Theatrical Forms, Ideological Conflicts, and the Staging of Obi

John Fawcett's Obi; or, Three-Finger'd Jack in its various versions offers one way to gauge the response of English audiences to slavery and to those it oppressed. More particularly, Obi can reveal how difficult it was to find an appropriate form for bodying forth upon stage the horrors of slavery, as the genres and the institutional structure of the British theater worked to control a potentially radical message. The story of Jack Mansong, a slave in revolt, had the potential to bring a radically anti-slavery message to the stage. While the play's initial staging as a melodrama certainly did not embrace Mansong's revolt, various features of the pantomime did serve to give Mansong and the Afro-Caribbean culture he represented power on stage. Rewritten as a melodrama with spoken dialogue, the play might seem to have lost some its radical potential, but the great actor Ira Aldridge, through what Henry Louis Gates calls "signifyin[g]," managed to create in Jack one of the key theatrical images of a man of African descent.