NEW YORK—In the latter part of Act 2 of the Broadway musical “Amazing Grace,” John Newton (Josh Young), an English slave trader who has recently seen the error of his ways, is confronted by Thomas (Chuck Cooper), his former slave. Their reunion is raw, fraught with emotion—on Thomas’s part, full of anger and bitterness, and on John’s part, shame. With the musical perfectly staged and performed brilliantly by both actors, the audience was completely silent as the scene unfolded.
Had the entire musical (music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron) been played at this level, the show would have been magnificent. Sadly, this was not the case.
Taking place mainly in 1744 Chatham, England, and Sierra Leone, Africa, “Amazing Grace” tackles the subjects of slavery and faith using the real-life history of John Newton, who would go on to write the song “Amazing Grace.”
At this point, however, John has turned his back on faith and is currently embracing the lucrative practice of slavery by following in the footsteps of his father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt). The captain works for the North Africa Company, which specializes in the transportation and selling of Negro slaves.
The show pulls no punches when it comes to this subject, at times showing graphically how new slaves are treated when they arrive in Chatham. It’s something John and other men of the city try to shield from their womenfolk in order to preserve a veneer of civility.
Almost everyone treats slavery as a necessary evil, one vital to the British economy of the time. In a speech that could easily be transplanted to the present day with only a few changes (that is, substituting “sweatshops” for “slavery”), John defends the practice to long-time friend and love interest Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey). He points out how most people don’t want to upset the status quo if it means depriving them of creature comforts. He also notes that if his company didn’t bring in slaves, another one would.
In an especially delicious bit of irony, one of the songs in the show is “Rule Britannia,” a patriotic tune that includes the words “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the Waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
This piece is ironic indeed, considering what was going on at the time and not only in terms of Negro slavery. The British Navy also forcibly pressed able-bodied white men into service so that the navy could have enough men to serve on their ships.
“Amazing Grace” doesn’t shy away from the fact that blacks were also actively engaged in the slavery trade. When Sierra Leone’s Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy) is taken to task for dealing with slave traders and selling her own kind, she replies her actions were done in the name of survival. She also adds, “This world made me who I am.”
Peyai’s comment could have been made by just about any person engaged in a disreputable business.
Where the show runs into problems is with the character of Mary, who gets involved with a group of abolitionists determined to call attention to their cause. A good storyline on its own terms, this focusing on her activities too often takes the spotlight away from John.
With the show’s creators trying to give both storylines equal importance, neither gets the complete attention it deserves. As a result, the entire piece has a tendency to feel disjointed.
For example, when it comes to its ultimate message of redemption and awaking, the realization comes upon not only John, but also Mary, Captain Newton (in regards to his relationship with his son), and Nanna (Laiona Michelle), Mary’s servant –all to vastly different degrees.
John’s conversion in particular needs to be played out longer and made bigger to be more effective than it currently is. It would have been nice if the title tune tied more directly into the story, though we do see an interesting insight into the song’s genesis.
The creators also needlessly introduce a pseudo-romantic triangle between John, Mary, and British officer Major Archibald Gray (Chris Hoch).
A lot of these problems stem from Gabriel Barre’s direction, which is brilliant in some cases, but not nearly as effective when it comes to tying everything together.
Young is excellent as a somewhat spoiled and arrogant cynic who ultimately ends up finding salvation, while McKay works well as a woman who finds her eyes opened to the injustices going own around her.
Chuck Cooper is superb as Thomas and has surely earned a Tony nomination for his performance.
Hewitt does a good turn as the somewhat overbearing but ultimately caring Captain Newton.
The “Amazing Grace” program notes point out that slavery still exists today. This fact is not mentioned often enough in the news. In a world obsessed with the latest hot topic, it becomes far too easy for people to forget issues that don’t concern them directly.
Hopefully the show’s creators will be willing to go back to the drawing board at some point and decide to better focus the material they have.
Also in the cast are Stanley Bahorek, Elizabeth Ward Land, Toni Elizabeth White, Mike Evariste, Vince Oddo, Rachel Ferrera, Savannah Frazier, Michael Dean Morgan, Allen Kendall, Gavriel Savit, Christopher Gurr, Leslie Becker, Sara Brophy, Rheaume Crenshaw, Miquel Edson, Sean Ewing, Oneika Phillips, Clifton Samuels, Dan Sharkey, Evan Alexander Smith, Uyoata Udi, Charles E. Wallace, Bret Shuford, and Hollie E. Wright.
208 W. 41st St.
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.