Rzepka, Obi Now


Obi Now

Charles Rzepka, Boston University

  1. I first raised the possibility of staging scenes and songs from the early nineteenth-century musical play Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack in casual conversation with Jeff Cox, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in the late spring of 1999. Jeff's expertise in the field of Romantic popular theater enabled him to help me appreciate the many difficulties such a staging would have to overcome: gathering crew and auditioning for roles, casting (race-appropriate? race-indifferent?), finding exotic props, making period-appropriate costumes and using period-appropriate make-up (blackface!?), not to mention the standard hurdles like setting rehearsal schedules, finding theater-space, choreographing, and a thousand other apparently insuperable obstacles—not least of them, funding. But we had only a vague idea of the difficulties that would arise specifically in today's highly-charged atmosphere of racial and identity politics. What we did know was that staging Obi would, without a doubt, be painful—and worst of all, painful less for us than for others.

  2. So I'd like to begin this introduction by addressing the question that my gifted Afro-American director for the Boston production, Vincent Siders, first put to me after having read the opening scene of the Obi pantomime: Why? Why stage such offensive material? And why now, at a millenial moment when we should be more aware than ever both of the desperate need to put such things behind us, and the dreary prospect that awaits us if we do not—another thousand years, perhaps, of the same intractable legacy of bigotry, hatred, and oppression.

  3. Why? Why Obi? and why now?

  4. First, to educate—and not just to inform, although you will find plenty of historical information in this Praxis volume, but really to "educate," in the literal sense of to "lead out." Of all the arts, theater excels at leading us out of ourselves, out of the here and now, and imaginatively into other existences, other mental universes.

  5. But why would anyone wish to be "led out" into a historical reality as sad and painful as slavery? Why revive these degrading events and demeaning stereotypes?

  6. One of the first questions we ask ourselves when faced with any historical event, painful or not, is, "What was it like? What did it feel like?" At least, that is true for me. And I think this curiosity about the past is deeply related to our need for identity, for a sense of self. But knowing who we were does not just help us understand who we are—it also enables us to decide who we want to be—and who we do not want to be. Knowledge of the past can liberate us in this way, however, only to the extent that we exercize our historical imaginations on it. We must, as Percy Shelley put it, "Imagine what we know." People who lack the ability to imagine themselves into their own pasts lack identities. They suffer from what we call "amnesia." The stories of their lives sound to them as though they had happened to someone else.

  7. Of course, sometimes it is a blessing to forget, to make the past "not me." Working with Vincent and talking with my colleague from the School for the Arts at Boston University, Jim Spruill, and his wife, playwright Lynda Patton, as well as other members of the New African Company in Boston, has made me more aware than ever that for Afro-Americans, the historical experience of slavery and racism requires no great effort of the imagination to re-live in the present: its painful legacy is ubiquitous—in racial profiling, in hate crimes, in discrimination at every level of society. Why add the pain of past experience to that of the present? What could possibly justify it? For one thing, there might be value in coming to understand how this legacy originated, how it grew, how it came to be accepted, and—more important—what steps were taken by heroic individuals to make it no longer acceptable, and to stop it from being passed on. But more of that in a moment.

  8. For Euro-Americans, understanding the historical experience of slavery requires more difficult efforts at imaginative identification—we were not the slaves, after all, but the enslavers. Such efforts are not impossible for people of good will. But there is another effort at identification that is the special responsibility of Euro-Americans—an effort that is, in some ways, even more painful than imagining what it must have been like to be black in the slave-holding West. I mean the painful effort of identification with our own forebears' bigotry, callousness, and cruelty—an indifference to suffering made all the more appalling, it seems to me, by their negligent, everyday acceptance of it. What shape does our own obliviousness, our own indifference take, here, now, at the beginning of a new millenium? What moral astigmatisms afflict us that only physicians of the future will have the lenses to correct? Imagining what we know makes us ask ourselves these quesions.

  9. The only way to enjoy the pratfalls and silliness of the sentimental comedy around which the story of Obi is woven is to refuse to see that, beneath, behind, around it all, and supporting it all, is the abomination that was black slavery. And yet, some of us, perhaps most of us—black and white—do forget. Some of us even laugh. Comedy and slapstick will do that—and so will good acting. That is both the beauty, and the danger, of theater. The stage is, fundamentally, an amoral medium of identification, a tool to enlist imaginative sympathy, regardless of who wields it. That is why, over the centuries, governments have tried to ban it, to censor it, to prevent it from falling into the "wrong" hands—as did the English government in the era when the Obi pantomime premiered.

  10. If the performance of Obi has any scholarly—or moral—value, then, it will lie only partly in conveying facts about the past—about slavery, or about the conventions of pantomime, or the history of English popular theater. Most of its educational value will lie in its ability to make visible to us our own acts of denial in the present, our own cultural amnesia, as we watch ourselves being "led out" into other, historically specific acts of denial, other moments of waking sleep, in the past. But that is, after all, what theater is good at, isn't it? Making us dream awake?

  11. So, that's one reason: to educate.

  12. Secondly, to celebrate. The impact of Ira Aldridge, the great Afro-American actor and the first American actor of any race to achieve truly international fame, cannot be ignored when we consider the history of the Obi plays. Without him, it is quite possible that the Obi pantomime would not have been revised and reworked as a spoken-word melodrama, or if it had, that it would never have become the sensation it became. But even more importantly—and this goes back to theater's ability to educate, to "lead out"—we cannot fully appreciate the towering achievement of Aldridge unless we understand—imaginatively—what he was up against.

  13. Which brings me to my third reason: to inspire. In early nineteenth-century England and America, the stereotypes of the black man in the white mind had closed off nearly every serious avenue of theatrical advancement for black actors—a situation that was to be repeated over and over again in the history of black entertainment, and a situation that continues to this day, in one form or another. Many of these demeaning roles were considered benign—even positive and uplifting!—back when the Obi pantomime was first performed. And then came Ira Aldridge.

  14. Aldridge helped put an end to all that by taking on, with unprecedented power and conviction, the most sacrosanct—and violent—roles of the white Bard—roles like Othello and Macbeth and Richard the Third, as well as Lear and Shylock—and by popularizing new roles like that of the despised Jack Mansong. In Jack, the violent, rebellious slave of the planters' worst nightmares was given a voice of righteous denunciation, the same voice already accorded the Gothic revenge-figure of white popular drama. And that voice was, literally, the voice of Ira Aldridge. Speaking through Aldridge, Jack legitimized his formerly unmotivated violence by indicting the legal and religious fictions that had provoked it. In short, we cannot fully appreciate the heroism of Ira Aldridge as a black actor in a white world of theater without understanding the historically embedded racism that made up the very cultural air he breathed. And that fuller appreciation cannot help but enhance the power of Aldridge's example to inspire us to emulate him.

  15. Why Obi? To educate, to celebrate, to inspire. And why now? July 2, 2000 was the 200th anniversary of the premiere of the Obi pantomime in London. July 24 was the 193rd anniversary of the birth of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge's prodigious talent can be reckoned by this birthday: when he first took the stage at the African Grove Theater in New York as Rolla, the rebellious Peruvian chieftan of Sheridan's Pizzaro, he could not have been more than 15 years old. When he first appeared as Jack Mansong at the Theater Royal, Edinburgh, he was barely a decade older, and already a name to be reckoned with.