- Forgotten Manuscripts: A Trip to Coontown
Finding A Trip to Coontown, by Krystyn R. Moon
By 1897, most American audiences had had an opportunity to see African Americans perform on the stage during the previous thirty years. Hired by European American agents and managers, they were expected to reproduce many of the songs and skits that had been made famous in blackface minstrelsy in new theatrical genres, such as variety and vaudeville. Others were forming their own concert companies to do a variety of popular and high-art music, and writing and singing ersatz spirituals, “coon songs” (i.e., black dialect numbers), and sentimental Victorian tear-jerkers. These had all become popular thanks to writers/performers such as Ernest Hogan, Sam Lucas, and Gussie Davis, among others.1 It is within this context that Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown first appeared on the stage during the 1897–98 season. Although African Americans had written numerous short theatrical and musical works, none had written a full-length musical production. To add to its historical significance, A Trip to Coontown was performed, directed, and produced by African Americans, an astounding feat in an era where few independent theaters could even consider taking a chance on such a production. Unfortunately, the play—like so many other nineteenth-century African American documents and artifacts—was lost, and scholars could only make conjectures (based mainly on newspaper reviews) about what it looked and sounded like.
My interest in finding A Trip to Coontown began when Jack Tchen, director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies at New York University, contacted me about writing a short essay on “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon” (1897), a song that was originally written for the play. My own research on the dynamics of American Orientalism had uncovered the practice of African Americans in yellowface starting in the late nineteenth century, but I had not thoroughly explored this particular song. “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon” is an extraordinary piece of music about a series of comedic mishaps during a wedding of a Chinese immigrant woman and an African American man. Because the song was written and performed by African Americans, it was more than a comedic ditty that perpetuated African American and Chinese immigrant stereotypes. To address interracial marriage in a period when African American men were lynched for merely looking at European American women, “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon” is a bold political statement that celebrates a future where interracial marriage is commonplace. Its performance in a contemporary farce, chock-full of other racial impersonations, including Germans, Italians, and “Hebrews,” might also be viewed as an effort to move specifically antiblack stereotypes out of the spotlight.2
As a historian, I was intrigued by “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon,” and wanted to see whether the musical play for which it was originally written would shed any further light on the intent of the songwriters. In A Trip to Coontown, Cole and Johnson reworked a skit originally titled At Jolly Coon-ey Island that Cole had written for Black Patti’s Troubadours (the operatic variety company formed by Sissieretta Jones) and named the new production to spoof one of the most popular musicals of the 1890s, A Trip to Chinatown (1891).3 Despite positive reviews in the fall of 1897, Cole was unable to produce his work except in third-rate American and Canadian [End Page 7] theaters over the course of several weeks. By the end of the nineteenth century, the theater industry was owned and operated by a handful of European American men who could blacklist any performer and destroy his/her career. Not until after World War I did actors and writers have some success unionizing, but African Americans were almost unilaterally excluded. Cole’s previous employers organized a boycott of Cole and Johnson’s play because they chose to work independently. Despite this hurdle, its success grew, and Klaw and Erlanger, one of the major theatrical booking agencies in New York City, finally broke the boycott in April 1898...