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Obi

Directing Obi in 2000

Jerrold E. Hogle, University of Arizona

  1. This entire new study of Obi; or Three-Finger'd Jack revolved at first around two "performances." These were stagings of segments from different versions of this play, in which the segments were interspersed with oral presentations of the other essays in this collection. The first such "production" combining scenes and papers was performed on July 18, 2000, at the Playwrights Theater at Boston University. Produced by Professor Charles Rzepka (who has ably led this whole enterprise from its beginnings to this collection) and directed by Vincent Ernest Siders of the New African Company and TYG Productions, the Boston version—as I will refer to it from here on—presented itself as primarily a celebration of the life and career of Ira Aldridge, the African-American actor who played the role of Jack Mansong, among many others, in England during the 1820s and after. It featured a cast of talented professionals and students, including a Jack played by Jovan Rameau, a Harvard MA who had just performed Shakespeare with the American Repertory Theater, along with musical direction and piano accompaniment by Ryan Sandburg and many-faceted technical direction by Karen Stanley. Vincent Siders himself provided the narration and some critical reflections that bridged the scenes he chose and linked them to the academic papers, all of which were first delivered during this production, save for the piece by Robert Hoskins, who could not come over from New Zealand that July. I attended this unique and impressive performance myself, since Professor Rzepka had already asked me to help with another version after learning that I was Program Chair for an upcoming conference in our field.

  2. This second production would be—and was—staged for the year 2000 Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR), in part because Obi was a significant (though now usually forgotten) piece of theater first performed during what most scholars call "the Romantic period" in English and European culture (roughly 1789-1836). With a modicum of theater experience in my background far smaller than Vincent Siders' (hence my reliance in many of his choices), I agreed to direct and narrate what I will henceforth call the NASSR production, aided by funds remaining from the grant that Dr. Rzepka had obtained from Boston University's Humanities Foundation to support both presentations. This later one, based closely and admiringly on the Boston version but also revising it here and there (for reasons I will discuss below), was staged on September 14, 2000, in Neeb Hall at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. A plenary event for all the attending faculty and students at an academic conference co-sponsored by Arizona's three state universities, this production of scenes and papers added Robert Hoskins to the panel of experts (now five in all) and featured students from the University of Arizona (or UA) Schools of Music and Dance and Theater Arts, with UA student Walter Belcher as Jack, musical direction and piano accompaniment by Sean Schulze, and technical direction by my UA colleague Professor Jeffrey Warburton. Complete cast, crew, and panel lists for both versions accompany this essay. Both, in any case, were well received by their audiences and, just as Professor Rzepka had hoped (see his essay), served effectively to return attention to this complex popular drama while raising all the theatrical, cultural, racial, colonial, and widely political questions prompted by a work that began in 1800 as a highly imperialist and racist serio-pantomime and "changed its tune" in some important ways by the time of the altered melodrama version that featured Ira Aldridge in the 1820s. The basic structure was the same in both productions. With both directors interested in reviving the stage conventions in England from 1800 to 1830 as well as examining the cultural implications of this play as it changed over that time, each version was divided into two halves with an intermission between them. The first half focused on sung or pantomimed sequences from the 1800 play, with commentary on these moments provided by Charles Rzepka, Jeffrey Cox, and at NASSR by Robert Hoskins (especially since Hoskins is an expert on the songs and incidental music for the 1800 Obi composed by Samuel Arnold). Both directors felt that the serio-pantomime as scripted by John Fawcett could best be highlighted, given our limited budgets, by the opening and closing musical choruses (I.i and II.ix) and by selected scenes: the first meeting between Rosa and Captain Orford at the plantation (also in I.i); Tuckey's comical dumb-show announcing the initial wounding of the Captain by Jack (later in I.i), as well as the bringing of the wounded Captain back to the plantation house (which I abbreviated and overlaid with narration to make time for a fifth paper in the NASSR version); the Overseer's sung charge to the plantation slaves to find and capture Jack (the end of I.i); the duet between Quashee and his anxious spouse as he sets off with his rifle (I.v); the solo lament of Quashee's Wife—who calls herself "Ulalee" in her song—after he goes (II.i, but sequenced by us right after his exit); and Rosa, disguised as a sailor-boy, singing "A Lady in Fair Seville City" (a popular "hit" at the time) in Jack's cave in an effort to lull him to sleep so that she can find the wounded Orford now held by him (II.iv)—a Jack, stinking-drunk at this point, who is never given a voice in the 1800 version, spoken or sung. Both directors felt that these moments, once contextualized by narration and papers, epitomized the key features of the first Obi play from its pantomime style through its types of light-opera choruses and solos through its setting of black characters against each other through its contrasting the heroism of Rosa and Quashee over against the seemingly dissipated villainy of Jack, unquestioningly assumed at the beginning and unmitigated by the end. Noting that the original 1800 play was performed (yes, offensively to us) by all-white players, most of them in black face, Vincent Siders and I agreed on having each of our performers wear an eye-mask (black or white) that symbolized his or her race in the play, whatever the race of the performer. That way the original face-masking was somewhat retained and emphasized but was also equalized so that "whiteness" and "blackness" were both presented as mainly imposed cultural roles for the characters in this play from 1800 through the 1820s. In other respects, though, the characters were costumed according to period and class styles around 1800, partly depending on what we could purchase fairly cheaply or obtain on loan from a theater or theater arts department.

  3. The second half in both productions featured Jack, also called "Karfa"—now given an eloquent voice and left entirely unmasked (unlike everyone else)—as he might have been played by Ira Aldridge in a melodrama rendition of the 1820s. We therefore followed the script, now full of dialogue, used for a production of that decade at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (the same as the 1820s version). Our narration in both cases mentioned where choruses and other scenes, such as the play's opening, were the same from version to version, keeping us from having to repeat any feature from 1800 still in use over two decades later. Even though both of our productions made no costume changes for the second half (except when I chose to remove a black mask and wig worn by Jack in the first half of the NASSR production), the scenes we chose from the 1820s consequently emphasized the altered or new elements in this version compared to the earlier one. These included the early dialogue between the planter (here called Ormond) and the Overseer, later shown to be quite slanted, on why the former so hates and fears Jack, now the would-be rapist and the murderer of the planter's wife in the not-so-distant past (I.i in the 1820s script above); Tuckey's singing of the long-time folk song "Opposum Up a Gum Tree" (I.ii), one of the few musical moments not used in the 1800 version; an extended scene between the fervently anti-white Obi Woman and Jack in her wilderness hut, where "Karfa" first expresses his motives from his standpoint (I.iii); the expanded dialogue between Jack and Rosa in his cave just before she again sings "A Lady in Fair Seville City," where he asserts the justice of his now turning a white "boy" into a black man's slave (II.iii-iv); and the crucial final sequence centered on Rosa and Jack as he drags her across the wilderness from his cave, having discovered her real identity this time, with the plantation party of slaves in hot pursuit (II.vi).

  4. This half provided apt moments in both productions for Peter Buckley's comments on Ira Aldridge's acting background in the culture of black American theater and for Debbie Lee's observations on the extent to which actual (or fabricated) obi traditions were used in this play. Both directors and companies, though, worked to build both second halves—and indeed both evenings—towards the final Jack-Rosa sequence where he finally makes her and the audience visualize the "blood and rapine" in which he was snatched from his family, along with others, back in Africa. Partly because we both asked our "Jacks" to play this moment to emphasize how Aldridge gave Jack a rich voice and a commanding presence in the 1820s, the ultimate thrust of the whole production in each case thus became the transformation in cultural awareness and attitudes that allowed for this major change, even though we also had to note that Jack is shot dead by Tuckey this time as he finally struggles with the slaves who have caught up to him at last, in this version even more clearly because they have been promised their freedom and a reward if they capture him, dead or alive. In this fashion both productions emphasized the difference between this semi-tragic, action-based ending of the 1820s and the gleeful chorus at the end of the 1800 version (the finale of our first half), where all the surviving characters festively celebrated a renewed British supremacy in Jamaica, in part by displaying the decapitated head of Jack before themselves and the audience—a conclusion entirely removed from this play by the 1820s.

  5. Despite all this common ground in both of our productions, however, there were some sharp differences in the ways the Boston and NASSR versions chose to enact and stage certain sequences, even if several moments did remain virtually identical. In the rest of what follows, I want to focus on these differences, not in order to make a case for one set of choices as "better" than another, but to foreground the cultural issues and practical problems involved in restaging and offering scholarly commentary on this conflicted and changing play for two different types of audiences in the year 2000. This drama and its history are clearly more than curiosities that reopen forgotten aspects of theater and popular middle-class entertainment, not to mention the career of a major black actor, from 1800 to 1830. Obi is a revealing touchstone that shows us, if not great art, at least some of the undersides of British and imperialist culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that we have too often overlooked in our studies of "Romanticism." Moreover, it confronts us with the extent to which our attitudes today, however distant from those dominant in Britain in 1800 and the substantially different 1820s, are still haunted by the history of racism and slavery in the West, so much so that our choices in representing such material are always complicated by many facets of cultural memory depending on who we are, where we live, and whom we are addressing at the turn of the twentieth into the twenty-first century. The differing choices I now proceed to describe are ultimately indicators of our troubled cultural identities, different for different groups, that can only benefit from facing the cultural history revealed in Obi; or Three-Fingered Jack, yet must also confront the mixed angry-and-guilty attitudes that surface when these roots of our present existence are exposed for what they were—and to some extent remain.

  6. The different choices made in each production initially stemmed from each director considering the composition and likely concerns of his prospective audience. The Boston version came close to being abandoned, despite the persistent efforts of Dr. Rzepka and all involved, because its audience was sure to come in large measure from that city's black community, as well as from Boston University or Harvard students, in a racially mixed New-England hub with a long and lingering history of conflicts between ethnic groups. Some possible African-American directors and players, even considering the presence of modern commentary, were understandably resistant to reviving a flatly racist, Jim-Crowish play, blatantly so in its 1800 version and more than occasionally so in the revision of the 1820s despite the latter's abolitionist elements. At least the first half of the production would have to show that the 1800 play celebrated, far more than it condemned, the existence of slavery in the West Indies, provided that "white man kind massa be" (which was obviously not required by law) and "No lay stick on negro's back" (which this plantation master avoids only "when he good"). Consequently, Vincent Siders began the Boston production by having Quashee's Wife and Sam's Wife, soon joined by Quashee and Sam themselves, sing the entire opening chorus in fixed positions with restrained gestures as though they were almost ghostly museum figures, very much suspended in the past, in no way even seeming to endorse sugar-plantation enslavement, whether it or not was under a non-violent master. Moreover, after these performers had transitioned from the initial lament over the loss of their extended families in Africa ("The white man comes") and shifted into their celebration of "kind massa," Siders as narrator interrupted them deliberately, calling on them to stop, and critiqued the obvious ironies so as to raise the question of whether such deeply offensive scenes should even be revived and discussed at all, thus leading quite effectively into Dr. Rzepka's eloquent response, "Why Obi?" For the Boston audience, clearly, no strategy could have been better. In that setting any positive valuation of slave history, however burlesqued or ironized, could only have been insensitive and hurtful, not to mention taking too much attention away from the evening's focus on Ira Aldridge.

  7. I made a somewhat different choice for the opening chorus of the 1800 Obi because our NASSR audience was so different from the one in Boston. As academics (mostly white, to be sure), our observers were more interested in something approaching historical recreation, a reenactment of the cultural conditions and theater conventions, as well as the ideologies and imperialism, of a period and a "Romantic" England they had all studied for years. I knew they would be especially intrigued by the controversy in 1800 (noted in Jeffrey Cox's paper) over the staging of the play: whether to present it in the jaunty, even carnivalesque, serio-pantomime style being allowed to invade London's Haymarket Theater—one of only three venues then licensed to present Shakespeare—or in the style of "serious drama" ("high" culture compared to which serio-pantomime and Obi were relatively "low," however popular and lucrative). Though I as narrator also interrupted the opening chorus before its end to raise the questions that led into "Why Obi?", I therefore directed the NASSR performers to be more offensive (for our times, at least) than Vincent had wanted them to be. The opening duet ("The white man comes") remained a lament with the two wives standing in place before a plantation-house slide on the back stage-wall above them, although their arm-movements were more expansive in keeping with the typically broad gestures of the serio-pantomime style that all the first-half scenes emphasized in the NASSR version. But once the two couples launched into "Good massa we find," I had them dance with Arcadian gaiety (this setting being a sort of Eden in 1800, as Hoskins would note), then cross the stage in a music-hall chorus-line, each holding out three fingers (warning the audience about the "Jack" they all fear), and then fall on their knees near the edge of the stage when they start to reprise "Good massa"—with my interruption coming only at that point, when I (of course) asked them to rise from such abject positions. Samuel Arnold's music, as well as 1800 pantomime conventions, seemed to demand movement here, as I found to be the case in other scenes as well. I could count on our NASSR audience to catch the harsh irony in this approach at once and simultaneously to feel the offensiveness while associating it with both the British racial attitudes prior to Parliament's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the popular theater conventions of the time. With that prospect in mind, I could also use the contrast between stationary lamentation and celebratory movement to play up the double ideological game that the 1800 Obi tries to play from the start, where slavery is briefly condemned, but only as a tearing-apart of families, and white owners are themselves cast as ambassadors of civilization who bring advanced cultivation, fair labor practices, Christianity, protection, and refined dancing to near-savage black "others" supposedly more raised up than held down by such provisions.

  8. This contrast in styles, right from each opening sequence, was reinforced by our different casting choices, even though these sometimes resulted more from happenstance than design. Vincent and Charles, in addition to Jovan Rameau, employed as many African-American performers as they could find. Quashee and the Obi Woman, the latter often played by a male actor historically, were performed and sung by Jean Connally of the New African Company of Boston, and Chris Johnson from Northeastern University enacted Sam throughout this production. These choices added great force to what may be for us the greatest shock in all versions of this play: the setting of black against black, as the devoted male slaves still on the plantation pursue the Jack who has rebelled against their master, in part because they have been converted to Christianity and promised freedom and gold but also because they have come to see themselves as protecting their wives and children in memory (really!) of their even larger African families, not to mention expressing loyalty to a generally "kind massa." For the NASSR production, I admit, I at first sought to continue and even intensify this shock by offering parts to several African-American students, women as well as men. As interested as several such students were (I say gratefully), even to the point of accepting roles initially, all but Walter Belcher (our Jack) had good reasons to opt for larger parts or better-paying engagements in other venues, which did materialize for these talented performers during our production process. As a result, I finally had to use an all-white cast, save for Walter as Aldridge/Jack, including my own spouse, Pamela, as Quashee's Wife, our elder daughter, Karen, as Rosa, and our younger daughter, Joanne, as both Sam's Wife and Tuckey—all of whom (thankfully) had considerable stage experience, as well as extensive musical training. The NASSR production thus found another way, inadvertently, to reproduce something like the original type of cast for an academic audience interested in the conditions of the first production and the cultural significance of those conditions. One consequence in Tempe was a deliberate picture of a large-scale white supremacy—which controlled by playing most of the black slaves—"ganging up" on Jack Mansong, reinforcing his sense of oppression the more he is allowed to speak in the 1820s segments. A related effect, too, was a vision of Aldridge/Jack in the second half finally educating a crowd of whites out of their complacency even on stage by awakening them all—and a very white Rosa especially—to what the horrors of slavery really meant in ways the Anglos surrounding him had not recognized before. Once again, these differences in each production had their distinct advantages for their contexts, especially for the audience to which each version was carefully tailored.

  9. Such very basic differences led inevitably to others in the final renderings of many scenes, even as these segments on paper remained mostly the same in both productions. At the point where the Overseer sings his master's exhortation to the faithful slaves to go hunt Jack down in the 1800 play, for example, Vincent placed all four players (including Quashee, Sam, and Quashee's Wife) on the same level with the Overseer, who sang to them simply by turning towards his stage left, perhaps so that all the characters could be readily seen as, sadly, "on the same team." I chose to play up the subordination of the slaves at this moment, partly to underline the Overseer's thoughtless irony (unintended by him, but intended by Michael Conran playing him) as he appeals to them in the name of their "dear native land and children"—their race, essentially—to make all of that their prime motivation for seeking the head of a black escapee. Neeb Hall at ASU, I found, was mainly a lecture room, with a shallow stage down front, not as intimate as the Playwrights Theater in Boston. It therefore had a substantial "pit" space below the apron of the stage, quite wide until the first row of spectators, a space I had already decided not to use for the piano (which I positioned below the stage to its right to allow the NASSR audience better sight-lines). I placed the exhorted slaves down in this pit looking up at the Overseer, who only later drew them up on stage when he finally united them in their quest, whereupon they scattered slowly in different directions as a frightened and uncertain posse after having promised (as apparently "low-lifes" must) to "no swear loud," since Jack might then hear them coming.

  10. In addition, I echoed this insistence of white power in the 1800 duet scene where "Quashee he load his gun," to the dismay of his wife, after being christened and promised freedom in return for Jack's head. As it happened, Jean Connally as Quashee in Boston was given no props and was placed in some isolation by Vincent near the front of the stage to start this scene—making him seem alone as a black man seeking another black's head for a white reward—until he turned towards his wife (here a white performer) to soothe her before denying her appeal. With resourceful help from Professor Warburton and jack-of-many-trades cast member Seamus O'Brian, I was able to give the white Gerry Petersen's Quashee an imposing flintlock rifle, which I even had him load on stage. I then asked him to stand with it in the manner of a stock white frontier hero, this time closely clung to by his wife throughout their scene together, so that his being an instrument of white conquest would be emphasized alongside what, for the character, is sincere dedication to a cause in which he believes, even in the face his spouse's pleas, finally on behalf of their infant child. The motif of family preservation that speaks against slavery in the 1800 version, the main justification for Ulalee's extended solo after Quashee departs, was thus pointedly set against the valuing of Anglo-British supremacy in the face of black defiance. Quashee in the NASSR production remained unwaveringly resolute, however, since the imperial theme is ultimately given decisive weight, in my reading of the 1800 script, when Quashee, by now freed but still a willing subject of the Empire, exchanges his rifle for a cutlass in the penultimate scene and visibly starts to cut Jack's head off as the lights come down in preparation for their bright resurgence at the finale of the 1800 pantomime.

  11. The first play's finale itself ("Wander now, to and fro") was also interpreted in notably different stagings. In the Boston production, the severed head was brought on right as the lights came up and placed at the front of the stage, all by Ulalee, the principal soloist in the finale. Quashee then paraded proudly onto the stage immediately, along with every other living character, moving downstage to display the head with his upstage arm only for a brief period after his wife has reminded everyone of his heroism. At this point the head was again placed at the edge of the apron while everyone knelt for "God Save the King" prior to coming forward for a communal final chorus, during which the head almost disappeared from view. The effect was one of racial divides healed (or prevented) and violence gradually effaced, with the scapegoating of Jack underscored for a time but his destruction deemphasized—finally to be reversed, as I will soon show—while this version of the finale swelled to a climax. The NASSR production, by contrast, delayed the entrance of both Quashee and the head during this whole sequence, waiting for that revelation until all were reminded that "Quashee gave the blow." In what was for me a crucial change, I gave that soprano-solo sequence back to the character who is assigned it in the original 1800 script and score: Rosa, rather than Quashee's Wife. Though I admire Vincent Siders for giving Ulalee more of a powerful voice here, I believe that Quashee is supposed to be granted his ultimate seal of approval from the white daughter and heiress of the plantation, not to mention the future Mrs. Orford, as the scene begins moving decisively towards a celebration of Anglo supremacy with Negro consent. Very much in line with that drive, I had Quashee enter only at this moment and, in a wild-eyed victory stance, brandish the severed head center-stage before the audience and the other characters. Though he knelt momentarily with the head during "God Save the King," as he must, the NASSR Quashee kept it and rose again to his feet as the final choruses were sung, holding it aloft above himself and everyone as high as he could, like Cellini's famous statue of Perseus displaying the grisly face of Medusa, as the finale ended. I believe that the 1800 Obi was similarly monumental, graphic, and insistent to its audience in cathecting all racial conflict and arguments over slavery ultimately onto the severed head of Jack (its Medusa) and, though his sacrificial destruction, seeming to eradicate this teeming cacophony from the Empire with deliberate force, supposedly to the benefit of slaves and masters alike. Staging the 1800 finale so "in your face" in the NASSR production allowed that particular "circulation of social energy" (in Stephen Greenblatt's words) to be partly reenacted in the year 2000 with an effective balance of repulsiveness and imperialistic force. That British audiences apparently "lapped this up" in droves just over two hundred years ago is one of the horrors of cultural history, along with slavery, that this whole revival rightly makes us confront in the development of Western "civilization" and the "Romantic" era.

  12. Meanwhile, an additional reason for making the 1800 ending so deliberately offensive was the contrast that could thus be established during the NASSR version's second half with the 1820s melodrama, certainly with its ending but also with its entire revision of Jack into a speaking character with a fuller and sadder history. For the initial reduction of Jack to a silent object (ultimately only his lifeless head) to be reversed as strongly as I wanted it to be, I felt the NASSR first half needed to end with that reduction blatantly displayed—though Vincent Siders had moved in this direction with a postlude to the final 1800 chorus, done in silent-movie style, where all the cast members tossed the head between them under flickering lights before the intermission began. The 1820s changes would then seem more pronounced, particularly as Jack spoke more and more for himself, first undercutting Ormond's initial rendering of "Karfa's" past life in the melodrama and then explaining his own violence with the greater violence done to himself and his family, which the Planter and the 1800 play had completely obscured. The contrast attempted in the NASSR production succeeded with its audience, I believe, in part because of the above decisions about the first half of the evening, but also in part because I chose to keep most of the scenes from the 1820s version very close to the way they were played in the Boston production, as strongly and rightly constructed as that was to bring out the quality of Ira Aldridge's presence as Jack once this character was allowed to speak more of the truth about slavery. The 1820s scene between the Obi Woman and Jack (slightly reduced for NASSR) and later the several between Jack and Rosa were thus, in Tempe as in Boston, played in pools of amber light that isolated pairs of characters, each time on a larger stage kept entirely in darkness, so that the audience might concentrate on the words and gestures with which Jack, in a series of soliloquies, tries to make his interlocutors see and feel what his experiences have been. Vincent Siders and I were fortunate to have the talents of Jovan Rameau and Walter Belcher, both with arresting stage presences and quite resonant voices, so that such powerfully altered sequences could truly be climactic revelations for Rosa and the audience alike and the almost Shakespearean grandeur that Ira Aldridge brought to these scenes in the 1820s could be revived in our renditions as much as possible—again by actors experienced with Shakespeare, as Aldridge (then especially noted for his Othello) most certainly was.

  13. Even so, there were two major moments in the 1820s half of the Boston and NASSR productions that were rescripted and staged quite differently by the two directors for quite specific reasons. First, Tuckey's musical sequence near the beginning of the melodrama ("Opossum Up a Gum Tree") was extended backwards into the preceding dialogue by Vincent Siders, who also cut the final verse of the song itself as it appeared in the 1820s script and score. I chose, partly for reasons of running time, to narrate what happened in the dialogue and then to have Tuckey perform the entire song with only his/her spoken lines immediately preceding it. These were equally valid reactions, in my view, to a multi-layered moment in the revised play. Tuckey, frequently performed in the past by a young woman good at trickster roles (Jeannette Ryan and Joanne Hogle, in our cases), is the most betwixt-and-between character in the piece, even more than the Obi Woman, also usually played by a gender-crossing actor. He is a once-enslaved but now free black; no longer a slave but still only a servant; a spokesman for freedom but the final shooter of Jack; a playful critic of many situations (like the Fool in King Lear) but devoted to the safety and interests of his white master, Captain Orford; and inclined to flirt both with the opposite (or is it the same?) sex and with women of different or mixed races (or are the races the same when both players in a flirtation scene are white or black?). In the melodrama version of Obi, Vincent and I agree, Tuckey extends this fluid status by becoming a vocal critic of race relations during the one big scene focussed entirely on him.

  14. The question is where that stance begins and ends here. The Boston production made this critique plain, but implicit by including Tuckey's flirtation with the mixed-race free servant "Kitty" in the plantation kitchen (Erika Dyer, wearing a white/black mask), in which she both admits his raffish appeal and chides him for being a "dingy spark" too black for her, despite her own legally black status. Jeannette Ryan's roll-with-the-punches approach to Tuckey led the character into jauntily admitting the problems in his status once he was alone on stage; at this point Vincent Siders had him interrupted by an audience request, music-hall style, for "Opossum Up a Gum Tree," which he then performed to and with the audience as a generalizing number about tricksters which rose above issues of race. In my approach for NASSR, however, I saw this song—despite its long previous history outside Obi (again, noted by Jeffrey Cox)—as brought in to comment on Tuckey's own multi-racial situation, among other things, since a free but "too low" black is like the opossum that is sometimes forced up a tree and sometimes on the run, living by his wits. I therefore asked Joanne to move, uninterrupted, right from Tuckey's brief monologue on how "we poor blacks have a weary time of it" into a song definitely about that very subject. Even more important, I had Joanne bring Tuckey right out to the edge of the stage, pointing directly at the audience, and quite sardonically sing the third verse of this number, the one cut (surely because of its offensiveness) in the Boston rendition. In that verse, which begins with "Black boy him love Jill Jenkins," Tuckey cuttingly objects to the prevailing cultural onus against interracial relationships and reminds his hearers that he stands a good chance of being "beat" (like the slave he once was) for what he just attempted with Kitty, were it ever widely known. This moment, to my knowledge, would have been unprecedented in the history of Obi and quite rare before the 1820s in performances of this song. It is a major indication, which I felt should be included and underscored, of how much attitudes had shifted, though not completely, between the 1800 and the 1820s versions of this play. It also shows how the levels of being "between" cultural positions that came out, however briefly, even in the 1800 script rose more and more to the surface the longer this play was performed with increasingly transformed attitudes towards its troubling subject matter. It was Ira Aldridge, after all, rather than performers of Tuckey (see Cox again), who ultimately became the most famous in England for performing "Opossum" on stage, often apart from Obi, as he continued to give voice to the conditions of a still-enslaved race well into the 1860s.

  15. The biggest difference between both recent productions, though, was in how each director chose to end the second half and indeed the whole evening. Following Jack's final speech on his past to Rosa, Vincent Siders did stage the closing fight scene between the pursuing blacks and their object of pursuit—but only up to a point. Once Tuckey shot Jack and the latter fell, as in the script, he was then allowed to rise up again (as in the film Fatal Attraction), and when Quashee moved to knife him once more, Vincent intervened as narrator, much as he had in the opening chorus of the 1800 play. Donning part of the Obi Woman's costume and thus assuming the powers of obeah in a positive way, Vincent asked Jack to rise from his final position in the melodrama and to keep living forever on an eternal stage, permanently embodying the memory of all that his and Ira Aldridge's stories encompassed, from the oppressive to the revolutionary dimensions, all of which could then remain strongly in the cultural memory. Vincent further drew Tuckey from the on-stage crowd and had him put the rifle down in exchange for a new cultural role in the future where s/he would speak the truth, still a trickster, about the multiple and complex lives of African-Americans through different stages in their history. In this way the black-against-black problem in this play was resolved in favor of a redirected, communal, and African-American sense of time, reconstructed both from and against Obi to redress the imbalances that Anglo accounts of Western history have too often left in force. Finally, Vincent invited all the remaining cast members and the audience to envision an obeah-generated condition in which the wounds inflicted by the Obi plays and what they represented could be healed without the significance of this drama being forgotten. We in the audience left with the sense that history may have occurred in certain ways, but that future directions for humanity are a matter of group choice that is not predetermined. We have the capacity, this Boston production reminded us, to recast the fictions by which we have covered history with cultural mythologies—in the way Vincent Siders finally remade Obi—and to propose revisionist mythologies that are inclusive instead of racist and equalizing rather than hierarchical. Such a process, begun that evening, could indeed, if achieved, become an even more transformed Obi for the twenty-first century.

  16. I hope it is clear how much I admire and applaud that choice for ending the Boston production. I also hope I can adequately explain why I chose a different way of closing the NASSR version. We in Arizona also moved directly from the final Jack-Rosa scene into the action sequence where Quashee challenges Jack, Jack struggles with him, Sam joins the fray, Jack recovers Quashee's knife in the melee, and Tuckey comes on to fire a rifle at Jack as he is about to dispatch both his other pursuers. At that point I chose to freeze the on-stage image at the moment Jack, arching upwards in a stabbing motion, is hit by the bullet. I then posed the still-unresolved questions for all of us that this whole refashioned play and this final image leave us to pursue today: Has this outcome sufficiently turned from comic to tragic? Have the changes from one version to another led to enough further progress by now? In what ways can Jack's story still live for us so that it leads to productive change and does not become a forgotten anachronism? I did not leave the actors frozen for too long and did ask them to rise as I had when I intervened in the opening chorus. But I went on to note that there are more remaining questions, some of which were key subjects in the rest of the NASSR conference that had three days yet to run. Given the very academic—and thus "accurately reconstructive"—setting that we were all in, I could not bring myself to change the ending of the 1820s play as Vincent so powerfully did. At the same time, though, I could stop its progress before it was finished and, with Jack's moment of death held in suspension, could raise the lingering issues of this work with that sad and now deeply-layered figure fully in view and, I hope, burned into the memories of the audience along with the cultural problems we still have to solve in the wake of what Obi depicted and still depicts.

  17. All of us involved in restaging this drama knew and still know how fraught with contradictions it is for us as a new century begins and how carefully we needed and still need to avoid burying these problems by viewing such a play too simply or forgetting about it because it is not "great classic drama" (as Professor Rzepka and I are the first to admit). Even Vincent Siders agrees that it should not be forgotten, since it shows how a whole Anglo-Western culture can justify oppression by calling it civilization and then how that same culture can at least begin to undeceive itself. Still, Obi in the year 2000 does pose the question of how we face what we claim to have repudiated when that repudiation may not be complete enough for enough people—and how we position ourselves in a cultural history of racial injustice, of which the different versions of Obi are stages in a development that continues to unfold. If a revival of Obi is unsettling, that is all to the good in the view of all of us who participated. We cannot claim we are fully beyond it any more than we can accept its premises even in the 1820s. We also continue to disagree about how to approach it, even between black and white to some extent, given the issues it still raises. But there is also the fact that blacks and whites have been brought together somewhat by facing such a play and the quandaries it provokes, with due consideration for differing points of view. Certainly none of us remain the same after having wrestled with Obi; or Three-Finger'd Jack and its history of both myopia and change. Both directors are immensely grateful, as I am to Vincent, to all our cast members, musicians, technicians, sponsors, colleagues, and families, every one of them extraordinarily dedicated and talented in facing a difficult task. Yet we all hope that the difficulty does not stop with this effort or dissipate in some sort of complacency for any of us. The transformation of Obi, especially as Ira Aldridge played it, is the history of a cry for better world, and none of us should evade the responsibility each of us has to answer that cry in the years to come.

    Program for July 18, 2000 Performance

    Program for September 14, 2000 (NASSR) Performance

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Published @ RC

August 2002

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