- Chap Am So: The Amistad Victory
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Chap Am So: The Amistad Victory is a powerful reenactment of the historical incident known as the Amistad. Although the Amistad case is well-documented and was widely known in the nineteenth century, its details were long forgotten by the general public. Playwright John Thorpe’s production of Chap Am So provides a vibrant and engaging drama in response to the recent renewal of interest among both Africans and Americans in the incident.
The events of the Amistad story began off the coast of Cuba in 1839 when forty-nine African male captives on board an American-built schooner named Friendship, in Spanish La Amistad, revolted against their Spanish captors in order to gain freedom and return to Africa. The Africans killed the captain and his mulatto cook but, ironically, spared the lives of their Spanish owners. These two men were kept alive to help navigate the Africans back to their homeland. However, their Spanish “prisoners” tricked them by sailing east during the day and, guided by the North star, retracing their steps at night. Arrested by an American naval crew two months later, the schooner ended its erratic route near Culloden Point, Long Island, New York. The Africans were taken to New Haven where they were jailed on charges of murder and piracy. The United States, England, and Spain got involved in the diplomatic and legal battles that followed. American abolitionists supported the Africans all the way to the Supreme Court. The Africans won their freedom and in November of 1841 boarded another ship called Gentleman, along with black and white American missionaries, back to Sierra Leone, the land from which they had been kidnapped.
Chap Am So is faithful to the major historical sequence of the Amistad incident although the play changes a few of the characters to heighten the story’s dramatic qualities. For example, according to the historical accounts the character of Magru was under the age of twelve and never participated in the revolt, but in the play she is a full-grown woman mediating a power struggle between the revolt leader, Sengbe Pieh, and one of the African captives. Antonio, the African cabin boy of the Amistad’s slain captain, is presented with more empathy in the play than in the historical accounts. Thorpe’s most innovative device is his introduction of the main character, Sengbe Pieh, as a split subject. By presenting Sengbe’s mind to us not as a disembodied voice but as an embodied presence simply called “Spirit,” Thorpe offers his audience maximum access to Sengbe’s internal tensions. Sengbe’s spirit is played by a female performer, a choice that significantly changes the otherwise overwhelmingly male major players in the Amistad story, even as the play portrays the ancestors as trailblazers responsible for Sengbe’s decision to revolt against his slavers. Interestingly, it is Sengbe in the Spirit rather than Sengbe in the flesh that steers the structure of the plot. “Spirit” portrays the profundity of the mind versus the body and suggests [End Page 101] the significance of the will-to-power; it is not circumstance that determines victory but the will’s capacity to persevere.
The production of the play in New York City at the Harry De Jur Playhouse, directed by Sierra Leonean artist Julius Spencer, was often riveting. Performers played several roles (sometimes up to five different characters), thereby producing a dialogic exchange between the differing roles while at the same time distancing audience identification with any one character. The single set consisted of the Amistad itself on one side and a backdrop of an African village on the other. Placed on a revolve, the unit...