Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Questions to risk posing include when does the ‘sweet sound’ of grace become necessary… useful… inevitable… and why? How can it be ‘heard’ or ‘herded’ by people? When is it rejected… and how… and why? Where does grace come from? How is it generated? Who possesses it and can it be transferred to another? Does grace have the capacity to ‘find’, ‘unblind’ or ‘save’ another? Can grace inspire social change? These questions arise and are outlined by the famous Amazing Grace song, which is funnelled into Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron’s new musical, Amazing Grace, on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
One manner in which grace seems to be transferred to another is through sound. I first experienced, was teased, with Chuck Cooper’s musical gifts in snippets of him singing to demonstrate a sound, an experience or a manner of singing when he taught me in my conservatory. Chuck helped me to realize (although he doesn’t know it) that singing is a valuable thing. A thing that can release and express my true voice and can connect me for better or worse to others. The problem with having been in a class with Chuck is that you don’t get to hear him sing nearly as much as one might hope for. At the risk of being biased he is the reason that I was inspired to buy a [rush!] ticket, to tell a friend, and make my way to this musical. In my pursuit I was not let down – not only is his singing superb – his storytelling is on another level – graceful – the kind that brings forth the belief that people are equal regardless of the color of their skin. Enough about Chuck – what about his character (a highlight of the musical for me)?
It is not just sound that inspires grace in this musical… it is what the sound carries within it. It can carry unconditional love – which in the context of this musical about slavery and the subjugation of one race under another is very difficult to allow. Chuck’s character is introduced as Thomas, a slave charged with looking after the every need of John Newton (Josh Young), a rebellious, young slave trader who regularly disappoints his father Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt) and childhood love Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey).
It is not Thomas, or John’s father or Mary’s love that inspires him to use his resources and privilege to correct societal wrongs on behalf of other people. It is when he is challenged to grow beyond his own difficulties and prejudices and to face his own actions that he decides to free slaves and to look at equality among races. A true understanding of love enlightens John when Thomas forces him to confront the fact that John’s spinelessness allowed him to betray one of the only people that showed him unconditional love – to torture Thomas and abandon him. It is Pakuteh who demands John’s respect and finds it in himself to forgive John despite all odds.
What struck me most was the efficiency of resource that Pakuteh, and the other slaves, possess throughout the play as compared to the more privileged characters learning how to utilize their resources more efficiently – especially in the arena of social change. Even in the face of his own daily survival and in the face of utter cruelty Pakuteh chooses to protect, to love, to keep safe, to have dignity, to educate, to see a larger picture at every turn. Simultaneously I witnessed Mary’s Nanna (Laiona Michelle) discover that she could help the willing Mary advocate racial equality despite all fear. The stakes are so high (life or death).
Pakuteh and Nanna, when backed into a corner, choose to allow and wield their meager resources towards a long road of racial equality. It spurred the utilization of John Newton’s abundant resources and influence to begin affecting racial equality and social change. In real life John eventually joined with others in campaigning to abolish the slave trade leading towards the Slave Trade Act 1807. He also wrote the song Amazing Grace, which has been tied to anti-slavery sentiments ever since. It seemed that somewhere along the line he began to believe that grace saved a wretch like him.
It still makes me pretty upset – to trace the mistreatment of people, to glimpse at both sides of prejudice, to understand what a tool forgiveness might be in the face of ignorance – but studying the evolution of social change while enjoying a musical on Broadway is definitely my cup of tea. I was educated and enlightened too.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home…
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
This famed song, this musical, all demand a belief in a higher power. At the very least an interest in examining where grace comes from – be that a Creator (God) or a confronting of prejudices and classes. What sort of resources are actually necessary to achieve joy and peace? Who gets to judge whose misery (be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual) is more worthy to counter a ‘life of joy and peace’?
We’ve all got our takes on what that looks like post-mortality? Watch Pakuteh and he’s got a convincing point of view towards the belief in eternal life and light. A belief that may have been transferred to John Newton – a ‘resource’/ a young person that Pakuteh chose to protect and to forgive. He forces him to remove the ‘brand’ of Thomas the slave and, not only to look at him as a human being, but also to reciprocate his consistent and powerful love.
This musical is an example of the culmination of many experiences and influences that led to the conversion of one man, John Newton, towards the belief that redeeming his wrongs on earth will lead him towards an eternal resting place, a ‘home’. The cold hard facts are that this belief led him towards action, to a feeling of grace… to affecting social change leading towards the abolition of slavery and racial equality within a system that he happened to hold privilege in. It became irrelevant that he had been convinced for a certain period of time that he had more of a right to be considered a human being than the other people surrounding him.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
Some people, and some music, just has that way about them/it that lets one unknowingly shift the light on different areas of one’s life and others’ lives – regardless of how one’s belief system or socio-economic class causes one to interact with the world.
How relevant indeed…
Oh and this was the line… OY!