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The History of African American Theatre

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1 The History of African American Theatre
“Escape, or Leap for Freedom” by William Wells Brown

2 The Pulpit as Performance Space

3 William Wells Brown (1814-1884)
Landmarks in African American Literary History William Wells Brown was the first African-American to publish a novel, a play, a travel book, a military study of his people, and a study of black sociology. Throughout his life he was committed to the abolition of slavery. He made eloquent speeches putting forward ideas for reform. Later in life he took up the cause of the temperance movement. Primary Works Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, 1847Three Years in Europe; or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met, 1852; Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, 1853; The Escape; or, A Leap of Freedom. A Drama in Five Acts, 1858; Memoir of WWB, An American Bondman. Written by Himself, 1859; The Black Man. His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, 1863; The Negro in the American Rebellion. His Heroism and His Fidelity, 1867; The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race, 1873; and My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, 1880. Recent Scholarship Chaney, Michael A. Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2007. Ernest, John. Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004. The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama in Five Acts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001. James, Jennifer C. A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Levine, Robert S. ed. Clotel, or the President's Daughter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. Nelson, Emmanuel S. ed. African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. African American Authors, : A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Stadler, Gustavus. Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006.

4 A Brief Biography of Brown
William Wells Brown ( ): A Brief Biography William Wells Brown was the first African-American to write a novel, a play, and a travel book. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky in His father was the white owner of the plantation on which Brown was born. Brown held many diverse jobs as a youth which provided him with firsthand knowledge of the slave era South which aided him in his writing. Brown escaped from slavery in January During his escape he received help from an Ohio Quaker named Wells Brown (whose name he adopted when he became a free man). After his refuge he taught himself how to read and write. Brown became an active abolitionist and activist in the anti-slavery movement while working for a journalist for the abolitionist cause. He was also important in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, which helped slaves escape to freedom in Canada. It was during this time that Brown married Elizabeth Schooner, a free black woman. They had three children together. After moving to Buffalo, Brown continued to participate in the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and also spoke publicly on abolition, women's rights, peace, and temperance. In 1843 Brown was invited to lecture for the Anti-Slavery Society and gained renown as a public figure. The American Peace Society chose him as their representative to the Peace Congress in Europe in 1849. While Brown was in Europe he delivered over a thousand speeches and wrote some of his most important work, including the first African American novel Clotel; or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. He left Europe in In 1858 he published the first play by an African-American. While Brown was in Europe his wife died. In 1860 he married Annie Elizabeth Grey. Brown continued his political and literary activities. He was a major supporter of black recruitment efforts during the CIVIL WAR. He continued to write many literary and historical works including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and The Negro In American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity. His final book My Southern Home, or The South and Its People, appeared in 1880. It is important to note that Brown's importance in African-American literacy is not only based on his interesting stylistic blends of melodrama, documentary, abolitionist tract, political critique but also in his willingness to address the issues of sexual exploitation of female slaves. Interestingly enough, the novel implicates Thomas Jefferson in this practice. The novel also challenges the inconsistencies that fail to protect the human rights of millions of African-Americans. Brown was able to address such issues in his literary works that reached a broad audience. In addition to writing his own works Brown was a contributor to Frederick Douglass’s paper, the Liberator, and to the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the London Daily News. Brown died on Nov. 6, 1884 in his home in Chelsea, Massachusettes.

5 French Romanticism French romanticism is a highly eclectic phenomenon. It includes an interest in the historical novel, the romance, traditional myths (and nationalism) and the "roman noir" (or Gothic novel), lyricism, sentimentalism, descriptions of the natural world (such as elegies by lakes) and the common man, exoticism and orientalism, and the myth of the romantic hero. Foreign influences played a big part in this, especially those of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller. French Romanticism had ideals diametrically opposed to French classicism and the classical unities (see French literature of the 17th century), but it could also express a profound loss for aspects of the pre-revolutionary world in a society now dominated by money and fame, rather than honor. Key ideas from early French Romanticism: "le vague des passions" (waves of sentiment and passion) - Chateaubriand maintained that while the imagination was rich, the world was cold and empty, and rationalism and civilization had only robbed men of their illusions; nevertheless, a notion of sentiment and passion continued to haunt men. "le mal du siècle" (the pain of the century) - a sense of loss, disillusion, and aporia, typified by melancholy and lassitude. The major battle of romanticism in France was fought in the theater. The early years of the century were marked by a revival of classicism and classical-inspired tragedies, often with themes of national sacrifice or patriotic heroism in keeping with the spirit of the Revolution, but the production of Victor Hugo's Hernani in 1830 marked the triumph of the romantic movement on the stage (a description of the turbulent opening night can be found in Théophile Gautier). The dramatic unities of time and place were abolished, tragic and comic elements appeared together and metrical freedom was won. Marked by the plays of Friedrich Schiller, the romantics often chose subjects from historic periods (the French Renaissance, the reign of Louis XIII of France) and doomed noble characters (rebel princes and outlaws) or misunderstood artists (Vigny's play based on the life of Thomas Chatterton).

6 Minstrelsy and Tricksters (American Genius?): Cato and

7 The History of African American Theatre
William Wells Brown’s The Escape, or, Leap for Freedom

8 William Wells Brown (1814-1884)
Landmarks in African American Literary History William Wells Brown was the first African-American to publish a novel, a play, a travel book, a military study of his people, and a study of black sociology. Throughout his life he was committed to the abolition of slavery. He made eloquent speeches putting forward ideas for reform. Later in life he took up the cause of the temperance movement. Primary Works Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, 1847Three Years in Europe; or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met, 1852; Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, 1853; The Escape; or, A Leap of Freedom. A Drama in Five Acts, 1858; Memoir of WWB, An American Bondman. Written by Himself, 1859; The Black Man. His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, 1863; The Negro in the American Rebellion. His Heroism and His Fidelity, 1867; The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race, 1873; and My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, 1880. Recent Sholarship Chaney, Michael A. Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2007. Ernest, John. Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004. The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama in Five Acts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2001. James, Jennifer C. A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Levine, Robert S. ed. Clotel, or the President's Daughter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. Nelson, Emmanuel S. ed. African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. African American Authors, : A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Stadler, Gustavus. Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006. Last time, we went over Wellls’ major accomplishments [read landmarks] Change slide 8

9 A Brief Biography of Brown
William Wells Brown ( ): A Brief Biography William Wells Brown was the first African-American to write a novel, a play, and a travel book. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky in His father was the white owner of the plantation on which Brown was born. Brown held many diverse jobs as a youth which provided him with firsthand knowledge of the slave era South which aided him in his writing. Brown escaped from slavery in January During his escape he received help from an Ohio Quaker named Wells Brown (whose name he adopted when he became a free man). After his refuge he taught himself how to read and write. Brown became an active abolitionist and activist in the anti-slavery movement while working for a journalist for the abolitionist cause. He was also important in THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, which helped slaves escape to freedom in Canada. It was during this time that Brown married Elizabeth Schooner, a free black woman. They had three children together. After moving to Buffalo, Brown continued to participate in the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and also spoke publicly on abolition, women's rights, peace, and temperance. In 1843 Brown was invited to lecture for the Anti-Slavery Society and gained renown as a public figure. The American Peace Society chose him as their representative to the Peace Congress in Europe in 1849. While Brown was in Europe he delivered over a thousand speeches and wrote some of his most important work, including the first African American novel Clotel; or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. He left Europe in In 1858 he published the first play by an African-American. While Brown was in Europe his wife died. In 1860 he married Annie Elizabeth Grey. Brown continued his political and literary activities. He was a major supporter of black recruitment efforts during the CIVIL WAR. He continued to write many literary and historical works including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, and The Negro In American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity. His final book My Southern Home, or The South and Its People, appeared in 1880. It is important to note that Brown's importance in African-American literacy is not only based on his interesting stylistic blends of melodrama, documentary, abolitionist tract, political critique but also in his willingness to address the issues of sexual exploitation of female slaves. Interestingly enough, the novel implicates Thomas Jefferson in this practice. The novel also challenges the inconsistencies that fail to protect the human rights of millions of African-Americans. Brown was able to address such issues in his literary works that reached a broad audience. In addition to writing his own works Brown was a contributor to Frederick Douglass’s paper, the Liberator, and to the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the London Daily News. Brown died on Nov. 6, 1884 in his home in Chelsea, Massachusetts. And we also briefly discussed his biography [go through slide pointing out that the escape is semi-autobiographical) But, in order to get both his own life-story as well as to his complex commentary and portrayal of plantation life and the abolitionist cause, Brown turned to the devices of French Melodrama and Romanticism (explain why these two periods are pretty much the same in French theater Give Hugo 1830 date) Change slides 9

10 French Romanticism and Melodrama
French Melodrama’s Basics Brown’s Text The basic characteristics of French melodrama can be summarized briefly: a virtuous hero or heroine is relentlessly hounded by a villain and is rescued from seemingly insurmountable difficulties only to undergo a series of threats to life, reputation, or happiness; an episodic story unfolds after a short expository scene; each act ends with a strong climax; all important events occur on stage and often involve elaborate spectacle (such as battles, floods, or earthquakes) and local color (such as festivals, dances, or picturesque working conditions); the typical plot involves disguise, abduction, concealed identity, and fortunate coincidence; strict poetic justice is meted out, for, although they may succeed until the final scene, the villains are always defeated; comic relief is provided by a servant or companion to one of the principal characters; song, dance, and music provide additional entertainment or underscore the emotional value of scenes. Brown takes advantage of all the conventions afforded by French Melodrama (spectacle, disguise, abduction, concealed identity, etc.) to set forth his abolitionist agenda, positioning Melinda and Glen as the hero and heroine; Mr. and Mrs. Gaines as the villains; the brutalities of slavery and slave-catchers as seemingly insurmountable difficulties; and American plantation life for “local color” (allowing for, in Brown’s case, an African-American ritual to be incorporated into the play). Cato provides most f the comic relief and also leads the CHORUS in song. The basic characteristics of French melodrama can be summarized briefly: a virtuous hero or heroine is relentlessly hounded by a villain and is rescued from seemingly insurmountable difficulties only to undergo a series of threats to life, reputation, or happiness; an episodic story unfolds after a short expository scene; each act ends with a strong climax; all important events occur on stage and often involve elaborate spectacle (such as battles, floods, or earthquakes) and local color (such as festivals, dances, or picturesque working conditions); the typical plot involves disguise, abduction, concealed identity, and fortunate coincidence; strict poetic justice is meted out, for, although they may succeed until the final scene, the villains are always defeated; comic relief is provided by a servant or companion to one of the principal characters; song, dance, and music provide additional entertainment or underscore the emotional value of scenes. Read Brown’s text-Point out the curious nature of the Chorus (greek and African american overtones), but then point out that the play was not for the proscenium stage, but rather [change slides] 10

11 Performance History The Escape was never meant for performance on a proscenium stage. Since neither slavery nor freedom welcomed blacks to the stage, The Escape was performed from the pulpit and other alternative arenas that allowed Brown’s voice to be heard. He transformed spaces with the power of his words, enacting over twenty character parts to audiences dedicated to the abolitionist movement. At a time when Christians abhorred the theater as an arena of ungodliness, Brown was a major catalyst in overturning this taboo for the abolitionist cause. [read quote] In this sense (as we discussed), Brown ritualized the pulpit in a new way and for new purposes, calling to mind one of the tenets from our list of Black theater’s aesthetics and standards. [read space as the ground for ritual] explain why ritual would defy fixity and time. In fact, Brown not only ritualized the pulpit, but infused it and his theater with elements of African American ritual (here I am referring to jumping the broom wedding ceremony) and elements of folk-culture, like the trickster, here made incarnate in the figure of Cato 11

12 Cato the Trickster CATO Yes, massa; I'll tend to 'em.
(exit Dr. GAINES, left) I allers knowed I was a doctor, an' now de ole boss has put me at it, I muss change my coat. Ef any niggers comes in, I want to look suspectable . Dis jacket don't suit a doctor; I'll change it . (exit CATO -- immediately returning in a long coat) Ah! now I looks like a doctor. Now I can bleed, pull teef, or cut off a leg. Oh! well, well, ef I aint put de pill stuff an' de intment stuff togedder. By golly, dat ole cuss will be mad when he finds it out, won't he? Nebber mind, I'll make it up in pills, and when de flour is on dem, he won't know what's in 'em; an' I'll make  some new intment. Ah! yonder comes Mr. Campbell's Pete an' Ned; dems de ones massa sed was comin'. I'll see ef I looks right. (goes to the looking-glass and views himself) I em some punkins, ain't I? (knock at the door) Come in. (Enter PETE and NED, right) PETE  Whar is de doctor? CATO  Here I is; don't you see me? Brown had a keen aesthetic sense of what the audience wanted. Melodrama was the order of the day, and dramatic action was interspersed with song, romance, tragedy, and triumph. Since minstrelsy had created the had created the “contented slave” stereotype, Brown offered his audience the character of Cato. [close read quote-trickster language, disguise, identity, Cato’s faux-doctorhood] Throughout the play, Cato is portrayed as contented and “docile,” but his desire to escape his condition shows that this posture is a mask he must where in order to survive. “I allers dose what you and the Massa tells me, an axes nobody,” says Cato to his master’s wife. The consummate trickster, Cato plays tricks and is tricked to survive on the plantation but away from hismaster, Cato confirms his own identity and recognize the plight of his people. When he sings about Canada, the dialect turns into high English, forcing the actor to test his understanding of how the song should be sung, and re-casting Cato as a leader of a chorus: And this brings us to our first close reading-group presentation [change slide] 12

13 Speeches of Justification
The pivotal moments in French neoclassical plays occur in what can be labeled “speeches of justification.” These speeches typically relay the details of a situation (usually an impasse of some sort), they then carefully weigh the stakes of different courses of actions and their consequences, and finally decide. These rhetorical and cognitive operations, in turn, constitute the action of the scene. 13

14 Close Readings Act 3 Scene 2
Act 3, Scene 2 (The kitchen -- slaves at work. Enter HANNAH, right) HANNAH Oh, Cato, do go and tell missis dat you don't want to jump de broomstick wid me, -- dat's a good man! Do, Cato; kase I nebber can love you. It was only las week dat massa sold my Sammy, and I don't want any udder man. Do go tell missis dat you don't want me. CATO No, Hannah, I ain't a gwine to tell missis no such think, kase I dose want you, and I ain't a-gwine to tell a lie for you ner nobody else. Dar, now you's got it! I don't see why you need to make so much fuss. I is better lookin' den Sam; an' I is a house servant, an' Sam was only a fiel hand; so you ought to feel proud of a change. So go and do as missis tells you. (exit HANNAH, left) Hannah needn't try to get me to tell a lie; I ain't a-gwine to do it, kase I dose want her, an' I is bin wantin' her dis long time, an' soon as massa sold Sam, I knowed I would get her. By golly, I is gwine to be a married man. Won't I be happy! Now, ef I could only jess run away from ole massa, an' get to Canada wid Hannah, den I'd show 'em who I was. Ah! dat reminds me of my song 'bout ole massa and Canada, an' I'll sing it fer yer. Dis is my moriginal hyme. It comed into my head one night when I was fass asleep under an apple tree, looking up at de moon. Now for my song : -- AIR -- "Dandy Jim" Come all ye bondmen far and near, Let's put a song in massa's ear, It is a song for our poor race, Who're whipped and trampled with disgrace. [CHORUS] My old massa tells me, Oh, This is a land of freedom, Oh; Let's look about and see if it's so, Just as massa tells me, Oh. He tells us of that glorious one, I think his name was Washington, How he did fight for liberty, To save a threepence tax on tea. (Chorus) But now we look about and see That we poor blacks are not so free; We're whipped and thrashed about like fools, And have no chance at common schools. (Chorus) They take our wives, insult and mock, And sell our children on the block, They choke us if we say a word, And say that "niggers" shan't be heard. (Chorus) Our preachers, too, with whip and cord, Command obedience in the Lord; They say they learn it from the big book, But for ourselves, we dare not look. (Chorus) There is a country far away, I think they call it Canada, And if we reach Victoria's shore, They say that we are slaves no more. Now haste, all bondmen, let us go, And leave this Christian country, Oh; Haste to the land of the British Queen, Where whips for negroes are not seen. Now, if we go, we must take the night, And never let them come in sight; The bloodhounds will be on our track, And wo to us if they fetch us back. Now haste all bondmen, let us go, And leave this Christian country, Oh; God help us to Victoria's shore, Where we are free and slaves no more! (Enter Mrs. GAINES, left ) Have them do it Draw out the Critiques (religious, of American hypocrisy) from the Chorus and their communal significance Point out the ritual is secret, when Gaines enters, it’s over. Point out, referring back to the beginning of the play, that Brown is careful to forefront the idea of the U.S. as a con. The doctor, descendant of Washington, is so corrupted by the slave system that he actually wants people to get sick. Brown incorporates more than just this chorus (which at times, operates in call and response fashion with Cato), he also incorporates the ritual of jumping the broom So let’s digress in order to take a closer look at that 14

15 Jumping the Broom Is a ceremony dating back to the 1600s and derived from Africa. Dating back to slave days, jumping the broom together has been part of weddings for couples who want to honor that tradition. It also has roots in the Celtic culture and including but not limited to Welsh, Celtics, Druids, and Gypsies and some aboriginal or shamanistic cultures. Some couples choose to incorporate it into traditional and non-traditional ceremonies. Broom jumping is a brief ceremony usually within the wedding ceremony toward the end. The jumping of the broom is symbolic of binding a couple in marriage and also can be used to symbolize fertility and prosperity of the couple. The "Jumping the Broom" is a ceremony in which the bride and groom, either at the ceremony or at the reception, signify their entrance into a new life and their creation of a new family by symbolically "sweeping away" their former single lives, former problems and concerns, and jumping over the broom to enter upon a new adventure as wife and husband. Jumping the broom or in some cases jumping over an imaginary line is an African ritual, or tradition still being practiced in some parts of West Africa. Jumping the broom is not associated with slavery. Enslaved Africans, as an affirmation of their cultural heritage practiced it during slavery in North America. This "leap" into a new life (marriage as wife and husband is performed in the presence of families and friends. You can be as creative as you want when planning for this special ceremony. The broom has both symbolic and spiritual importance in the African culture. The ritual itself was created by our ancestors during slavery. Because slaves could not legally marry, they created their own rituals to honor their unions. Some say broom jumping comes from an African tribal marriage ritual of placing sticks on the ground representing the couple's new home. The straws of the broom represent family; the handle represents the Almighty; the ribbon represents the tie that binds the couple together. Go through slide Note how, Mrs. Gaines can’t force this ritual, and one of the few major events to happen offstage is Glen and Melinda’s marriage It’s this uncomfortable incorporation, I won’t quite make it on stage, and when the broom finally is used its used in an act of Defiance and Rebellion which is necessary for survival, and this brings us to our next close reading. 15

16 Melodrama Swept off Her Feet
MRS. GAINES Yes, Melinda, I will see that you are taken away, but it shall be after a fashion that you won't like. I know that your master loves you, and I intend to put a stop to it. Here, drink the contents of this vial, -- drink it! MELINDA Oh, you will not take my life, -- you will not! MRS. GAINES Drink the poison this moment ! MELINDA I cannot drink it. MRS. GAINES I tell you to drink this poison at once. Drink it, or I will thrust this knife to your heart! The poison or the dagger, this instant! (she draws a dagger; MELINDA retreats to the back of the room, and seizes a broom .) MELINDA I will not drink the poison! (they fight; MELINDA sweeps off Mrs. GAINES, -- cap, combs and curls. Curtain falls) This isn’t all of his, but who had it? The chorus, and this meta-theatrical ritualized resistance call to mind twomore tenets of the “standards and practices declaration” Change slides 16

17 Close Reading Act 3 Scene 3
MAJ. MOORE Yes, madam, I am. I rather like the Colonel's situation here. MRS. GAINES It is thought to be a fine location. (enter SAMPEY, right) Hand me my fan, will you, Sampey? (SAMPEY gets the fan and passes near the MAJOR, who mistakes the boy for the Colonel's son. He reaches out his hand) MAJ. MOORE How do you do, Bob? Madam I should have known that this was the Colonel's son, if I had met him in California; for he looks so much like his papa. MRS. GAINES (to the boy) Get out of here this minute. Go to the kitchen. (exit SAMPEY, right) That is one of the niggers, sir. MAJ. MOORE I beg your pardon, madam; I beg your pardon. MRS. GAINES No offence, sir; mistakes will be made. Ah! here comes the Colonel. (Enter Dr. GAINES, center) DR. GAINES Bless my soul, how are you, Major? I'm exceedingly pleased to see you. Be seated, be seated, Major. MRS. GAINES Please excuse me, gentlemen; I must go and look after dinner, for I've no doubt that the Major will have an appetite for dinner, by the time it is ready. (exit Mrs. GAINES, right)

18 (Interior of a dungeon -- GLEN in chains) GLEN When I think of my unmerited sufferings, it almost drives me mad. I struck the doctor, and for that, I must remain here loaded with chains. But why did he strike me? He takes my wife from me, sends her off, and then comes and beats me over the head with his cane. I did right to strike him back again. I would I had killed him. Oh! there is a volcano pent up in the hearts of the slaves of these Southern States that will burst forth ere long. When that day comes, wo to those whom its unpitying fury may devour! I would be willing to die, if I could smite down with these chains every man who attempts to enslave his fellow-man. (Enter SAMPEY, right) SAMPEY Glen, I jess bin hear massa call de oberseer , and I spec somebody is gwine to be whipped. Anudder ting: I know whar massa took Linda to. He took her to de poplar farm, an' he went away las' night, an' missis she follow after massa, an' she ain't come back yet. I tell you, Glen, de debil will be to pay on dis place, but don't you tell anybody dat I tole you. (exit SAMPEY, right)


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