actors, the hardest issue was simply taking a role that, for many, involved choices they had hoped to avoid. “When I was in graduate school, we did a show called ‘A Month in the Country,’ and there was a maid role, and I remember thinking, ‘I am not playing any maids. I will not. I’m supposed to be the leading lady,’ ” said Laiona Michelle, a cast member. “And then I came out of school, and I naturally started falling into these roles that black women fall into, as maids and servants, and supporting and mothering, and it was rare that I would be the Juliet, rather than the nurse.”
In “Amazing Grace,” Ms. Michelle is making her Broadway debut as Nanna, a house slave, and says she is proud of the role. “As a child, this was a topic I hated discussing — I grew up in a Catholic school, where I was always the one black kid in the classroom, and whenever it was that history lesson on slavery, I felt like all eyes were on me,” she said. “It took a long time for me to embrace it wholly — there’s a part of me that wants to detach, and not remember it fully, but I’m called to, and I have to. It’s an honor to be in this piece, but I told myself, ‘Anytime I’m starting to feel too comfortable playing this role, something is wrong.’ ”
I hope that the timeliness of this production will touch a chord with its audiences and begin a path of empathy that all of us can walk, recognizing the value of one another, and respecting our common humanity. America has a chance now to stand together as an example for the rest of the world in exemplifying the benefits of diversity.
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