Thursday, March 5, 2015

Benjamin N. Lawrance's "Amistad’s Orphans"

Benjamin N. Lawrance is the Hon. Barber B. Conable Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Amistad's Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling:
In Amistad’s Orphans there are six main characters, and all are children of various ages. There are several prominent adult supporting roles, but the key casting issue is finding dynamic and charismatic child actors.

The three girl roles are strikingly different, and require unique actresses. I would love to see Quvenzhané Wallis play the role of Te’me, because of her exceptional skills as demonstrated in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Te’me is captured and enslaved as a young child, and during a custody battle in a court in Connecticut she makes a break for freedom, running across the New Haven green, before being tackled by a white male abolitionist. This would be a pivotal scene in the film.

For the roles of Marg’ru (the eldest of the three girls), and Kag’ne, I’d cast Josephine Lawrence and Skai Jackson. These two shared the common experience of being pawned by their father for debts he owed, which he failed to redeem, and ultimately it resulted in them being sold into slavery, and put aboard a slave ship for Cuba. They very likely came from the same village in the Mende-speaking part of Moa River valley in Sierra Leone. Though not sisters, these two girls develop compelling personal relationships with people that protect them, and watch over them. They were captivating in The Watsons Go To Birmingham (2013).

For two of the male leads, Covey and Ka’le, I’d cast Tyrel Jackson Williams and Tyren Jacob Williams. Although the boys were not brothers in real life, they became brotherly over the course of several years in bondage. They shared a common experience of abduction and enslavement, and upon return to Africa, they lived in a shared missionary compound and continued to have great influence over each other. Covey plays a leading role and translator throughout the trials. And Ka’le becomes the primary intermediary between the adult Africans in prison, and the abolitionist community. He learns to read and write English and writes an important letter to President John Quincy Adams. Casting brothers would play to this important dimension.

For the third male lead, Antonio, I would cast an exciting Latino actor, perhaps Rico Rodriguez from ABC’s Modern Family. Antonio is likely originally from West Africa, and speaks several Sierra Leonean languages, but he’s been in Cuba for many years by the time of the Amistad rebellion. Also, there is some doubt about his ancestry; like many Africans on the coast, he may have had a Spanish-Cuban or Brazilian-Portuguese father. Many slave traders lived on and off on the coast, and the mixed race communities were very heavily involved in the trade. These children also ended up as slaves, but Antonio may have been bought by a ship’s captain and served as a cabin boy, and never experienced enslavement in the hull of a ship in the classic sense of the Middle Passage. One of Antonio’s most poignant scenes is where the guardian, Mrs. Pendleton, whips him for not polishing her children’s shoes.

There are any number of highly talented actors for the supporting adult roles, such as the slave revolt leader, Cinque (Sing-Pieh), abolitionist Lewis Tappan, President John Quincy Adams, missionary Raymond Williams, and so forth.
Learn more about Amistad's Orphans at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Amistad's Orphans.

--Marshal Zeringue