Researching black performance in the late nineteenth century poses a host of problems for a theatre historian. The archive is, at best, spotty, though there have been many excellent recent attempts to redress these gaps. In my efforts to find plays and productions speaking to slavery and Civil War memories staged by black performers in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, I found a short but tantalizing bit about Charles Sager’s production The Negro (1899) in Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch’s A History of African American Theatre. 1 I decided the production merited a bit more digging, as it was a rare example of black history staged for a larger audience around the turn-of-the-century, when touring plantation shows were the most popular modes of black performance.
What additionally caught my attention were the similarities between Sager’s production and earlier post-Civil War efforts of white Union veterans to produce amateur shows. Playwrights/directors like Samuel Muscroft and A.D. Ames (among others, now all largely forgotten) wrote and toured with their plays, catering to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts. GAR posts staged productions for charity, using veterans and local residents to present war-time melodramas. Sager (whether knowingly or not) deployed this same model, enlisting hundreds of local black residents in the Midwest cities and towns where he brought The Negro.
Sager – later the stage manager at Chicago’s Pekin theatre – created the production (referred to as both a “pageant” and a “melodrama” in various accounts) as part of the Emancipation Day celebrations in Hannibal, Missouri. The show later appeared in other Midwest cities, and wherever it traveled, Sager used the “the best home talent” to fill most of the roles. 2 There was a corps of professional actors to supplement the extras: Henrietta Vinton Davis (co-author and star of Our Old Kentucky Home) and tenor /comedian Albert Young was a soloist. 3 The production featured emancipation as a seminal event in the history of African American progress, ending in an optimistically patriotic statement of social and political advancement: the script, as far as I can tell – is not extant, but newspaper references suggest this is the general plot. Two of the first three parts featured Southern scenes with “plantation songs and antics,” and the last was set in a court in Dahomey. 4 In an important departure from earlier productions beginning in the context of slavery, Sager chose to begin with a traditional plantation scene on a Mississippi levee – but in 1865, “just after the close of the war;” when the “proclamation of freedom is made and the slave rejoice with singing dancing, and all kinds of happy antics.”In the fictitious African space in the second act, the “court of the Queen of Dahomey” greets a US ambassador with marches of Amazons “in gorgeous panoply and graceful evolution;” the third act featured specialty acts. 5 The Recorder featured an ad for the Indianapolis production at English’s Opera House, saying that the play showed the “progress of the Negro from 1865-1900” and exposed “the sterling qualities of ‘the Negro’ from the cotton field to a place of authority.” 6
Sager – in an echo from GAR practices – was sought out by the black lodges of the Knights of Pythias in Indiana to stage Negro for charitable ends. Here he drew again upon the “material at his hand,” as the cast of “one hundred or more persons” were all Indianapolis residents; no small feat, considering there were only ten days of rehearsal. 7 Newspapers consistently mention the moral and pedagogical value of Sager’s narrative, along with pointing out the elevated class status of those that were involved; they are not performers per se (with perhaps dubious morality), but “ladies” and “gentlemen” of the city – several articles even refer to Sager as a “professor.” Correspondents for the Freeman could hardly contain their delight, announcing that Indianapolis had “never seen” such a sight before; the production had an “educative value, equally important to either race as it shows the remarkable strides made by the Negro race in a third of a century.” 8 Though it only appeared for two evenings, the Colored American likewise expressed excitement: “this Negro play by a Negro playwright, performed by Negroes, is a decidedly new feature of racial progress.” 9 The writer for the Freeman claims white press in the city was “unanimous in its very favorable criticism,” suggesting that it was well received regardless of race. However, most of the extant information concerning Negro appears almost exclusively in the black papers Freeman and Recorder, implying that this production was a politically progressive narrative that departed from the wildly popular plantation show fare of the 1880s/90s.
Sager’s production is an early example of some of the large-scale stagings of black progress that would appear in the 1910s/20s – an ancestor to such pageants as W.E.B.’s Star of Ethiopia (1913). I can only hope that more information is languishing in a historical society or archive in the Midwest, waiting for someone to flesh out the particulars and impact of this production a bit more.
- See Errol G. Hill, “New Vistas: Plays, Spectacles, Musicals, and Opera,” A History of African American Theatre, eds. Errol G. Hill and James V. Hatch’s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 140. ↩
- “The Principal Events of a Busy Week,” Freeman, September 2, 1899, 2. There were reported stops in St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Kansas City – see “The Stage,” Freeman, January 27, 1900, 5. ↩
- For more on black orator/actor Henrietta Vinton Davis and journalist John E. Bruce’s play, see Thomas Robson’s article “A More Aggressive Plantation Play: Henrietta Vinton Davis and John Edward Bruce Collaborate on Our Old Kentucky Home,” Theatre History Studies 32 (2012): 126. ↩
- “The Stage,” Freeman, June 9, 1900, 5. ↩
- “The Stage and Its Devotees,” Colored American, May 12, 1900, 5. ↩
- The Negro ad, Recorder, April 14, 1900, 8. ↩
- 7. Ibid. ↩
- “A Brilliant Audience.” Freeman, April 28, 1900, 8. ↩
- “Bookmakers and Paragraphers,” Colored American, June 23, 1900, 3. ↩