Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Two Men.  Two Careers. One Country.  God Save Us All.

Surely the "Original Sin" of the United States of America is the stain of racial slavery.

Not a very controversial statement, that.  We know that the wrongs of racial slavery intertwines with the great moments of our country – Civil War, Jim Crow law, the Civil Rights Movement. We know that slavery has tendrils that effect this nation every day in ways large and small.  At our country's beginning we had a man write that "All men are created equal . . ."  Except, of course, for that same man's slaves – one of whom shared a father with his dead wife and probably shared that man's bed.  In recent years we discover that segregationist Strom Thurmond has a daughter by a black mistress.

This is not to say that the U.S.A. has other wrongs worthy of comment. The Trail of Tears serves as an apt title for more than simply the removal of tribes of American natives to the Plains.

The African-American experience shows the essence of the strangeness that makes up the whole of the American experience.  Take two actors and their public.

New York City in the early 1820s started to show signs of being an entertainment hub.  A large population living on the island plus the visitors who came off the ships in the harbor provided a steady stream of paying customers for those wishing to provide entertainment.  Part of that population was a cohort of about 10,000 free African-Americans that was growing.  

Due to discrimination based on skin color, these folks were unable to take advantage of the growing number of "tea gardens" and other venues on the island.  Thus William Brown who opened the first of a variety of venues – the African Grove, the African Theatre, the African Company at the American Theatre – that provided theatrical entertainment to NYC's African-American folks.

Evidently a young man named Ira Aldridge became part of Brown's company.  The young Aldridge was born in 1807 in NYC.  He attended the African Free School and took course work in declamation.  As a teen, he probably played parts for Brown's various ventures.  But he also realized that he could not make a career as a black actor in his own country.

Brown was run out of town (quite literally) by thugs hired by his white competitors evidently wanted an uncompetitive market for their own companies. Certainly they didn't want competition from a black man who hired black actors.

Aldridge traveled to England in 1824, when he was about 17 years old. He started a European career that lasted the remainder of his life.  Having taken the name F. W. Keene, Aldridge billed himself as the "African Roscius" and played his way across Britain and the continent.  He toured as far away as Turkey and Russia.

In 1833 he took over Othello in a noted production that was to star Edmund Kean with his son Charles as Iago and Ellen Tree as Desdamona when the elder Kean died unexpectedly.

During a tour through Poland in 1867, Aldridge began plans for a return to his home country when he became ill and died of a lung infection (probably pneumonia).  He was buried in Lodz, Poland.

Meanwhile. . . . .

Aldridge was born in July of 1807.  Less than a year later, an almost direct contemporary was also born in NYC. Thomas Dartmouth Rice was born in May of 1808.  Rice also came of age in the theatre scene of the early 1820s in New York.

Generally speaking, a novice actor in the early 19th century would join a theatrical company.  They would start the young actor with the smallest of parts.  If the actor showed skill or ability and if the actor showed a capacity to learn and if the actor showed growth as a performer, he would get bigger parts.  Ultimately, within three to four years of starting, the now experienced actor would play medium to starring roles.

Rice evidently failed to show this capacity.  Whereas Aldridge in his teen years was already playing Romeo and grew to play the great roles of the times, Rice was challenged as an actor. A few years after Aldridge had made his way to England, in 1828 we have evidence that Rice was trying to make it as part of a travelling troupe in the "West" (which generally meant the Tennessee Valley and the western part of the Ohio Valley in those days).   

Rice's success as an actor may be marked by evidence that he worked in the early 1830s in Louisville as a stage carpenter and prop man.

And then it all changed.

Rice went on as a piece of intermission entertainment.  He did a little song and a dance.  The only thing different about it was that Rice had smeared his face to make it look black.  And he played a character he called "Jim Crow."

He did a little song with a dance that included a mix of shuffling and jigging and had a little jump at the end of each verse.  He jumped "Jim Crow."

Rice – known by his nickname "Daddy" Rice – became a major hit.  By the end of the 1830s Rice had been invited to play in London.  On his return to America, the Boston Globe reported that the two most famous people in the world were Queen Victoria and Jim Crow.  The song Rice sang was translated into a variety of languages. Reportedly his song was sung in Hindi in New Delhi.  London street urchins were observed dancing his dance.

Years later he took on a second job playing the title character – Uncle Tom – in a theatrical version ofUncle Tom's Cabin.  

Rice made a fortune and lost it.  At one point his vest was buttoned with ten-dollar coins.  He died of a stroke in 1860.

Much of the story of American entertainment history may be told through the lives of these two men and their audiences.

First, that which we might describe as "American art" derives strongly from African-American art (jazz being the most obvious example).  In the instance of these two men we have one man who is African-American and the other plays at it.

Two, from the very beginning we export our culture around the world. America's number one export in the world is entertainment.  And it has been ever thus.

Three, in this fun-house mirror we see the racial bizarreness that is the American experience.

Consider: a black man left his country because he couldn't play for white audiences.  A white man makes his fortune by playing a black man for white audiences.  This is America in all of its amazing contradiction.

Imagine you are a wealthy Virginia planter in the 1840s.  You want to entertain a young lady with an evening at the theatre.  You would never, ever take this innocent young lady to see black actors.  That would be disgusting.  But you pay large sums for great seats to see a white man with black make-up on his face playing a black man.  That is quality entertainment.

Further, our imaginary Virginia planter considers himself a good and moral man as he watches the show and buys a refreshing beverage for his lady while his slaves might watch the show from the "Servant's Seats" in a completely different portion of the theatre – the literal cheap seats.

As we have heard the shouting voices of folks in a heated summer of "town hall" meetings and the shrill voices of cable news gasbags – it can be useful to remember the stories of Ira Aldridge and "Daddy" Rice and their audience.  Some Americans truly can't stand to watch a real black man on the stage.  Seeing a man of such intelligence and wisdom, elegance and grace on the stage of national and world politics truly angers them.

It's easy enough to condemn these people for being yahoos (and worse) -- for so they were then, and so they are now.  The challenge is to meet this boiling, irrational rage.  A stiff challenge, but one worth the effort.

Here endeth the lesson.

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©2009 Nathan Thomas
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

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October 2009

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2009

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