One would be hard pressed to find a member of the black church who is not familiar with the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” However, the popularity of the song doesn’t seem to translate to the history of the lyrics or the Broadway play Amazing Grace, which tells the true story of John Newton, a white born-again Christian, ex-slave trader who wrote the original hymn in 1772.
Previews of the play began at the Nederlander Theatre on June 25, just a week after President Barack Obama sang the popular verse of the song at the funeral of slain South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The president’s recital, coupled with the racially charged killing of nine people at a church in South Carolina just days prior seem like even more reason to make Amazing Grace a timely, conscious must-see on Broadway. But the box office says otherwise and reviews give some insight as to why.
In its first week, "Amazing Grace" was noted as the show ‘that may have suffered the most’ according to New York Tickets, Inc. The show brought in only $201,081 for the week ending July 5 and rose only slightly more to $298,798 for the week ending August 16.
Variety was not delicate in its review of the show after "Amazing Grace" officially opened in July, questioning whether the show will reach its intended audience. The question is probably more so, ‘who is the intended audience?’
The play begins with a chilling scene of a slave auction. In front of a backdrop that advertises 94 prime healthy negroes for sale. The black cast members deliver an intense musical scene of being sold and slung around the auction block. However, this isn’t the main theme of the play. The central theme is surrounded by the white slave owner and slave trader Newton and his family struggles with being raised by his father after his mother’s death.
It is somewhat difficult to focus or care too much about Newton with the reality of slavery dancing in the background.
As Variety put it: “the musical keeps pussyfooting on the slavery issue, remaining fixated on bad-boy Newton… And, frankly, the slavery issue is far more interesting than the predictable father-son scenario in which a stern father…and his profligate son engage in a mighty battle of wills, eventually reconciling in a deathbed scene.”
Despite box office sales and tough criticism of the overall play, the black cast members are quite compelling and have been receiving rave reviews. Chuck Cooper who plays Pakuteh, Newton’s manservant and Laiona Michelle who plays Nanna, Newton’s finance’s maidservant, both deliver strong soulful performances in their solos near the end of Act II.
Harriett D. Foy who plays Princess Peyai, a Sierra Leone princess who sold her fellow Africans into slavery, has one of the most interesting roles in the play. In Act II, Princess Peyai manages to take Newton captive in Africa and makes him her sex slave amongst other things.
It was clear from speaking with Foy after the show that the cast had been well-studied in the life of Newton. “We read all of his letters and we had to bring pieces of research to rehearsal,” Foy explained, in an interview with NBCBLK.
Foy says the play is about ‘second chances,’ referencing the ‘Amazing Grace’ that was given to Newton to transform him from slave trader to abolitionist and then minister before his death.
On a larger perspective, Foy says she hopes the play sheds light on the slavery that still exists today. Emphasizing the sex slave industry, Foy says “slavery is at an all-time high across the world and a large percent are children. I hope this activates people to say ‘we need to do something.’