What is it? Amistad is the name of a slave ship captured off the coast of Long Island in 1839 that became embroiled in a legal battle in which former president John Quincy Adams won the freedom of its African mutineers. Anthony Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis wrote Amistad for the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1997, the same year filmmaker Steven Spielberg released his movie of the same name.

Why see it? This is the marquee event for Spoleto and, because of that high-profile status, it’s something of a risk. Amistad‘s 1997 premiere in Chicago did not do well, nor was it well-received in New York. One critic even compared it to “a skillfully executed school pageant.” What will be interesting to see is how Davis and Davis have refashioned the work, keeping in mind the $6 million renovations of the Memminger Auditorium on Beaufain Street. With Spoleto’s reputation of introducing new and imaginative operas to the world, this important chapter in American history might at last rise to the level of other tragic historical bio-epics, like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Who should go? This story about a slave revolt in the Middle Passage is taking place here in Charleston, one of the leading points of the slave trade. The present is a product of the past, and this opera and its permutations are no exception to that reality. Anyone yearning to be part of history must see this show.

SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $25-$150 • 2 hours • May 22, 25, 27, 29, 31, June 2, 7 at 8 p.m. • Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St. • (843) 579-3100

Leap of Sympathetic Imagination: A more personal restaging of Amistad aims to connect


In The Visitor, a new film by The Wire actor Tom McCarthy, Richard Jenkins plays Walter, a normal American living a normal American life with one exception — in the wake of his wife’s death he can no longer sense joy.

On arriving at his Manhattan apartment prior to reading a dull academic paper at a dull academic conference, he discovers immigrants living there: two exotic and beautiful lovers, a jazz musician from Syria and a jewelry artisan from Senegal.

Walter is so in need of basic human contact that he invites the terrified couple (they are in the country illegally) to stay, and thus sparks a charming story in which Walter learns to play the drums, to reconnect, and to feel the heartbreak of what a majority of Americans don’t feel.

What it’s like to be The Other.

The Other, as posited by Edward Said in 1978 in his book Orientalism, is shorthand for an ideology rooted in the West that explains what people are like on the other side — in countries colonized by European powers, or that are diametrically unlike ours, or that don’t have white people.

An example might come from Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, who in making the case against polygamy, said it was a practice more commonly found “among the Hottentots, the African negroes, the idolatrous Hindoos, or any other fallen nations that dwell upon the face of the Earth.”

We are God’s people; they are not. We are the chosen; they are not. And so on.

The Vistor reflects a similar binary, though with updated language. Instead of “Hottentots” from “fallen nations,” we have immigrants residing in the U.S. illegally. Since the attacks of 9/11 by brown-skinned terrorists, immigration policy, as a lawyer in the film points out, has become very either/or: “Either you belong or you don’t.”

Walter, vis-à-vis his desire to save his friend Tarek from deportation and his latent love affair with Tarek’s mother (it’s a thick plot), takes a psychic leap of imagination — he metaphorically abandons his own comfortably numb domestic self to embody their troubled foreign selves. He’s able to feel what it’s like to have his destiny steered by forces beyond his control to become powerless.

Feeling the full force of what Tarek’s deportation means — a family torn apart, a joyful friendship cut short — Walter turns to an immigration officer and shouts: “Why are you doing this? … This isn’t fair!” The words ring with significance to those of us watching the movie. As for the officers, they fall on deaf ears. Is it fair? For Walter, no. For Pratt, the Mormon, it is. Tarek is The Other.

Walter has achieved what philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, called a “sympathetic imagination.” It comprehends “the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other [italics mine], but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us.”

She continues: “Differences of religion, gender, race, class, and national origin make the task of understanding harder, since these differences shape not only the practical choices people face but also their ‘insides,’ their desires, thoughts, and ways of looking at the world.”

Cultivating the power of the imagination is essential to citizenship, Nussbaum says, and the arts are vital to that. Quoting Aristotle, she privileges literature as uniquely suited to showing us “not something that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen.”

Opera, though, in incorporating story and music, might be said to do the same.

Fortunately for composer Anthony Davis, creator of Amistad, the marquee opera of Spoleto, he has a second chance at cultivating the power of the sympathetic imagination after the first staging in 1997 fell flat.

It’s another shot at addressing the prototype of American Otherness: the slave.

Floating in our consciousness

Amistad was the name of a slave schooner captured off the coast of Long Island in 1839 after its “cargo” revolted. It became embroiled in a legal battle in which former president John Quincy Adams won the freedom of its African mutineers on the grounds that they were not “property” but “kidnapped” and had the “right” to fight for their “freedom.”

The case drew wide attention, stoking fear in the pro-slavery South and spurring faith in New England, a hub of abolitionist fervor. Though the case laid the legal groundwork for the rights of slaves, it took another 20 years and a bloody civil war to put an end to that peculiar institution.

Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis wrote Amistad for the Chicago Lyric Opera, the same year filmmaker Steven Spielberg released his movie of the same name. The opera featured a cast of 27, with two choirs: one black, one white. The story remained true to historical events, but the libretto’s language evoked mysticism and magic, with deities drawn for West African myth and religion.

A reason Amistad stumbled the first time was its characterization. “The great operas on historical and political subjects … engage their subject through characters whose conflicts are dilemmas that make them humanly compelling,” wrote critic Richard Dyer in The Boston Globe.

For all their suffering, slave mutineers had no inner life. The opera, rather, was a kaleidoscope of noble savages, enlightened statesmen, and corrupt politicians: “The characters were unchanging poster figures,” Dyer wrote. “They sang their pieces and moved on.”

Though unintended, the slaves of Amistad remained The Other.

Davis and director Sam Helfrich aim to remedy this. They made significant changes: cutting scenes, reordering scenes, etc. One major change is the reduction of the large black choir to eight slaves. Its previous structure was impersonal, distant, foreign. With this new arrangement, Davis and Helfrich say, each of the eight slaves is able to recall events as he experienced them. Each sings an aria, giving the audience ample time to find common ground with the character, much the way Walter, in The Visitor, found common ground with people completely different from him.

“You can see them as individuals, not just Africans,” Davis says. “You can connect with them. And you can connect with them more than once, as they tell their stories repeatedly, so you can see the different perspectives of what happened onboard among them.”

The newly renovated Memminger Auditorium (pictured) is well suited to pulling that off. The floor has been painted with dozens of black humanoid forms, evoking the inhumanity of the slave trade: Africans were stuffed and staked into cargo holds like cords of wood. An elevated stage is arranged diagonally with audience seating on two sides and the orchestra at a third. “You’ll see every side of the characters,” Helfrich says.

Davis is pleased Amistad is being presented in Charleston, once a major slave port, and amid the bicentennial of the end of the North American slave trade. “It resonates with me personally,” Davis says. “The slave trade created our culture. Our music, like the blues, is wrapped in that history.

“It floats in our consciousness.”

Indeed, but mostly subliminally. The present is a product of the past, but we’re not always aware of it. Like The Visitor‘s Walter, most of us are unaware of history’s intimate touch and the transformative power of a sympathetic imagination. Even those who are The Other aren’t necessarily aware of it, though there are an enlightened few, like James Baldwin, the author best-known for the classic Go Tell It on the Mountain.

In his essay Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin recounts his experience with Jim Crow. He called it a “dread, chronic disease” that can be literally fatal. At the peak of his rage — which, he writes, you can live with or surrender to — he tries to get table service at a whites-only restaurant. He’s told time and again: “We don’t serve Negroes here.” Finally, poised to strangle a sympathetic waitress, whose sympathy only enrages him more, he hurls a mug of water over her head, shattering the mirror behind the bar. He escapes before being beaten to death. But just barely.

“I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered,” he wrote in 1955. “But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”