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History repeats itself in Stage Left’s ‘Controversy of Valladolid’

Actors Ron Ford (on left) as Cardinal and Marek Nelson as a colonist perform a scene from Stage Left Theater's production of “The Controversy of Valladolid,” which opens Jan. 11. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Actors Ron Ford (on left) as Cardinal and Marek Nelson as a colonist perform a scene from Stage Left Theater's production of “The Controversy of Valladolid,” which opens Jan. 11. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

“The Controversy of Valladolid” is the art that life is currently imitating.

Today, young children are being held at the border, voiceless, as others decide their fate. In 1550, indigenous Americans were held in limbo as colonizers debated whether they were actually people.

“The Controversy of Valladolid,” by French playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (English version by Richard Nelson), was inspired by the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain nearly 500 years ago.

In one corner, there was theologian and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (Steven Schneidmiller), who argued that indigenous people deserved the same rights as colonial men.

In the other corner was humanist scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (Matt Cardoza), who believed that indigenous people were a lesser species, created only to serve colonial men and women, and that they should be conquered by any means necessary, including war.

Inspired by the work of Las Casas and others, King Charles V halted military expansion until after a debate was held and organized a jury of doctors and theologians to hear both arguments.

Stage Left Theater’s production of “The Controversy of Valladolid,” directed by Maynard Villers, opens Friday and runs through Jan. 27.

Las Casas had worked for years against forcing indigenous people to convert to Christianity and to expose how they were being treated in the Spanish labor system called the encomienda.

Before the Valladolid debate, Las Casas had made some headway, influencing the public decree “Sublimis Deus” of 1537 by Pope Paul III, which forbade the enslavement of native Americans and established them as rational humans who had rights to freedom and private property.

In 1542, he also helped pass the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, also known simply as the New Laws. These laws were created to prevent mistreatment and exploitation of indigenous people in the labor system.

Sepúlveda pushed for war against the indigenous people because he saw them as unable to rule themselves, saw it fit to convert the native people to Christianity, and thought Spaniards were entitled to prevent cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Las Casas, on the other hand, believed that everyone was legally obligated to prevent the mistreatment of innocent people.

Sepúlveda used the philosophies of Aristotle and the beliefs of the humanist tradition to further his argument, while Las Casas referenced the work of Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostom, who both opposed forced conversions to Christianity.

Members of the monarchy and those within the Catholic Church seemed to side with Las Casas, while colonists and landowners tended to agree with Sepúlveda’s arguments.

Listening to each man’s argument was the Pope’s Legate (Ron Ford), who would make the final judgment.

After all was said and done, both Las Casas and Sepúlveda felt they had won the debate, though neither man saw the changes they fought for implemented.

There were still Spanish-led wars to conquer the Americas, which Las Casas opposed, and the New Laws were not overturned, something Sepúlveda hoped to see.

The Valladolid debate did however solidify Las Casas’s position as defender of indigenous Americans in the Spanish Empire and further weakened the encomienda system.

Even so, Bonar Ludwig Hernandez, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University, in a paper called “The Las Casas-Sepúlveda Controversy: 1550-1551,” concluded that the debate failed to significantly improve the lives of the indigenous people.

“No positive outcome came out of the debate; no realistic solution could have resulted, for the debate was carried out in too theoretical a framework,” he wrote.

Like the migrants of today have little, if any, chance to speak for themselves, the voices of the natives in question are noticeably absent from “The Controversy of Valladolid.”

In fact, the character description for the roles of the native father, mother and child includes the phrase “non-speaking, unwilling participant in the debate.” The role of an African servant is also a non-speaking part.

In his efforts to best establish his argument, Las Casas seemingly trampled on the very people he was trying to protect, while Sepúlveda never saw them as people in the first place.

As written in their mission statement, Stage Left Theater believes theater “should be a force for political, intellectual and social stimulation,” relevant to the lives of both actors and audience members.

Seeing as it’s impossible to ignore the plight of migrants at the border, “The Controversy of Valladolid” fits the bill.

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