Charles Rzepka, Boston University
|1||I first raised the possibility of
staging scenes and songs from the early nineteenth-century musical play
Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack in casual conversation with Jeff Cox,
of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in the late spring of 1999. Jeff's
expertise in the field of Romantic popular theater enabled him to help me
appreciate the many difficulties such a staging would have to overcome:
gathering crew and auditioning for roles, casting (race-appropriate? race-indifferent?),
finding exotic props, making period-appropriate costumes and using period-appropriate
make-up (blackface!?), not to mention the standard hurdles like setting
rehearsal schedules, finding theater-space, choreographing, and a thousand
other apparently insuperable obstaclesnot least of them, funding.
But we had only a vague idea of the difficulties that would arise specifically
in today's highly-charged atmosphere of racial and identity politics. What
we did know was that staging Obi would, without a doubt, be painfuland
worst of all, painful less for us than for others.
|2||So I'd like to begin this introduction
by addressing the question that my gifted Afro-American director for the
Boston production, Vincent Siders, first put to me after having read the
opening scene of the Obi pantomime: Why? Why stage such offensive
material? And why now, at a millenial moment when we should be more aware
than ever both of the desperate need to put such things behind us, and the
dreary prospect that awaits us if we do notanother thousand years,
perhaps, of the same intractable legacy of bigotry, hatred, and oppression.
|3||Why? Why Obi? and why now?
|4||First, to educateand not just
to inform, although you will find plenty of historical information in this
Praxis volume, but really to "educate," in the literal sense of to
"lead out." Of all the arts, theater excels at leading us out of ourselves,
out of the here and now, and imaginatively into other existences, other
|5||But why would anyone wish to be
"led out" into a historical reality as sad and painful as slavery? Why revive
these degrading events and demeaning stereotypes?
|6||One of the first questions we ask
ourselves when faced with any historical event, painful or not, is, "What
was it like? What did it feel like?" At least, that is true for me. And
I think this curiosity about the past is deeply related to our need for
identity, for a sense of self. But knowing who we were does not just help
us understand who we areit also enables us to decide who we want to
beand who we do not want to be. Knowledge of the past can liberate
us in this way, however, only to the extent that we exercize our historical
imaginations on it. We must, as Percy Shelley put it, "Imagine what we know."
People who lack the ability to imagine themselves into their own pasts lack
identities. They suffer from what we call "amnesia." The stories of their
lives sound to them as though they had happened to someone else.
|7||Of course, sometimes it is a blessing
to forget, to make the past "not me." Working with Vincent and talking with
my colleague from the School for the Arts at Boston University, Jim Spruill,
and his wife, playwright Lynda Patton, as well as other members of the New
African Company in Boston, has made me more aware than ever that for Afro-Americans,
the historical experience of slavery and racism requires no great effort
of the imagination to re-live in the present: its painful legacy is ubiquitousin
racial profiling, in hate crimes, in discrimination at every level of society.
Why add the pain of past experience to that of the present? What could possibly
justify it? For one thing, there might be value in coming to understand
how this legacy originated, how it grew, how it came to be accepted, andmore
importantwhat steps were taken by heroic individuals to make it no
longer acceptable, and to stop it from being passed on. But more of that
in a moment.
|8||For Euro-Americans, understanding
the historical experience of slavery requires more difficult efforts at
imaginative identificationwe were not the slaves, after all, but the
enslavers. Such efforts are not impossible for people of good will. But
there is another effort at identification that is the special responsibility
of Euro-Americansan effort that is, in some ways, even more painful
than imagining what it must have been like to be black in the slave-holding
West. I mean the painful effort of identification with our own forebears'
bigotry, callousness, and crueltyan indifference to suffering made
all the more appalling, it seems to me, by their negligent, everyday acceptance
of it. What shape does our own obliviousness, our own indifference take,
here, now, at the beginning of a new millenium? What moral astigmatisms
afflict us that only physicians of the future will have the lenses to correct?
Imagining what we know makes us ask ourselves these quesions.
|9||The only way to enjoy the pratfalls
and silliness of the sentimental comedy around which the story of Obi
is woven is to refuse to see that, beneath, behind, around it all, and supporting
it all, is the abomination that was black slavery. And yet, some of us,
perhaps most of usblack and whitedo forget. Some of us even
laugh. Comedy and slapstick will do thatand so will good acting. That
is both the beauty, and the danger, of theater. The stage is, fundamentally,
an amoral medium of identification, a tool to enlist imaginative sympathy,
regardless of who wields it. That is why, over the centuries, governments
have tried to ban it, to censor it, to prevent it from falling into the
"wrong" handsas did the English government in the era when the Obi
|10||If the performance of Obi
has any scholarlyor moralvalue, then, it will lie only partly
in conveying facts about the pastabout slavery, or about the conventions
of pantomime, or the history of English popular theater. Most of its educational
value will lie in its ability to make visible to us our own acts of denial
in the present, our own cultural amnesia, as we watch ourselves being "led
out" into other, historically specific acts of denial, other moments of
waking sleep, in the past. But that is, after all, what theater is good
at, isn't it? Making us dream awake?
So, that's one reason: to educate.
|12||Secondly, to celebrate. The impact
of Ira Aldridge, the great Afro-American actor and the first American actor
of any race to achieve truly international fame, cannot be ignored when
we consider the history of the Obi plays. Without him, it is quite
possible that the Obi pantomime would not have been revised and reworked
as a spoken-word melodrama, or if it had, that it would never have become
the sensation it became. But even more importantlyand this goes back
to theater's ability to educate, to "lead out"we cannot fully appreciate
the towering achievement of Aldridge unless we understandimaginativelywhat
he was up against.
|13||Which brings me to my third reason:
to inspire. In early nineteenth-century England and America, the stereotypes
of the black man in the white mind had closed off nearly every serious avenue
of theatrical advancement for black actorsa situation that was to
be repeated over and over again in the history of black entertainment, and
a situation that continues to this day, in one form or another. Many of
these demeaning roles were considered benigneven positive and uplifting!back
when the Obi pantomime was first performed. And then came Ira Aldridge.
|14||Aldridge helped put an end to all
that by taking on, with unprecedented power and conviction, the most sacrosanctand
violentroles of the white Bardroles like Othello and Macbeth
and Richard the Third, as well as Lear and Shylockand by popularizing
new roles like that of the despised Jack Mansong. In Jack, the violent,
rebellious slave of the planters' worst nightmares was given a voice of
righteous denunciation, the same voice already accorded the Gothic revenge-figure
of white popular drama. And that voice was, literally, the voice of Ira
Aldridge. Speaking through Aldridge, Jack legitimized his formerly unmotivated
violence by indicting the legal and religious fictions that had provoked
it. In short, we cannot fully appreciate the heroism of Ira Aldridge as
a black actor in a white world of theater without understanding the historically
embedded racism that made up the very cultural air he breathed. And that
fuller appreciation cannot help but enhance the power of Aldridge's example
to inspire us to emulate him.
|15||Why Obi? To educate, to celebrate,
to inspire. And why now? July 2, 2000 was the 200th anniversary of the premiere
of the Obi pantomime in London. July 24 was the 193rd anniversary
of the birth of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge's prodigious talent can be reckoned
by this birthday: when he first took the stage at the African Grove Theater
in New York as Rolla, the rebellious Peruvian chieftan of Sheridan's Pizzaro,
he could not have been more than 15 years old. When he first appeared as
Jack Mansong at the Theater Royal, Edinburgh, he was barely a decade older,
and already a name to be reckoned with.
Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Obi / Charles Rzepka, "Obi Now"