This opinion piece is by Joshua John Mackin, a writer and educator who lives in New York.
Step aside, Taylor Swift: “Amazing Grace” is having a national moment. The famous hymn that President Obama belted out just three weeks ago is headed to the Broadway stage this week.
The earnest and inspirational new musical about the life of slave-trader-turned-abolitionist John Newton makes its Gotham debut Thursday. Its timing (the play has been in the works for several years), couldn’t be better. Race and religion have taken center stage in the past year in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and South Carolina, where the governor signed a law banning the display of the Confederate flag on state capitol grounds last week. Broadway’s new play about a white man’s change of heart toward the “peculiar institution”of slavery is bound to resonate—and provoke.
The astonishing history of the titular hymn, which President Barack Obama sang just three weeks ago at the eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered alongside eight others in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, reflects in many ways the dogged complexities and intransigent tragedies of race relations in America.
Obama’s choice of “Amazing Grace” (along with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s recently released version of the hymn) adds another chapter to this fascinating history. The sweeping musical, centering on the tumultuous life of John Newton, the hymn’s 18th-century author, tells the story of how the song came to be in the first place.
A libertine English sailor determined to defy his father’s wishes for respectability, the rebellious Newton was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, washed ashore in Sierra Leone after a naval battle and enslaved by an African princess. Despite his own experience as chattel, the Newton of the play joins the family business of slave-trading.
He appears unrepentant until the miraculous survival of a harrowing hurricane at sea convinces him of God’s existence. After converting to Christianity and reconciling with his father, Newton returns to England to join his childhood sweetheart, Mary Catlett, in the abolitionist cause.
The musical’s costuming and staging is superb, with some moments of genuine astonishment. An underwater scene, as spectacular as anything available on Broadway, elicited widespread gasps and cheering from the audience.
The cast, without exception, bring unfailing earnestness and capable singing to their parts. Erin Mackey (Mary Catlett) dramatizes the heartfelt and idealistic abolitionist cause, serving as the play’s (white) moral conscience – a kind of stand-in for contemporary mainstream attitudes toward race. Chuck Cooper (Pakuteh/Thomas), as Newton’s long-suffering manservant, adds much needed gravity to every scene in which he appears. His second act confrontations with Josh Young (John Newton), when he makes the global tragedy of racism personal, are the best in the play.
The narrative heart of the work is optimistic, with an unabashed insistence that individuals can change dramatically for the better. The same individuals have the power, in turn, to influence society in a progressive direction.
“When a man who was a horrific slave trader can have a change of heart through his faith and become the father of the abolitionist movement, there is hope for change,” Carolyn Rossi Copeland, executive producer of the musical, said in an e-mail.
With a feel-good ending, you might call “Amazing Grace” a triumphalist view on advancement in persons and politics. Culture is a bolt that ratchets in only one direction in the play: toward greater freedom and compassion.
But the musical is not just soothing and includes clear depictions of the horrors of slavery. The show opens with the audience immediately implicated as eager auctioneers at a brutal slave auction. There are several on-stage whippings of black characters by white characters. And the destruction slavery caused to black families is highlighted multiple times.
The musical’s comforting message that redemption and absolution are possible for even the worst sinners, while no doubt an inspiration to some, may strike others as too simplistic.
In fact, the religious content of “Amazing Grace,” which is less overt than it is in “Les Misérables,” another historical musical with redemptive themes, may ultimately matter less to its reception on Broadway than how the work treats issues related to race.
Critics from Chicago, where the play was staged last fall, decried the central love story between Newton and Mary Catlett as inevitably privileging white feelings at the expense of black ones.
“The institution of slavery just cannot play dramaturgical second fiddle,” theater critic Chris Jones wrote. “The main African-American characters … are stuck with ballad after ballad where they sing about their white owners. They’re seen almost entirely in that context.”
And Newton’s conversion takes place abruptly during the play, with little apparent cost either to him or anyone else, perhaps a nod to the great hymn the play is named after. “I once was lost / but now am found” implies not so much a gradual entry into grace as a plunge. It presents an unambiguous message of salvation that is binary, not one of degrees. You once were blind. Now you see.
And isn’t this possibility of sudden hope, far beyond what we wretches could ever rightfully expect, a large part of the song’s continual appeal?
“I hope the faithful and the faithless and all in between will be inspired to know that they too can change, and then be the change we so desperately need,” Copeland writes.
The producer’s message may appear especially attractive beneath the storm clouds of a national climate still rumbling with stubborn racial divisions. A stereotypically white, middle-class, theater-going demographic might serve as a barometer for the collective appetite, or lack thereof, for difficult racial discussions in 2015.
After all, even Jones, the Chicago critic, admitted to getting teary-eyed during the epilogue, when the cherished hymn finally appears, to be taken up by the entire cast. An audience and actor, slave and slave-trader, black and white, all swept up in that soulful sound.
Obama’s baritone version brought the famous hymn back into national consciousness. And here, too, emerges the humbling remembrance of the relatives of the murdered parishioners in Charleston, who were so shaped by the gospel message of this hymn that they could speak powerful words of forgiveness to a mass murderer.
But are these moments just a comforting and specious fiction, an understandable but false attempt to move us past necessary and uncomfortable racial debates?
Or could it — just maybe — be prophetic? About where we could be, and are in fact headed?
When that hymn starts in a Broadway theater, or a memorial service unites a country in song; or when a flag comes down, and a governor declares a new day in her state; the great cathartic rush of feeling sweeping the crowd testifies to our hope that nations can sometimes be like people.
We want to believe. We want the possibility of sudden conversion held out in “Amazing Grace” to apply to America, and not just to individuals.
But is that how racial healing works?
What happens when Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston fade, and another topic grabs the headlines?
What isn’t in question is the enduring power of the beloved spiritual. Whether the same can be said of the progress the country is making towards racial reconciliation remains to be seen.