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3. Tacking to the Wind In its initial version Captain Rufus ran at the Pekin for three weeks; a “second edition” played for three more weeks in Chicago and one in New York, after which the show returned in yet a third version for a final three-week run at the Pekin. Its spectacular success endorsed what Sylvester Russell had deplored—extending the dramatic reach of the stock company’s earlier musical comedies to incorporate elements of melodrama and even tinges of tragedy, with a complementary extension of musical resources. Over the next eight months the company continued to produce successful new musical comedies and to revise and revive earlier ones, but none was the equal of Captain Rufus in either ambition or durability. In September 1907 Amy Leslie, the dramatic critic for the Daily News, attended the new production that immediately followed Captain Rufus at the Pekin, a two-act musical comedy called The Isle of Pines. Her review said little about the play itself; instead, she launched into a lengthy and revealing digression on her contact with blacks and their music-making when she was a little girl in Louisiana: Years ago after the war my father owned a big plantation on Bayou Rouge and the impromptu goin’s on down among the cabins sultry nights when the white folks sauntered away from their verandas and asked for music and some high jinks from the darkies, often outshone a regular minstrel show by half. They were free then, but had stayed on like children, glad to stay, and without much idea what freedom meant, except that it was something to boast about and crow over innocently. They lived exactly the same and had as much, did the same work in the cotton field and reveled simply evenings when the low lights flamed in “the big folks’” house. As a little child I saw more fine buck-and-wing dancing, cake-walk frolics and sand jigs than any variety show of to-day can 68 chapter 3 show me and every blessed nigger on the place belonged to me and I loved them as children will. In her description of the Pekin she sustains this infantilizing caricature with a similar volley of diminutives: at this “little theater” J. Ed. Green stages “his little operettas and sketches” and Robert Motts, the manager of this “little black diamond,” spares no expense “to make his shows pretty, keep them neat and cleanandgivethemacertaincompanionablemodesty.”CaptainRufushadbeen a “pretty heavy affair,” she observed, and “rather pretentious,” but “now they have opened up their season with a show which is coon from start to finish.” Her conclusion makes it clear how much more this was to her liking: There is something about the race of colored people of America which gives more solid food for honest fun than that of any other tribe. Whoever went to a Jap or Italian theater or show for fun? Whoever took in Brahman festivals for fun or whiled the hours away at a Welsh eisteddfod for fun? Next to the French, the darkies of America are the funniest people on earth and live more for the fun there is in life, so there is every reason why their little spurt on the stage is full of meaning and well supported.1 A couple of years earlier George Walker had also applied the metaphor of racial infancy to the black musical theater, but with a difference. Where Leslie drew a picture of a static racial essence—a picture formed, significantly, in her own childhood—Walker saw “the latent possibilities in us” struggling against a state of enforced racial arrest: “Our poets must stick to Negro dialect to make themselves heard, or to sell their wares, and our composers must write ragtime for the same reason,” whereas what black artists most needed was “to get the serious acceptance of our efforts.”2 After a tour of the North and the South to study the state of race relations in America, the journalist Ray Stannard Baker laid the blame for such arrest not on a lack of development, whether endemic or circumstantial, but on white prejudice. In so doing he invoked the same expression that H. G. Wells had applied two years earlier in his essay “The Tragedy of Color”: Now the tragedy of the Negro is the colour of his skin: he is easily recognisable. The human tendency is to pass people together by outward appearances. When the line began to be drawn...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780252096242
Related ISBN
9780252038365
MARC Record
OCLC
877977273
Pages
240
Launched on MUSE
2014-05-16
Language
English
Open Access
No
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