Amistad Voices, Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts and the Chicago Theatre Company. In 1839 slaves in transit to Cuba aboard the schooner Amistad escaped their chains, overpowered the crew, and ordered them to sail for Africa. Instead the sailors made for New London, Connecticut. There the incident sparked an international legal dispute: Were the slaves “property” as the Spanish shipowners claimed? Were they pilgrims seeking liberty as the abolitionists portrayed them? Or were they independent citizens liable for their acts of mutiny, piracy, and murder?

Unfortunately the creators of Amistad Voices are more concerned with thoroughness than lucidity. In their effort to explore all sides of the issue, they clutter the narrative with interesting but extraneous information about the non-PC attitudes of the abolitionists and with numerous legal side trips leading nowhere as well as spectacle–danced dream sequences, for instance. The result is that the show runs a good 20 minutes longer than necessary.

The 38 characters portrayed by 15 actors are anything but subtle: Daryl Schultz in particular plays John Quincy Adams with so many facial and vocal tics as to render his performance nearly unintelligible. But Javon Johnson as Cinque, the insurrectionists’ leader, and Thom Van Ermen as Lewis Tappen, their chief advocate, give their roles a quiet dignity. And there’s no denying the industry of director Ilesa Lisa Duncan and her company in bringing this historical pageant to the stage.

–Mary Shen Barnidge