The Controversy of Valladolid

By New York City
Steven Skybell and Gerry Bamman in The Controversy of Valladolid
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Steven Skybell and Gerry Bamman in
The Controversy of Valladolid
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
After seeing The Controversy of Valladolid, a friend of mine joked that it could easily have been titled Two Angry Men. Like Reginald Rose's courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, currently receiving a handsome production on Broadway, Controversy is a very talky play that centers around a legal and moral argument revealing the prejudices and social attitudes of its protagonists as they debate a thorny case. The show is not always gripping but it's worth seeing; if nothing else, this Public Theater presentation of Jean-Claude Carrière's play illuminates a fascinating historical incident that deserves to be more widely known.

Presented here in an English version by Richard Nelson, Controversy chronicles the Vatican debate of 1550, in which leading figures of the time argued over whether or not the indigenous population in the "New World" was human or a lesser species unentitled to the same rights as Christian men. The action is set in Valladolid, Spain within the Monastery of San Gregorio. The debate is overseen by the Pope's Legate (Josef Sommer), who hears the arguments made by Catholic priest Bartolomé de Las Casas (Gerry Bamman) and esteemed professor Gines de Sepulveda (Steven Skybell). Also on hand throughout the proceedings is the monastery's Superior (Herb Foster).

Las Casas has spent years as a Christian missionary in the new lands and is a passionate defender of the indigenous people of the Americas. He condemns the Spanish colonizers for the atrocities they commit, as well as the Catholic Church's role in assisting this process. "Everything I've seen, I've seen done in the name of Christ," he laments. However, his zeal causes him to overstate his case; his speeches are full of patronizing commentary that paints the Indians of the New World as childlike and innocent. Although the audience's sympathies are largely aligned with Las Casas, his argument is filled with remarks that offend contemporary sensibilities.

Sepulveda is cooler and more collected than his opponent; he argues that God created Indians as a lesser species designed to serve the Christian, European race. While that may sound ludicrous to us now, it was the point of view that prevailed during this historical era. Furthermore, Sepulveda is the better debater, poking holes in the claims made by Las Casas even as he tries to prove that God is on the side of the Spanish. In his opinion, that's why the undeclared war between the colonizers and the colonized is so heavily one-sided. Sepulveda goes so far as to claim that the smallpox epidemic that decimated a good portion of the Indian population was the result of divine intervention.

Both Bamman and Skybell bring depth to their roles rather than serving as mere mouthpieces for their different positions. Bamman strikes just the right note between heartfelt sincerity and irritating verbosity. In contrast, Skybell is slick without seeming smarmy. Given his argument, it would be easy to make Sepulveda extremely unlikeable, yet Skybell infuses his characterization with dignity -- even sensitivity. But the most impressive actor in the production is Sommer. As the Pope's Legate listens to the competing arguments, various emotions play out across his face. He is alternately bemused and irritated by Las Casas and Sepulveda, yet it's clear that he's actively listening and weighing their statements. On the second day of the proceedings, the Legate reveals a few surprises of his own to enhance the debate, and the delight that this appears to bring him is well communicated by Sommer.

Josef Sommer, Herb Foster, and Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Controversy of Valladolid
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Josef Sommer, Herb Foster, and Gbenga Akinnagbe in
The Controversy of Valladolid
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Foster spends most of the play sitting quietly listening to the others argue. His character's contribution to the action is minimal, yet he still manages to make a strong impression. The remaining cast members have even less to do and, unfortunately, are not as successful. Ron Moreno, Monica Salazar, and Jeremy Michael Kuszel portray an Indian family paraded in front of the debaters as evidence; their roles are almost completely non-verbal and, for the most part, they just stand around looking confused. Likewise, Gbenga Akinnagbe appears as a black servant in the monastery who is also silent throughout the play; his presence is crucial, but this is not the showiest of roles. Graham Winton plays a colonist who has come to make his own argument for the necessity of maintaining the status quo if the Spanish colonies are to survive, yet Winton is rather bland and does not delve below the surface of the character. Finally, William S. Huntley III portrays a clown whom the Pope's Legate has brought in to see if the Indians laugh at the same kind of things that Europeans do. Their failure to do so is probably less because they are frightened and confused (as Las Casas argues) than because Huntley is extremely unfunny.

Director David Jones has not been able to prevent certain stretches of the production from seeming static, and the mind tends to wander during some of the characters' longer speeches. There are several lines in the play that deliberately resonate with contemporary political realities. "Is it necessary that we become the police of the earth?" asks the Pope's Legate in relation to Sepulveda's argument that Spain has an obligation to continue its conquest of the Americas, since the natives are nothing more than savages, cannibals, and sodomites. Knowing chuckles from the audience indicated that the line caused at least some people to think about the role that the U.S. plays in today's international arena and whether or not its interference with other nations is justified. There's even a timeline included in the Playbill, beginning in the year 712 with the conquest of Spain by the Moors and ending in 2004 with the abuses perpetrated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. This may seem a bit heavy-handed but it demonstrates that, although The Controversy of Valladolid is a historical drama set in the 16th century, its subject matter remains relevant.

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