BY ROBERT LOWELL
MILWAUKEE REP &
KO-THI DANCE COMPANY
Tonight’s production is a collaboration between Milwaukee Rep and Ko-Thi Dance Company. We’re telling a story about a slave ship rebellion. The play was written by Robert Lowell, taken from a novella by Herman Melville, taken from a ship captain’s memoirs. Here’s the trail:
In 1805, an American merchant ship encountered a Spanish slave ship drifting off the coast of South America. The American captain, Amasa Delano, brought water and food to the ship but did not realize that the Africans had revolted, killed most of the crew and only kept the Spanish captain alive to sail them back to Senegal. On pain of death, Benito Cereno was pretending he was still the ship’s captain. Eventually the truth was learned, the Americans overpowered the Africans, the revolt leaders were tried and executed, and Benito and his ship of human cargo were delivered in Peru. Years later, Delano published his memoirs, including an account of these events.
By 1855, America’s conflict over slavery was becoming all- pervasive. Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and Frederick Douglas were household names. The violence in Bleeding Kansas was spreading. The fear of black uprisings was palpable. This is the year that Melville published Benito Cereno, retelling Delano’s sober account as a work of irony, danger and fear.
In 1964, the poet Robert Lowell adapted the novella for the stage. The story resonated with a country in upheaval, and especially with white fear of Black Power.
Our production seeks to add a new layer to the story by emphasizing the African point of view. Through music, dance, imagery and narration we hope to provide more context, more resonance. We hope to speak for the African experience, for the millions who took the Middle Passage, chained in the holds of ships bound for the New World.
Benito Cereno is a story we’ve inherited. We can’t change history, but we can change its meaning in the present. By retelling the tale together, we honor those who lived it. We create an opportunity to accept it. Eventually, we may transcend it.
The future is with us.
‘Benito Cereno’ poignantly spiritual
“At the beginning of director Ed Morgan’s new production of ‘Benito Cereno,’ the entire cast - representing African slaves, American sailors and what is left of the crew of the Spanish ship that was carrying the slaves to the New World - gathers on stage. A symbolic ablution, or religious washing, of the stage is performed. Little does the audience know at that time how appropriate the act is. Few, if any, Milwaukee Repertory Theater productions in the past 20 years have struck such an urgently spiritual vein…With drama and a touching poignancy, a painful gap in American history is bridged, and in doing so, an optimistic bond between black and white Americans is suggested. A compelling spirituality springs from the telling of the grotesque tale that is the factual spine of ‘Benito Cereno.’ This is shared history, and on it a shared future can be built . . . It was Morgan’s inspired idea to use drummers and dancers of Ko-Thi to frame the play, portray some of the slaves and serve as narrators…Morgan and [Ko-Thi artistic director Ferne] Caulker’s determination that the story, at times difficult to watch, be pointed toward an optimistic future makes the production a needed balm for tender race relations.”
– Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Benito Cereno…is nothing short of spectacular theater.”
– The Wisconsin Light
Milwaukee Rep and The Ko-Thi Dance Company have combined to present a truly remarkable production . . . a theatrical experience that transcends the best features of both notable companies. Robert Lowell might be surprised by the results but he could fail to be pleased and impressed . . . Under Ed Morgan's direction, this production has a depth and a richness that provides a sense of history and a challenge to the audience looking at the present and the future . . . Morgan has used the incredible talents of The Ko-Thi dancers to enrich his production with a sense of the nobility of the African culture that was pillaged for the sake of economic advantage in the slave trade . . . superb dancing and incredible drumming . . .(and) a deep and intelligent reading of the complex and provocative text. The combination defies description . . . What gives this production its special power is the total integration of the arts and artists involved.
Choreography: Feme Yangyeilte Caulker-Bronson
Music Director: Dumah Saafir
Lights: William H. Grant III
Costumes: Paul Tazewell
Set: Kent Dorsey
Sound: Douglass Hillard
Fights: Lee E. Ernst
Speech: Judy Leigh Johnson & Ndongo "Lucky" Dlop