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Obi

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 the sentimental.

  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.

  3. 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 tragedian—an "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.

  6. 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 citizenship—the 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 100).1 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 evening—Moncrieff's Tom and Jerry—a 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.

Works Cited

Buckley, Peter G. "The Place to Make an Artist Work: William Sidney Mount and New York City." Catching the Tune: William Sidney Mount and Music. Ed. Janice Armstrong. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1983.

Collins, John. "American Drama in Anti-Slavery Agitation, 1792-1861." Diss. University of Iowa, 1963.

Hamm, Charles. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979. 114-116.

Hatch, James. "Here Comes Everybody: Scholarship and Black Theatre History." Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance. Eds. Thomas Postlewait and Bruce A. McConachie. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989). 158-159.

Hay, Samuel. African-American Theater: A Historical and Critical Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hodge, Francis. "Charles Mathews Reports on America." Quarterly Journal of Speech 36 (December 1950).

MacDonald, Joyce Green. "Acting Black: Othello, Othello Burlesques, and the performance of blackness." Theatre Journal 46 (May 1994)

Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Marshall, Herbert and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge, The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958

Mathews, Charles. "Mr. Mathews's Trip to America." Mr. Mathews at Home. Philadelphia: Simon Probaco, 1824.

McAllister, Marvin Edward. "'White people do not know how to behave at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of colour': A History of New York's African Grove/African Theatre." Diss. Northwestern University, 1997.

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Odell, George C. D. Annals of the New York Stage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1927.

White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Notes

1 John Collins has observed that the Obi revivals of that year might have been especially resonant in the immediate political circumstances since the Charleston slave rebellion found a notorious leader in a man named "Gullah Jack."

2 This appropriation is part of a much larger story concerning the birth of minstrelsy in New York and the role of local black culture. See the author's "The Place to Make an Artist Work: William Sidney Mount and New York City." The most comprehensive study of early minstrelsy remains Hans Nathan's Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. However, William J. Mahar's Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture certainly includes much new material.

3 For a detailed account of the text versions of Mathews's black delineations see Hodge.

4 Some parts of the fabrication remain standing since some scholars believe Mathews was personally attentive to local black dialect rather than merely picking up ideas from existing written forms. Part of the debate is in Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy, and James Hatch, "Here Comes Everybody: Scholarship and Black Theatre History."

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