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Title: The History of African American Theatre


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,
    1794-1861. 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, 1745-1945 A
    Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook.
    Westport, CT Greenwood, 2000.
  • Stadler, Gustavus. Troubling Minds The Cultural
    Politics of Genius in the United States,
    1840-1890. Minneapolis U of Minnesota P, 2006.

4
A Brief Biography of Brown
  • William Wells Brown (1814-1884) 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 1815. 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 1834.
    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 1854. 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 Douglasss 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 Browns
  • 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,
    1794-1861. 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, 1745-1945 A
    Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook.
    Westport, CT Greenwood, 2000.
  • Stadler, Gustavus. Troubling Minds The Cultural
    Politics of Genius in the United States,
    1840-1890. Minneapolis U of Minnesota P, 2006.

9
A Brief Biography of Brown
  • William Wells Brown (1814-1884) 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 1815. 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 1834.
    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 1854. 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 Douglasss 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.

10
French Romanticism and Melodrama
  • French Melodramas Basics
  • Browns 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 Browns 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.

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 Browns 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.

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?  
13
Speeches of Justification
14
Close ReadingsAct 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 )

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.

16
MelodramaSwept 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)

17
Close ReadingAct 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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