Theatre: representations of slavery and the Black Character

Theatre: representations of slavery and the Black Character


Written by: liam

How fitting for a book on racism on the Victorian stage to be published in the week Britain tries to commemorate the bicentenary of outlawing the Atlantic slave trade!

Freedom Day, with our classic national blend of self-congratulation and self-recrimination, gives a good entry point into the world of popular theatre in those next few decades: when West Indian slaves were still serving out their unpaid ‘apprenticeships’ to the plantocrats, and American slave ships were having their busiest years in the whole history of the trade.

The stage century kicked off to a rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’ – sung by a chorus of cork-faced white men in black woolly tights, as their slave shackles were struck off by a freedom-loving British Jack Tar.

Ten years later (and 150 years before the Royal Shakespeare Company’s then-daring ‘colour-blind casting’, with two further generations to go before Adrian Lester and David Oyelowo played Shakespearean leads), the great Black actor Ira Aldridge escaped segregated American theatres to play a full range of classical and modern roles right across Britain and continental Europe. Aldridge embodied Othello, Aphra Behn’s betrayed slave-prince Oroonoko, and Karfa the scarifying rebel leader of ‘Obi’ (with his Obeah priestess mother, clearly based on memories of Cudjoe and Nanny whose Maroon guerrillas had humiliated the British army in Jamaica).

Audiences were electrified and ‘the African Roscius’ had a career lasting 40 years. But the planter aristocracy, and later the scientific racists, effectively barred him from the Royal patent theatres of central London until his very last years. The venomous Carlylean nigger-hatred of contemporary reviews still takes the breath away.

Then, as the high point of British Abolition faded and American plantation slavery seemed set to last for ever, came the moment where Prince Oroonoko was shuffled off the stage by Jim Crow. If anyone doubts the relevance of a 30-year close-up of theatre history, consider the career of Jim Crow and Zip Coon, both ‘Black fun’ characters imported by White American comic T.D.Rice in 1836.

Crow gave his name to the iron laws of segregation that ruled the American South for a century after the end of plantation slavery, while his dandy sidekick Zip Coon gave us generations of ‘coon songs’ up till the Black and White Minstrel Show, and a name still used as a race-hate term by British fascists within my lifetime. How did it all begin, with a dance craze?

In 1836, wrote staggered onlookers, ‘the crowing mania spread like wildfire; the king and queen, and all the ministers, danced like mad to it’ (so far no change then: the Queen Mother was wowing the Royal Family with her Ali G stomp 150 years later) , ‘and the small beggar-boys of the street were “jumping Jim Crow” in the public crossing places by day and by nights’. Rice may have picked up his Jim Crow shuffle from bits of the African-derived plantation cakewalk, later to be reworked brilliantly by Black performers from Sisseretta Jones to Bill Bojangles Robinson to Michael Jackson. For a London audience far from actual Black people, however, the effects were disastrous. Black skin to most Victorian theatregoers became ineradicably funny.

When a play took the town by storm, it would run at several different theatres, not only with different casts but differing scripts. By looking at these constant re-writes, Hazel Waters traces the changes of taste and feelings of these urban audiences as slave stereotypes crowded onstage. In December 1852, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was being played at eleven theatres across the city .

With each new script Tom’s stubborn faith becomes more childlike (not allegiance to an inner God but to a godly ‘Massa’). Sam and Andy – the plantation rude boys who in Stowe’s novel use their clowning to mask other slaves’ escape – become boastful, cowardly, lovelorn buffoons. Remembering my childhood reading of a Classics Illustrated comic-book foregrounding saintly White Little Eva and tearful Tom – a startling contrast to the rebel narrative I encountered reading the novel as an adult – I can see how the scenario had mutated through all these re-enactments in Victorian theatre.

This history ends on a note of pain, partly echoing the exclusion of Ira Aldridge and the possibilities for Black humanity that he represented. I have long admired Hazel Waters’ writing for the touch of poetry it brings to the analytical journal Race and Class which she co-edits with the magisterial A. Sivanandan. Every page of this first book of hers, Racism on the Victorian Stage is packed with insights and consequently pockmarked with my marginal scribblings. Ask your library to buy a copy, or plague the publisher to issue a paperback.

Related links


Order Racism on the Victorian stage by Hazel Waters

Read an IRR News Story on the book launch: Slavery and racism on the British stage

Racism on the Victorian Stage: Representations of Slavery and the Black Character by Hazel Waters, Cambridge University Press, £50. A shorter version of this review appeared in Tribune.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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