Playwright Eric Samuelson came to the frightening realization that he agreed with Glenn Beck’s assertion that America was founded on the two pillars of Christianity and free-market economy when writing his latest play “Amerigo”. The play takes on the question of who discovered America and for what purpose. The seemingly easily answered question is hashed out and debated eternally (literally) between Christopher Columbus (Mark Fossen) and Amerigo Vespucci (Matthew Ivan Bennett). The debate takes place in purgatory and is moderated by philospher/proto-capitalist Niccolo Machiavelli (Kirt Bateman) and arbitrated by Mexican nun/writer Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Deena Marie Manzanares) who take it upon themselves to end the bickering between the two explorers.
Playing on a minimal set, bathed in ethereal blue light in front of a billowing, back-lit white sheet, the Black-Box theater was dressed convincingly as a half-way point between heaven and earth. This ephemeral nowhere-place is where the four historical figures have been residing since their death, all serving indefinite sentences for sins they deny committing. Samuelson uses the setting of purgatory as both a courtroom and supernatural confession booth. Machiavelli acts as the officiator, overseeing the court proceedings, interjecting when things get too heated, offering his counsel to whoever will listen. Machiavelli is the only one who seems to see through the absurdity of the question of the authenticity of discovery, often halting the meeting to make homage to Euripides Comedy “The Frogs”. Sor Juana de la Cruz, on the other hand, has an ax to grind with the two stalwart explorers. Acting more as a prosecutor than an arbitrator, she starts by reading off the litany of crimes committed by the two men in their attempts to colonize and exploit the new world.
As a Mormon, Chirstopher Columbus has always been a troublesome character for me. The Columbus who is praised in scripture and revered as “God-inspired” is not the Columbus I read about in contemporary history. After reading “A Peoples History of The United States” it was hard to get the Columbus of the cartoon videotapes I used to watch as a kid out of my head. From his own hand he wrote about the rape and pillage of the natives of Hispaniola with a detached austerity. Samuelson, as he delineates his crimes, often reading from his own journal, makes no attempt to unmask Columbus. Columbus does not hide behind Christian dogma to justify his actions; he fully invests himself in them believes himself to be the true manifestation of the Church Militant. He retains his fierce piety through out the entire play, sternly asserting that he was doing God’s will and conquering the new world to expand the Catholic Empire. Samuelson casts Columbus as the most frightening character, a zealot who believes his own in his own cause.
Amerigo Vespucci makes no attempt to hide his motivations to discover and exploit the new world. He was in it solely for a profit. A self-promoting capitalist who wrote semi-pornographic real-estate tracts to persuade investors to come to the new world, he boasted with the zeal of a sleazy club promoter of the easy native women on the newly discovered continent and wrote like a romantic poet of the countries unspoiled natural beauty. Vespucci loved life, and America represented an endless playground for sensual stimulation. Free sex, amazing views…some syphilis. Vespucci was greedy as Columbus was pious, and neither saw any problem with that.
The question de la Cruz brings to the two bickering sailors is: you discovered a new land…so what? The judgment she hands down is nothing revelatory. Two discoverers, two discoveries. Big deal. But what they did with their virgin discovery is more than a case of simple cultural empiricism. To Columbus and Vespucci, America represented the “pool of narcissus” that reflected back to them their own god when they gazed into it. The alluring pull of America for God and self allowed the explorers to write themselves into history and scrawl their indomitable signature into the landscape. To Columbus, America was a last outpost of Satan, a land inhabited by savages, who, when they didn’t make very good Christians, made excellent slaves. To Vespucci, the land was a boundless exploitable territory and untapped virgin wilderness. It is not surprising that rape is a frequent theme both against the inhabitants and the land itself.
A revisionist history wouldn’t be complete without the post-modern cyclical blame. For as truly holy, moral, and humanist as Sor Juana de la Cruz is in her indictments and prosecution, she is the only character with something to lose. Although she was a nun, learned the indigenous language, and spoke out against the abuses of colonized Central America, she made one fatal mistake that may explain her station in purgatory. She admired, but pitied, the noble savage and wrote off their religious beliefs as pagan and insufficient. De la Cruz is stunned at the realization that by “denying them their God” she was as guilty as the men she was condemning for propagating the idea that the native inhabitants were a lower class of people, and therefore, justified in their exploitation. Apparently, a damnable mistake. One that we as Americans continue to make.
“Amerigo” is thematically rich, witty, and devastatingly moral. The performances are spot on, Fossen’s fierce austerity is the perfect foil to Bennett’s weasily, rambunctious Vespucci. Manzanares exudes an easy piety coupled with the for-the-throat intensity of a prosecuting lawyer while Bateman’s jovial Machiavelli embodies the adjective that his name has turned into.
Amerigo is running at the Plan-B theatre company from April 8th-18th.