The Tony-winning actor talks about his personal connection to the new Broadway-bound musical.
Six years ago, Chuck Cooper was on vacation in Jamaica when he visited a historical plantation. On the wall was a plaque — a replica of an advertisement dated December 23, 1799.
“Wanted to purchase: One or two good negro Coopers to live in the country on a plantation for which immediate payment will be given.”
Although the ad could have been advertising for barrel-makers, the impact was personal and shocking. “There I was, visiting as a tourist, the place where very possibly my ancestors had been enslaved,” recalls Cooper. “It was a seminal moment in my life.”
The 60-year-old actor brings that searing experience to Amazing Grace in the role of Thomas, the faithful manservant who provides an avenue of salvation for his master, the slave merchant John Newton. Cooper has been acclaimed for his previous work, which includes featured roles in Chicago and Caroline, or Change, and a Tony Award–winning performance in The Life.
But this project cuts close to the bone, informed by the fact that Thomas is emblematic of what Cooper’s own ancestors had gone through, whether in Jamaica or some other port of entry. His grandparents were from Mississippi, which has its own bloody history when it comes to race.
“My feelings about it are very complex,” he says. “On one hand, my grief for what they went through is tremendous. And yet I realize that it was their journey and suffering that are the reasons why I am here today, an actor being paid to play ‘Let’s pretend.’ It’s a mix of gratitude, sorrow, and responsibility to be the best that I can be to make their sacrifice meaningful.”
His goal from the beginning, he adds, was to make Thomas as fully dimensional as possible, a man who is carrying his own sense of guilt and shame over the early death of a brother, for which he felt responsible.
“I didn’t want a caricature but someone who was complex and could function with some grace in a very graceless situation,” he says.
In Amazing Grace, Thomas’s forgiving spirit and dignity stand first as a reproach and then as an inspiration to Newton, a man he has cared for since childhood. In one of the most horrific scenes in the musical, Newton expediently sends his faithful servant into even worse bondage. And yet later in the musical, Thomas summons up the generosity to forgive the brutal act.
When asked why, Cooper responds: “There’s an old proverb: Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because folks treat you wrong doesn’t mean you have to treat them wrong. It’s not always easy to do. Turning the other cheek is more than a notion.”
The irony of the slave embracing Christianity, the religion of their oppressors, is not lost on Cooper. The Bible was often misused to justify slavery among its practitioners. Yet slaves would find the tale of Moses and his liberation of the Jews from captivity as resonant as they would find solace in the suffering Jesus.
Cooper suggests that part of the slave adoption of Christianity was pragmatic, a mode of survival that would lead to sincere belief. “My daddy taught me that if you can’t make both ends meet, then make one end a vegetable. Which is to say, If you find yourself in a tricky situation, find a way to adapt. Improvisation is the hallmark of survival.”
For Cooper, Amazing Grace, both the musical and the song, carries “karmic weight,” especially for today’s audiences. “It’s no accident that this story has so much zeitgeist around it,” he says. “The legacy of slavery, its tendrils and roots and ramifications, is very much with us today. Much of John’s song is about his journey from debauchery to redemption as it involves the slave trade. So the blood and souls of all those people he is responsible for killing, torturing, and casting into bondage are in each and every line. Their spirits are with us when we sing that song.”