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Shifting tides

The big tickets at this year's Spoleto Festival USA

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Amid the MLK and RFK flashbacks, you may have missed this bicentennial memo: the College of Charleston and UNESCO are marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. No need to feel badly. A few blocks from campus, Spoleto Festival USA has just gotten behind the commemoration -- which began last year.

Congress passed the bill outlawing the slave trade on March 2, 1807, and the British Parliament followed later that same month with their Abolition Bill. Celebration remains kosher in one important regard: The importation of African slaves has been illegal since Jan. 1, 1808. That's when the new law took effect.

On time or not, Spoleto's contribution is sensationally pertinent and proactive. When their new production of Amistad opens this Thursday, Spoleto will be premiering a revision of an opera written by African-American composer Anthony Davis -- and they will be celebrating the reclamation of Memminger Auditorium, where the epic resides through June 7.

The abolition laws of 1807 were merely first steps on the road to the Emancipation Proclamation and the long Civil Rights struggles beyond. Yet when La Amistad became the most notorious ship in the history of American jurisprudence in 1839, slave trafficking had been outlawed by the United States, England and Spain for over 20 years.

Kidnapped Africans rose up against their captors and seized control of the Spanish slave ship, sparing the lives of their former owners, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, so they could voyage homeward to Sierra Leone. Ruiz and Montes, however, gulled the mutineers, sailing east by day and north by night -- into the arms of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Ironically, in the four-way legal battle that ensued, the captains who first sighted the Amistad, the U.S. government that seized it, and Spain all claimed right to the Africans as property under the law of salvage. By the time the Supreme Court had the last word on March 9, 1841, two U.S. presidents became involved, with former prez John Quincy Adams arguing on behalf of the Africans. The 7-1 ruling by the Supremes not only emancipated the captives, it prevented their prosecution for mutiny and murder in the United States or Spain.

Davis ventures beyond traditional classical models in weaving his historical tapestry, mixing in the traditions of jazz, R&B, gospel and African music. He and his librettist cousin, Thulani Davis, will also mix into several satellite events surrounding the Amistad re-launch at Spoleto. Anthony solos at the pre-performance talk at this Thursday's premiere. Thulani joins him for a discussion of Amistad (May 25) and another on the process of turning history into art (May 26).

Look for more music from Davis and the Amistad cast. The composer will be at the keyboard, soloing on his Goddess Variations during a Music in Time concert devoted to his instrumental works (May 24). Bass baritone Gregg Baker has a set of songs from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in the Intermezzi concert showcasing Amistad singers (June 4).

That leaves a mere 130+ other performances to preview at the greatest arts festival on earth, now readying its 32nd edition. Change is definitely in the air, wafting in with the Charleston sea breezes at this year's Spoleto. While Memminger takes its place among festival venues, Dock Street Theatre, longtime hub for operas, theater and chamber music, will be out of commission until next year as its long-overdue overhaul continues.

Not long after the death of Spoleto USA founder Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian Spoleto dumped Menotti's adoptive son Francis, the Umbrian heir to the festival directorship. Great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of papa's Festival of Two Worlds, right? Francis' ouster is paving the way for a new rapprochement between the sibling festivals -- split apart in the wake of Gian Carlo's acrimonious departure from Charleston in 1993.

If you like jazz, dance, opera, theater, classical music -- or even circus -- Spoleto can be counted on to deliver a power-packed international lineup every year. If that isn't enticing enough (or you crave bargain basement ticket prices), there's a satellite Piccolo Spoleto with 700 additional performances by artists of regional and national stature.

With its special Memminger celebration, Spoleto USA stretches to 18 days this year, May 22-June 8. Here are our picks to click among the big tickets:

Theater

The splashiest theater event is Monkey: Journey to the West (May 22-June 8), the one with circus acrobats, martial arts masters, Chinese opera singers and colossal animation. Hundreds of eye-popping costumes also help to bring this 400-year-old literary classic to life. Necessity is the mother of authenticity as Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company brings us a new translation/adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone by Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, retitled The Burial at Thebes (May 29-June 2). With Dock Theatre down, this ancient Greek tragedy becomes the first Spoleto theater event to be performed outdoors at The Cistern. For sheer outré weirdness, sedition meets sequins in The Be(a)st of Taylor (May 30-June 1), an eponymous late-night cabaret fantasia.

Dance

Once again Spoleto's dance card is all aces. Boston Ballet (May 24-25) invades cavernous Gaillard Auditorium on the first weekend, followed by Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve (May 31-June 1) a weekend later. Perhaps most intriguing is the African Compagnie Heddy Maalem (June 7-8) from Mali, Benin, Nigeria and Senegal, bringing Maalem's new interpretation of Stravinsky's classic Rite of Spring.

Jazz

With established stars like Cyrus Chestnut (May 29) and Paula West (May 23-24) in the lineup, how did I select Brazilian pianist Heloisa Fernandes (May 26-28) as my fave -- before she makes her American debut? Same way you can, by clicking the Spoletousa.org Web site and navigating to the sound clips available for all the jazz artists. Lots of helpful Spoleto info there. There's also a voluminous site at www.piccolospoleto.com.

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