Obi in New York: Aldridge and the African Grove
Peter Buckley, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
|1||On May 21, 1801, less than a year
after its opening at the Haymarket, New York's Park Theatre staged the first
American performance of Fawcett's serio-pantomime Obi. Offered as
part of the manager William Dunlap's benefit night, The Park pulled out
all the stops in placing the durable Hodgkinson in the lead as Jack and
casting the Junior Hallam as Captain Orford. Expensive new sets were constructed
and entr'acte specialists Laurence and Morton were jobbed in for the Negro
dances. Though three other performances are recorded for the remainder of
that season, Obi cannot, however, be termed a ringing success with
Manhattan's public. Over the next quarter century the pantomime re-appeared
almost annually on some American stage (garnering in 1813 "A Gentleman,
the original for the Haymarket, London" as Obi Woman, presumably Abbott)
but statistically, at least, it remained far less popular than other slave
or Indian dramas. The first American cast of Obi had been responsible
for staging Sheridan's version of Kotzebue's Pizarro (minus the final
death scene) only the year before, and the Peruvian chief always held premiere
place. Obi was also performed less often than the beloved Afro-Indian
drama Inkle and Yariko (by George Colman Jr., which had its U.S.
premiere at the Park Theatre in 1796) or Issac Bickerstaff's more comic
The Padlock (1768). The pantomime version of Obi certainly
seems immediately less radical than the plain spoken heroics of Colman Jr.'s
The Africans (that included a slave market scene) or Thomas Morton's
The Slave, both of which allowed for substantially larger play of
|2||In this tremendously telescoped
account of early slave drama in New York City there is little evidence of
American exceptionalism as measured by the strength of audience interest
in the themes of emancipation, colonial independence or, indeed, race. It
is best to think of the Park Theatre, in personnel and stagecraft, as occupying
the farthest orbit in Britain's constellation of theaters, but one which
shared completely in that frothy mixture of sentimental song, dance, scenic
effect and kinetic action that sustained the minor theaters in the period.
From the scanty records we possess it is difficult to give the Park Theatre's
version of Fawcett's Obi an especially radical reading or to provide
it with a transgressive national contextualization. As with English productions,
the opening plantation scene disclosed contentment and deference threatened
only by the ominous mention of Jack. Yet Jack remained without an antislavery
voice, literally in panto and ideologically in the text; ending as
a severed head removed the body that had been so active in the drama. The
usefulness of Christian conversion was made central to the battle of good
over evil, and Jonkonnu demonstated that slave pleasures are at the master's
behest, perhaps reenacting the largely white audience's claims of sovereignty
as patrons over the performance.
This then is where one might leave the story of Obi in New York
were it not for the introduction of an entirely new cast of characters
in the early 1820s: William Brown, the proprietor of the first African-American
Theatre, the famous English comedian, Charles Mathews and Ira Aldridge,
destined, once he left America, to become the first great black tragedianan
"African Roscius." Let us look at the figures sequentially.
|4||William Brown was a highly regarded
ship's steward sailing the packets out of Liverpool. In 1817, he retired
to shore opening with his wife a social club a "free and easy"for
other black stewards and sailors in the backyard of his house at 38 Thomas
Street. After complaints from the neighbors about the open air antics, that
included singing and dancing, he moved indoors and, in September 1821, performed
his first full theatrical production of Richard III. After this success
he moved north to the corner of Mercer and Bleecker, at the edge of settlement,
to open a Garden and Theatre, termed "African" by the press, that featured
some of his own pantomimic productions and the singing and acting of the
talented James Hewlett. The true novelty of Brown's move was that the garden
was a fully commercial venture, charging standard prices, before a racially
mixed audience. Brown attempted to stake out his share in the tremendous
expansion in the city's staged commercial culture in the early 1820s. In
the three years after 1821, New York witnessed the opening of two new theatres,
the Bowery and the Chatham, as well as seven new sites of minor amusement,
effectively tripling audience capacity and attracting a new kind of crowd.
These sites would create a permanent place for the new forms of melodrama,
for Yankee and Indian acts, and establish the long foreground for the rise
of minstrelsy. Their arrival, in other words, marks the ascendency of "minor"
forms in the Anglo-American stage tradition and their eventual transformation
into the national forms of American popular culture.
|5||Much scholarly interest has been
directed at Brown's own January, 1822 drama King Shotaway; this play
celebrated the insurrection of the black Caribs of St. Vincent (1795). (From
what little we know it was not an antislavery vehicle but rather an anti-English,
anti-imperialist drama for which there would have been no shortage of ideological
assent.) However it seems just as remarkable that Brown tried to create,
on limited resources, the full range of theatrical forms including sailors'
hornpipes, Scottish and topical airs, pantomime as well as Shakespeare.
James Hewlett also choreographed two different Indian ballets in 1822. It
was within this mix that Ira Aldridge first appeared before the public (at
some point between January and August of 1822) as Rolla, the rebellious
Peruvian in Pizarro.
As one might expect Brown did not receive the full respect of the press for his range and ambition; indeed from the start his entrepreneurial enthusiasm had been linked to other African-American claims to political power and public recognition. What was for Brown an opening in the expansive territory of commercial culture became for the established press an exercise in social and political presumption. Here is Mordecai Noah's notice of Brown's first garden in The National Advocate:
Among the number of ice cream gardens in this city, there was none in which the sable race could find admission and refreshment. Their modicum of pleasure was taken on Sunday evening, when the black dandies and dandizettes, after attending meeting, occupied the sidewalks in Broadway, and slowly lounged towards their different homes. As their number increased, and their consequence strengthened, partly from high wages, high living, and the elective franchise, it was considered necessary to have a place of amusement for them exclusively. Accordingly, a garden has been opened somewhere back of the hospital called the African Grove; not spicy as those of Arabia (but let that pass), at which the ebony lads and lasses could obtain ice cream, ice punch, and hear music from the big drum and clarionet. The little boxes of this garden were filled with black beauties "making night hideous" and it was not an uninteresting sight to observe the entree of a happy pair. The gentleman, with his wool nicely combed, and his face shining through a coat of sweet oil, borrowed from the castors; cravat tight to suffocation, having the double faculty of widening the mouth and giving a remarkable protuberance to the eyes; blue coat, fashionably cut; red ribbon and a bunch of pinch-beck seals; white pantaloons, shining boots, gloves, and a tippy rattan. The lady, with her pink kid slippers; her fine Leghorn, cambric' dress with open work; corsets well fitted; reticule hanging on her arm. Thus accoutred and caparisoned, these black fashionables saunter up and down the garden, in all the pride of liberty and unconscious of want. In their dress, salutations, familiar phrases, and compliments, their imitative faculties are best exhibited. . . ."
|7||The ground of this racism is the
suggestion that the faculty of imitation permits the urban African-American
to co-opt social spaces and graces not rightfully theirs. To be sure comedy
is always implicit in the uneasy appropriation of fashion and refinement;
social pretension remains funny. But here in 1820 the new figure of the
black dandy (later Zip coon) takes the full weight of patrician concern
about plebeian behavior and the break down of deference at the beginning
of the Jacksonian era. Noah establishes in his prose commentary on black
acting (on stage and street) the basis for minstrelsy's later comic appropriation
of the rituals of civility and citizenshipthe stump speech, the militia
drill, and the Ethiopian Opera (Hay 17).
|8||How might Brown have countered this
discourse? Perhaps by returning with a surfeit of signification, by overacting
the part. While a steward Brown was known to act with a degree of super-refinement,
and he was indeed pretentious in the sense he wanted to beat other entrepreneurs
of amusement at their own game. This even went so far as hiring in January,
1822 the assembly room of Hampton's hotel adjacent to the Park Theatre for
a full rival production of Richard III.
|9||These cultural skirmishes took place
during years of heightened racial feeling. The vestiges of legal slavery
were being removed from New York state and property qualifications were
being cut from the elective franchise (White 75). Most ominous of all was
the northward spread of the revolutionary violence of the Caribbean in the
Denmark Vesey insurrection in Charleston during 1822. The theaters in New
York City answered with a topical return of stage African dramas (Collins
There were local revivals of Inkle and Yariko, The Padlock, Othello,
The Africans and new vehicles such as Macready's The Irishman
in London. Obi was revived at the Park Theatre on New Years Day 1823,
the day set aside in the local African-American community to commemorate
the abolition of the slave trade.
|10||Brown replied with his own version
of Obi that June. How might an African-American cast, playing before
a racially mixed audience, have handled the easy subservience of the slave
characters in the final years of legal servitude in the state? How might
the players have provided the local color, as it were, to the gratuitous
Negro dances? How might one control racial representations while giving
a large section of the public what it expected? Nothing that we know of
his staging of Obi, which is admittedly very little, tells us immediately
that he was aiming for new kinds of "realism" to counter comic exaggeration.
See original stage bill.
|11||Some clues to Brown's strategy may
be found if we work backwards or rather forwards from his staging of the
first play that eveningMoncrieff's Tom and Jerrya musical,
farcical romp based on Egan's incredibly popular Life in London.
Tom and Jerry had been a hit at London's minor Adelphi Theatre in
1821 and had recently opened to a long run at the Park (March 1823) with
Edmund Simpson as Corthinian Tom and Joe Cowell as Jerry Hawthorne. The
most popular feature of the play proved to be the "descent" into London's
working class East End. Fights and chases provided the "rich bits of low
life" including a comic Negro dance between "African Sal" and "Dusty Bob."
The Tom and Jerry craze spread to three other performance sites in the city
before ending up automatically, one might say, at Brown's Theatre. Here,
for the first time as a manager, Brown was faced with the task of offering
real "Africans" dancing blackface parts (McAllister 281).
|12||Brown made three telling changes.
First, for the Negro dance, Brown cast a man, Mr. Jackson, as African Sal.
Since no other theatre employed cross dressing this was perhaps a way to
shift the center of comedy from complexities of race to the absurdities
of gender (McAllister 282). Second, on June 7, he included a slave market
scene ("Life in Limbo, Life in Love; on the Slave market, Vango Range in
Charleston" ) in which a white actor was employed to auction off the cast
(Odell 3:70). Given the Vesey rebellion only eight months before, how could
this remain directly comic rather than appearing grotesque or wearing the
aspect of travesty? Third, on the folWithin that year's revival in stage
African parts, the accomplished English Comedian Charles Mathews brought
his own celebrated one-man delineations of comic social types to America.
Mathews too tapped the novel resources of the vernacular, producing detailed
character sketches in ways later considered "Dickensian." While in New York
he located new "rich bits of low life" to add to the expanding trade in
transatlantic comic novelties. In his Mr. Mathews' Trip to America
(English Opera House, 1824) Mathews portrayed three black types: a stage
coach driver, a fiddle player and a black Shakespearean actor, the latter
apparently seen at Brown's theatre. Mathews thus occupies an odd place in
the long foreground to minstrelsy.3
As an Englishman he added a distinctive and more certain American note in
the portrayal of "Africans" whereas before most early models had been Caribbean.
The last sketch about the actor proved remarkably durable, for it introduced
"Opossum up a gum tree" by way of the imaginary audience mishearing "oppose
them" in Hamlet's famous soliloquy. For years after, the legend stuck that
Mathews had visited Brown's theatre and had actually seen Ira Aldridge as
the Prince of Denmark. At long last the work of scholars over a quarter
century has unglued every part of this baseless fabrication.4lowing
Monday, the auction reemerged as "Life in Fulton Market," which may have
included the breakdown dancing Long Island free blacks were known to perform
at New York's principal marts. Here perhaps Brown aimed at a rough realism,
appropriating the local resources of vernacular culture.2
|13||But not, of course, its real historical
effects. Mathews's comic, lowlife turns, with their strings of ethnic and
class malapropisms, took off on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment
where Brown left off his local productions. Other actors, including the
young Edwin Forrest, began to "black-up" regularly as part of their required
stock of national types (Ager 108). On August 8, 1823, the last recorded
night of an independent black-owned theatre for nearly a century, the African
company concluded their performance with "the Grand Serious Dramatic pantomime
of OBI: Or, 3 Finger'd Jack" (McAllister 360) and on January 19, 1824, Hewlett
gave his own final "At Home" in imitation of Mathews as a benefit for the
cause of Greek independence. Hewlett and Aldridge then moved to England,
inaugurating a long tradition of African-American performers exchanging
the diurnal racism of the United States for the more exotic racialism of
Europe. In Britain, as we know, Aldridge felt compelled to cater "to the
desire of numerous parties" and to perform the Opossum sketch at the Theatre
Royal, Bristol in 1830 (Marshall 44). Was he now playing "Mathews" delineating
an "Ira Aldridge" who had never existed? In 1840 Aldridge announced he would
perform Mathews's sketch of a black actor from the Trip to America
(McAllister 366). Was Aldridge a compelling enough actor of tragic roles
to hold up a mirror, not just to nature, but to the transatlantic, comic
popular culture that had forged the racial representations within which
he was forced to work (MacDonald 232)? Let us hope he felt he was.
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