Staging Slavery by Black Playwrights

Daughters of Lorraine Podcast #4

Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley

Jordan Ealey: and Jordan Ealey. On this podcast, we will discuss Black theatre history, conduct interviews with Black theatre artists and practioners, and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing. You don’t want to miss this so stay tuned.

[Interlude]

The stage provided a freedom for these playwrights to creatively imagine redress for Black people and connect it to theirs and others people’s lived realities.

a photocopy of an image in a book

Chelsea Theatre Center's 1969 production of Slave Ship by Amiri Bakara. Photo courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

Leticia: In the introduction to his edited special issue of Modern Drama, theatre historian Douglas Jones Jr. states the American theatre has had a long term investment in utilizing slavery as both a subject and setting. Jones writes: “[...] engagements with the history of slavery in both rarefied and popular cultures have increased steadily, a proliferation that suggests that the further we get away from that history, the more we crave its concepts, logics, objects, and tropes in our imaginative and critical endeavors.” He contends that slavery is ripe ground for artists to explore creative innovations but also that the persistence of structural oppression that originated in chattel slavery is a reason that artists repeatedly return to it.

Jordan: Most recently, the American stage has seen the staging of slavery in plays such as Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon, Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise, and Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard’s Underground Railroad Game (2016), among others. These plays, to varying degrees of reception from audiences and critics, examine slavery and its afterlives, as Saidiya Hartman says, in innovative and often provocative ways. So we decided to go back a little bit in history to see where this tradition of staging slavery emerges. In our second black theatre history episode, we examine the work of Black playwrights from early 19th century to the 1960s who took to the stage to engage with the close reality of enslavement. We will magnify the histories of three plays in particular: The Escape, or, A Leap For Freedom by William Wells Brown; Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad by Pauline Hopkins; and, finally, The Slave Ship by Amiri Baraka.

Leticia: In part, staging slavery was a way to bear the atrocities of the harsh system, imploring audiences to confront the brutal history head on and perhaps move towards political action. On the other hand, theatre also became a way to magnify the stories of those who had been disappeared and/or deliberately erased from any historical record. The stage provided a freedom for these playwrights to creatively imagine redress for Black people and connect it to theirs and others people’s lived realities. This legacy begins with William Wells Brown.

[Interlude]

Jordan: William Wells Brown was a prominent abolitionist lecturer and writer. His autobiography, Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave was published in 1847 and describes Brown’s experience of enslavement and his escape from slavery in 1834 at the age of twenty. According to his narrative, Brown was born in Lexington, Kentucky and was the son of George Higgins, a white man who was related to his later slave master, referred to by Brown as “the man who stole me.” Once he escaped from slavery, Brown gave himself a new name, renaming himself after Ohio Quaker, Wells Brown, whom he befriended on his journey to freedom. He took a job as a steamboat working, where he safely delivered sixty-nine fugitives from Lake Erie to Canada, which is reflected in his play, The Escape, or, A Leap For Freedom.

Leticia: The Escape, or, A Leap for Freedom by William Wells Brown is the first play published by an African American playwright. The Escape, which was published in 1858, follows the story of two people enslaved by different owners who marry in secret: Melinda, a mixed-race woman owned by Dr. Gaines, and Glen, who is owned by Dr. Hamilton. Glen devises a plan to escape to Canada with Melinda, setting off a chain of events that alters their lives forever. The Escape concludes with the couple’s successful escape to Canada due to the last minute intervention of Mr. White, an abolitionist from the North. Thus, the play explores notions of fugitivity and freedom from the standpoint of one who was formerly enslaved.

Jordan: Brown publicly performed The Escape, or, A Leap For Freedom as a part of the anti-slavery, abolitionist circuit. He joined many anti-slavery societies as well as the Negro Convention Movement. In 1849, he traveled to France for the International Peace Conference and subsequently moved to Great Britain to deliver lectures anti-slavery lectures. He also authored Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter, which is historical fiction about Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. It is safe to infer that Brown, from his writings, has a vested interest in the abolition of slavery and utilized art to engage critically with his political leanings.

Leticia: Brown’s first public performance of The Escape was on February 4, 1857 at the Salem Town Hall. According to James Hatch and Ted Shine, reviews of the play were mostly positive; Daily Advertiser in Auburn, New York called the play “a masterly refutation of all apologies for slavery, and abounds in wit, satire, philosophy, arguments and facts” while the Seneca Falls Courier reports that Brown “exhibits a dramatic talent possessed by few.” But even though reviews of the play were positive and abolitionists praised Brown’s candid, critical, and witty engagement with the horrors of chattel slavery, it was not produced in his lifetime. In fact, The Escape, or, A Leap For Freedom did not receive a full production until 1971 at Emerson College. Nevertheless, the play remains a staple of African American theatre history. Brown set the stage for future black playwrights to use art as a protest, exemplified in our next playwright, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.

[Interlude]

Jordan: Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad was written by Pauline Hopkins, who is widely regarded as the first known African American woman playwright. The play was largely inspired by the work of William Wells Brown, which was indicated in its original title which was The Slaves’ Escape. As historian Lois Brown notes, Hopkins utilizes Peculiar Sam as a way to engage the question of freedom through centering the Black woman’s body. Brown writes: “The play offers a steady critique of ownership, an issue that Hopkins links persistently to the objectivity of the black female body. The work’s focus on emancipation is both real and symbolic: Hopkins ultimately invites audiences to consider if it is possible to free oneself from home, no matter how contested a site it is, or from cultural traditions that place value on a woman’s honor and desirability.” (109-110) Essentially, Peculiar Sam employs the mechanics popularized in The Escape but does so through a staging of black women as critical actors in fugitivity and freedom. Hopkins’s Peculiar Sam focuses on the character of Sam, who devises a plan to escape along with his beloved Virginia, his sister Juno, Mammy, and the overseer Jim. The play follows their journey to freedom and the foibles and follies they encounter along the way.

Leticia: Alongside its centering of black women, another distinguishing factor that Peculiar Sam has from that of The Escape is that it is a musical play. In fact, Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad is the first musical produced in the United States by an African American playwright. But it is different from contemporary musicals in that Hopkins did not write only original music for Peculiar Sam; rather, she interpolated sixteen popular minstrel songs and spirituals of the time. Interpolation is where a song is not played directly but is instead, reproduced with a difference. A great example of this in our contemporary moment can be found in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which is original music by Miranda by draws on well-known songs and lyrics from hip hop classics to Broadway. This style can be closely related to the eighteenth century genre, the ballad opera--which is the blending of popular music and original narrative--and can even be compared to the contemporary musical theatre genre of the jukebox musical. Historian Thomas Riis explains that interpolation is important in African American musicals as a way to appeal to multiracial audiences but also as a tool of redress. Thus, it is important to note that Hopkins’s usage of minstrel songs is not just for recognition by white theatregoers but a black feminist revision of the stereotypes that emerged from blackface minstrelsy.

Jordan: Also, a significant aspect of the history of Peculiar Sam lies in its original performers. Historians Lois Brown and Marvin McAllister contend that the musical was written as a star vehicle for Sam Lucas, a popular minstrel performer in the nineteenth century. Also including in the cast were the Hyers Sisters, a performance duo consisting of Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers, who were one of the most successful groups of the nineteenth century. This cast of characters toured Peculiar Sam nationally before returning to Boston, where Pauline Hopkins herself performed in the 1880 production at the Oakland Garden Theatre. The production attracted thousands of theatregoers and received positive reviews from its Black and white audiences. However, Sam Lucas himself is quoted as claiming Peculiar Sam was not as successful as it could have been, due to it being ahead of its time, according to Erroll Hill. Regardless, Peculiar Sam laid a fertile foundation for the development of African American musical comedy, indicating that musicals, too, are able to explore difficult subject matter and enact social change.

[Interlude]

Leticia: Poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka--born Everett LeRoi Jones-- was first moved to political action after the assassination of prominent activist Malcolm X. This event lead Baraka to move to Harlem and join the Black nationalist movement. For Baraka, Black nationalism offered him a radical politic that was devoted to Black liberation grounded within a notion of Black power and pride. This led him to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School which was invested in creating art outside of white western influence. A founding father of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka argued that Black American artists should create art that was grounded within Black standards of beauty and value. He argued that Black people and artists should not look for white validation, and instead, invest in politically charged art that galvanized Black folks to overthrow their white oppressors.

Jordan: Motivated by the inequalities faced by Black Americans, Baraka’s artistic endeavors were in-your-face social commentary and and his plays were no exception. Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant, is firmly rooted in this black radical tradition. Debuting in 1967 in the Spirit House Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, Slave Ship is a one act play that reenacts African-American history through vignettes. Throughout the drama, audiences travel from the middle passage to the civil rights movement, which culminates in a party that the audience is invited to participate in. Notably, Slave Ship creates an experiential environment for audiences by describing the cacophony of sounds that audience members experience throughout, such as groaning, screaming, and rocking. Baraka goes even as far as describing how the theatre should smell, calling for the audience to be accosted by the smell of feces, thus reflecting the conditions that enslaved Africans were forced to live in. Additionally, Baraka employs an off-stage white voices that periodically laugh at the conditions of the enslaved on the slave ship. As theatre historian and critical theorist Soyica Colbert argues, Slave Ships “calls forth the fear, shame, alienation, pain, and sadness, to name some of the emotions that come to represent the affective dynamic of the Middle Passage.”

Leticia: Because Slave Ship has more stage directions than dialogue, it invites the directors, actors, and designers to participate in the making of the pageant. This dramaturgical choice lends itself to engagement about the legacies of enslavement in our contemporary moment every time the drama is staged. In conceiving of the drama in this innovative way, Baraka expresses the continuation of racial violence and oppression that illustrates that emancipation did not automatically improve life for Black people. Many scholars have discussed Slave Ship in particular as embodying Baraka’s notion of “revolutionary theatre,” reflecting his own politics of seeing theatre as serving a political function. In commenting on a particular production of the play, Black theatre scholar Harry J. Elam Jr remarks, “As a historical site of unconscionable racial violence, the slave ship potently communicated to its spectators an African-American heritage of struggle and survival.”

Jordan: Black theatre has had a long history of staging slavery. In this episode, we explored how three playwrights in particular--William Wells Brown, Pauline Hopkins, and Amiri Baraka--used the history of slavery to enact political and social change. Theatre has always been a site of redress and political engagement and these three playwrights began a tradition of employing violent histories. Staging slavery is not a new concept within African American theatre and we encourage practitioners, teachers, and lovers of Black theatre to continue to include these plays in their classrooms and stages.

Leticia: As always, we wouldn’t leave you without a reading list. We’ll have a list of resources we used for the research we conducted for the episode and here are some other books we would recommend on this topic:

Jordan: Some plays we did not highlight in this episode but that deal with legacies of slavery are Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara, Harriet Jacobs: A Play by Lydia Diamond, and Sugar In Our Wounds by Donja R. Love. We also know that this is about Black theatre, but both Leticia and I would highly recommend the now-cancelled television show, Underground, which is available for streaming on Hulu.

Leticia: Thank you so much to the awesome folks at HowlRound Theatre Commons for their support for Daughters of Lorraine. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley…

Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. Next time, we’ll be discussing Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down so you won’t want to miss that.

 

Bibliography

  • Brooks, Daphne. Bodies In Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Brown, Lois. Pauline Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Elam, Harry J., Jr., Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Hatch, James and Shine, Ted. Black Theatre USA: Plays By African Americans. New York: Free Press, 1996.
  • Hill, Erroll. “Hyers Sisters, Pioneers in Black Musical Comedy.” In The American Stage: Social and Economic Issues From the Colonial Period to the Present, edited by Ron Engle and Tice L. Miller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Jones, Douglas. “Introduction: Slavery’s Reinventions.” Modern Drama 62.4 (Winter 2019): 383-390.
  • Jones, Douglas. The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.
  • McAllister, Marvin. “The Rise of African American Drama, 1822-79.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Drama, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards and Heather S. Nathans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Riis, Thomas. Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater In New York, 1890-1915. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

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Hosted by two doctoral theatre students, Jordan Ealey and Leticia Ridley, Daughters' of Lorraine Podcast features reviews of Black theatre productions (mainly in the DC/Baltimore area), current national conversations around, within, and about Black theatre, academic discussions concerning Black theatre, recommendations on Black theatre scripts, and interviews with Black theatre artists. This podcast centers and privileges the narratives of Black theatremakers, scholars, and audiences while also underscoring the need for understanding the influence of Black theatre on the American theatre landscape.

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