Saturday, April 14, 2018

Topsy Tumbling

     That night, my performance was completed after many curtain calls, wherein I, as “Topsy,” was exhorted to perform many somersaults across the proscenium. The play over, I proceeded to bed. I did not sleep long, as my slumber was interrupted by another argument between William and Patrick. I crept to the door and watched as the two men quarreled.
     “Uncle Tom has been very good to you, William! So have I! I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” O’Carroll boomed. “We have got a good situation here!”

     “No,” replied William, in an equally thunderous tone, “You have got a good situation! I am, each night, feeling low and mean, having to play the character as such a pitiable one! I think we can make changes that would be acceptable to our Northern friends. As many changes as have been wrought upon Mrs. Stowe’s work by those Southern productions, we, too, can make some changes, make Tom more of a man, rather than a slave!”

     “You’ve got some notions, William, which you need to rid yourself of,” Patrick responded. “You’ve got to perform the show in a way that will make the audience weep—they weep for Tom. We cannot have them fear Tom, as they would if he were manly.”
     “Aye,” replied William bitterly, “there’s the rub! I cannot play this man of color as a man, but rather as a cowering, slavering fool! Even Mrs. Stowe would shudder at my performance, as it is far from what she envisioned, I am sure.” 
     “But we are not using the Aiken,” O’Carroll said, “we are using a far more enjoyable one--mine.” 
     “It is close enough to the Aiken! It galls me every night, Patrick! I must play him as a man! Give me one chance, please,” William exhorted.
     “I know these whites far better….” Patrick added ruefully. “It is only a few months since that terrible riot....”
     “All we say here is but conjecture—let me portray Tom as I envision,” William importuned, “and we will let the audience decide—with their cheers, or with their disapprobation.”
O’Carroll was quiet on this note, and finally nodded his assent. 
     “All right,” Patrick said, “we will see how the audience responds. I am not as sanguine as you.” William smiled triumphantly.
Legree, Tom, 5 other slaves.

     The next evening, during the frightful scene where Tom is nearly beaten to death by Simon Legree, enacted by Patrick, William suddenly stood up, grabbing the whip from Legree. As the other performers looked on, William then delivered a speech* that sounded much like one he had recited earlier to Linda and me earlier, one made by an abolitionist named Frederick Douglass, whom William said was a great man. Standing with tears in his eyes, Tom made an earnest plea for the slaves, Sambo and Quimbo, who reappeared on the stage, to leave Legree and fight against their enslavement:

      “By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow countrymen," he began, "and the peace and welfare of your country; by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and in South Carolina, I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.”

     The audience began grumbling at the mention of the current war as William, undaunted, continued with his speech.

     “The day dawns; the morning star is bright upon the horizon! The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it wide open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into liberty. The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with all other varieties of men.”

     The actors portraying Sambo and Quimbo beheld William with a confused gaze as he spoke these powerful words. They glanced over at Patrick, dressed as Legree, whose clenched jaw and reddened face betrayed his anger at the introduction of this speech into his adaptation.  The jeers increased, with shouts of “kill that nigger” and “shoot him dead” coming from several angry audience members.

      “Remember…” William said, his voice filled with emotion, “…that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors.” As the taunts from the audience became louder, Patrick, as Legree, suddenly pulled out a pistol.

      “Death to you, Tom, you insolent slave!” he improvised, as I knew that Tom’s death was not supposed to occur until later. Patrick aimed at William’s heart and fired. The deafening sound of the pistol report filled the air. 

     William fell to his knees, uttering the lines: “I die, a man!” He then fell over, as if dead. The audience roared its approval at “Tom’s” death while, at the same time, they threw apple cores and other rubbish onto the stage to signal their overall displeasure at the changed scene. The curtain hurriedly came down.

     “I warned you, William!” shouted Patrick. “This is the end, the end!” Two stagehands pushed the backdrop of heaven and clouds onto the stage as Patrick's daughter Maggie, as white-robed Eva,
Tom, Eva as angel, unidentified slaves.
was wheeled out on a small carriage made up to look like the wings of a dove. The curtain rose, and the crowd quieted to a murmur as Eva exhorted,
O! Love, joy, peace!” over and over again as the harp played a mournful tune. The curtain dropped again.


*Frederick Douglass’s “Men of Color, to Arms, delivered on March 2, 1863 in Rochester, NY. 

Editor's Note:  
Click on the link for more on the history of stage adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin:  Uncle Tom's Cabin on Stage

Image captions:

Legree, Tom, 5 other slaves. Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin, (Boston: Jewett and Company, 1853).  Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.

Tom, Eva as angel, unidentified slaves.  Hammat Billings, illustrator. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Illustrated Edition. Original Designs by Billings; Engraved by Baker and Smith. (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853). Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"I'se So Wicked"

      Mercifully, no blows were forthcoming. They agreed to perform the play as written and to speak of changes—“emendations,” William called them—the next day. Soon after the men parted, Linda appeared, offering William a knowing and sympathetic look.

     “William,” she said, “it will not do you much good to complain. Patrick will not listen. You must show him.”

     “Yes, I suppose I must,” he replied with a rueful look. “I will work on it.” William turned and saw that I remained within hearing. My manner must have telegraphed my alarm, as he held out his hand to me. I moved toward him cautiously and took it.

     “Mel,” he began, bending on one knee before me, gently taking my hand in his, “at tonight’s performance, you must play Topsy as you have studied it. I will work on changes with Patrick tomorrow. Do you understand?” I nodded.

     “You will not fight with Patrick?” I asked. William put his hands on my shoulders and held them firmly.

     “No, my boy,” he replied. “Patrick is our friend. We may argue, but we will never engage in fisticuffs. You have my word on that.”

     “You will see, Mel,” he whispered in my ear, “We no longer have to be portrayed in such servile ways. The additions I will be making will show the true strength of our enslaved people!” William released me and stood.

     “Linda,” he said, his voice resuming its usual jollity, “I will need your aid in reproducing the courageous speech from the Aiken production that Patrick most willfully omitted. We will also commit ourselves to providing Topsy with more to do than behave as a simple-minded imp! The audience shall see a fine play tomorrow!”

     “They certainly shall,” Linda smiled, cheered by William’s now sanguine mood. “I must go begin supper before I can assist you. I have prepared your favorite, lamb stew.”

     “Delightful, my darling!” William replied. “I will work on the emendations so that they will be ready for tomorrow!”

     William disappeared into the carriage in which I had slept earlier, while Linda occupied herself in the preparation of the evening meal.

     I continued to practice my tumbling and the words I was told to commit to memory. I was to repeat “I ‘spects I’s de wickedest critter in de world” several times, and to sing* the following lines:
 *Click HERE to listen.

Oh! white-folks I was never born,
Aunt Sue, raise me on de corn,
Sends me errands night and morn,
Ching a ring a ring a ricked.

She used to knock me on de floor,
Den bang my head agin de door,
And tare my hair out by de core,
Oh! cause I was so wicked.

Black folk can't do naught they say,
I guess I'll teach some how to play,
And dance about dis time ob day,
Ching a ring a bang goes de breakdown.

Oh! Massa Clare, he bring me here,
Put me in Miss Feely's care,
Don't I make dat lady stare,
Ching a ring, a ring a ricked.

She has me taken cloth'd and fed,
Den sends me up to make her bed,
When I puts de foot into de head,
Oh! I'se so awful wicked.

I'se dark Topsy, as you see,
None of your half and half for me,
Black or white it's best to be,
Ching a ring a hop, goes de breakdown.

Oh! dere is one, will come and say,
Be good, Topsy, learn to pray,
And raise her buful hands dat way,
Ching a ring a ring a ricked.

'Tis LITTLE EVA, kind and fair,
Says if I's good I will go dere,
But den I tells her, I don't care,
Oh! ain't I very wicked?

Eat de cake and hoe de corn,
I'se de gal dat ne'er was born,
But 'spects I grow'd up one dark morn
Ching a ring a smash goes de breakdown.