NEGROES ON THE STAGE.
WHEN Huckleberry Finn and the King and Duke and the nigger Jim were making their memorable voyage down the river on a raft the King passed a remark about the natural histrionic ability of the colored race. The purport of the regal gentleman's statement was that he had always held the belief that negroes would make good actors if they could be depended on.
The elaboration of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" shows into "double U. T. C.'s" with two Topsies and two Markses and hordes of alleged jubilee singers, to meet competition of managers, was probably the starting point of the stage fever among the colored people, and more recently the success of such clever negro performers as Ernest Hogan, Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson, to say nothing of the "Black Patti Troubadours" and "The Smart Set" aggregations, tended to increase the supply of colored actors to meet the increased demand for them. A result of this, however, was to partly artificialize the natural aptitude of the negro for singing and mimicry, and to develop mediocre toe dancers out of very fine "buck and wing" material.
As far as could be learned on investigation there is no special theatrical engagement agency for negro actors in New York and no particular affiliation among them. There are certain localities where they congregate, such as the larger restaurants patronized by negroes, but in general a manager seeking colored talent has to go on a hunt for it.
This was the case at the Hippodrome when it was decided to put on "Marching Through Georgia." There was no one agent to whom the producer could go, and in a short time it was discovered that an agent was needless. The word that a lot of negroes were wanted at the Hippodrome got around through West Fifty-third Street and up to Harlem, and then to choose the ordinary rank and file of performers it was only necessary to use judgment and a little native instinct. For the specialists—the dancers, singers, and banjo players—a little more search was needed.
Carroll Fleming, who wrote the play and then acted as stage director, is a Southerner and a familiar with negro characteristics, and he used his knowledge in getting the best results from his sable company. Any man born and reared on a Southern plantation can tell almost at the first glance the probable intelligence and docility of a farm hand, and for the purposes of the Hippodrome show the performers required were to be farm hands. They were to represent the slaves on a large cotton plantation in Georgia, and the task of the stage director was to convince them that they were plantation workers.
Mr. Fleming says he had very little trouble doing that. He appealed to their imagination. He told them that they were to play their grandfathers and grandmothers in the old slave days, about which they had heard so much, and they, understanding him, went ahead and did it.
These negroes in the Hippodrome show are not all experienced actors, by any means. Very few of them have been on the stage before. Mr. Fleming, when rehearsals were under way, recognized four of his company as elevator boys he had known in as many different apartment houses. Some of the women have been cooks and house maids, and some of the men were porters before they took this engagement. Most of them incline toward the pure African in facial appearance, and most of them were born and reared in the South. A few are from the West Indies, from St. Kitts, and St. Thomas, and Jamaica. So far not one has been late to a performance or a rehearsal, not one has left the company, and not one has been discharged.
"One thing I noted with great satisfaction," said Mr. Fleming, speaking of the rehearsals, "was the intelligence and earnestness they all showed in grasping my effort to inject detail into their work wherever the action made its introduction logical, and I feel safe in offering a challenge, on their behalf, to any other body of so-called 'extra people,' whatever their race, employed in any current attraction to even approach them in this particular. No matter in which direction one looks during the plantation scene, one will find that there is something being done that is thoroughly in harmony with the main action, and being done not perfunctorily and mechanically, but with the zest and intelligence that would do credit to seasoned performers.
"An incident proving the ability of negroes to 'harmonize,' musically, without direction, occurred at an early rehearsal. At one point in the play and old colored preacher enters from one side singing the first stanza of 'Old Black Joe.' The 'extra people'—the 'slaves'—are supposed to be off the stage, but at the rehearsals, when there was no scenery and property, the company was grouped in a large half circle near the back of the stage, listening to the familiar words of the song. When the singer had reached the first strain of the chorus, 'I'm coming,' I merely raised my hand with a comprehensive sweep, and instantly the refrain was answered by a burst of harmony so full and sweet that it made 'the shivers go up my back.' That was all the rehearsals needed for 'Old Black Joe.' The colored singers did the rest themselves.
"Of course, all of the speaking parts are played by white members of the regular Hippodrome company, but the colored performers are intrusted with many bits of business that are as effective as the speeches. The action that accompanies the sale of a basket of chickens is carried out by an old darky who was once a contestant for highest honors for his race in the prize ring. The tall 'boy' who brings the cotton picking to a standstill by his arrival on the scene with a freshly killed 'possum is a recent arrival from a South Carolina village, where his connection with the drama was limited to an occasional peep at an 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' show from the top 'heaven' reserved for his race.
"This negro strolled into the Hippodrome office one morning, hat in hand, and proffered as an introduction a grimy note from his last employer, which read suspiciously like the now famous recommendation which stated that 'the bearer has been in my employ for the past three years, during which time I have frequently found him sober.' He was placed at once where he would do the most good."
Mr. Fleming went on to tell how the special company was managed, what methods of discipline or of encouragement are used, and how the stage plantation differed very slightly from a real dirt farm down South, all of which would take columns of space to repeat.