Read Dancing in the Dark Online

Authors: Caryl Phillips

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Dancing in the Dark (9 page)

He finds it difficult to achieve any peace in this new house, but he does not complain to Mother. When troubled he simply pulls on his coat and picks up his hat and he walks the twenty paces to Metheney’s and sits by himself.
In Dahomey
is doing well, and he and George continue to collaborate with Mr. Jesse Shipp, with whom they are working hard to sharpen up every aspect of the show. Theirs is the first all-Negro production on Broadway—real Broadway—and everybody is talking about it. Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan are jealous, but even
are talking. Everybody is talking. Just thirty years of age and he is starring in a musical show on Broadway. What more could he want?

Only this morning, he and George, together with Mr. Shipp, made some minor changes to the script of
In Dahomey
. The two stars remembered everything they could from the time when, back in San Francisco, they were encouraged to impersonate Africans. They talked endlessly to Mr. Jesse Shipp about their memories of these Africans, about how they walked and how they
talked, and Mr. Shipp made notes and promised to add these new elements to his script.
In Dahomey
, starring Williams and Walker. Two real coons. Beyond the corner of Market Street. Beyond the Midway Plaisance. Beyond Cripple Creek. Married men in New York City, nurturing their dreams, but Bert longed to ask George about his dreams for he wondered if his partner shared his own obsession with journeying. He did once ask George if he had ever been on a ship and George simply laughed and poured them both another drink. They were on a Pacific Union train at the time, and through the window they could both see a horizon that was ragged with low mountains. “A ship?” exclaimed George. “A colored man like me don’t need no ship when I’ve got this whole wide country to roam free in.” But this was before gold-toothed George was beaten by the rabble, and thereafter began to noisily proclaim what they both already knew to be true, that America wasn’t so wide and free after all. For a colored man, that is.

They were hunting Negroes like you might pursue wild game, running up the avenues from south to north with sticks and bottles in their hands. It was merely another of those New York City nights when one small incident in a tavern or saloon sparked a response out of all proportion to the original event. Meanwhile, Bert remained hidden in his dressing room, the theater manager having barred the doors and turned off all the lights in the building. “You’ll be safe in here, Mr. Williams,” he said. “Shouldn’t be any problems for you in here.” And so Mr. Williams remained hidden inside the theater, and he was forced to listen to the ugly cacophony of the mob breaking glass and colored bones all over the city. George had already left the building, refusing to exercise any caution, scornful of such behavior. George was on a streetcar that was halfway up Sixth Avenue when three men recognized his
clothes, and then his well-groomed face, and they
dragged the grinning nigger from the vehicle. “Walker!” The name began to be chanted by the hoodlums. “Walker!” “Walker!” Helpless to protect him, a half dozen horrified coloreds stood forlornly in the street and looked on, and then they parted like the Red Sea, forming an unfortunate path along which more ruffians were able to funnel their way toward the object of their hatred. “Walker!” They beat him with fierce blows until he fell over and bundled himself into a small ball, tucking his head down into his chest and protecting it on both sides with his folded arms.

George tries to open his eyes. One real coon. They have broken something, that much he is sure of, for he can feel that things are no longer in line. He will have to wait for help, but then again he is not in any hurry. He is just trying to get to his room at Marshall’s. Nothing wrong with a colored man enjoying some relaxation after a hard night’s work on Broadway. But tonight his fellow white citizens are angry, and although they have now abandoned him he can still hear their discordant and unruly clamor. And a half dozen blocks to the south, Bert hides in his dressing room with the lights out, his makeup already removed, his street clothes hanging neatly from his broad shoulders, ready to leave whenever America is ready to receive him. Ready to make his entrance without his makeup. But in the meantime he will wait until the theater manager informs him that his audience is ready for him. Then, and only then, will he be able to leave his dressing room.

The man from Dahomey stands in front of him and stares in disbelief. He looks at the mottled animal skin that is draped over Bert’s shoulder. He looks at the Indian axe that is tucked into Bert’s waistband, and at the headdress fashioned out of old leaves and pieces of twisted twig, which makes it appear as though Bert
is wearing a crown of thorns. The man from Dahomey looks at the Chinese lettering that has been painted onto Bert’s face, and at the small Swiss bells that are strung together on a fraying piece of string and tied loosely around his ankles, but he says nothing to the American man about this costume. So this is America standing tall and proud before him. It never crosses his mind that this bizarre-looking man could possibly be representing Africa, let alone Dahomey, and against his better judgment the African begins to feel sorry for Bert. The man from Dahomey stands in front of Bert and stares in disbelief at this pitiful apparition and he worries about this strange land called America.

And then one morning Bert and George and the six others who are paid to dress in animal skins gather together, for the manager of the exposition wishes to address them. The gray-bearded man steps from his office and tucks his fingers into the pockets of his vest. Presumably they are now to hand back the skins and bells and axes, for after all it has been clearly understood that their engagement was to be temporary. It was to last until the Africans completed their journey from Dahomey and reached California, and now the Africans are here, and the prospect of unemployment is once again staring these eight young men in the face. The manager of the exposition begins to speak. They have done well and they are popular, but the problem is that the newly arrived savages don’t appear to be acclimating to the weather, or to the food, or to the customs. It is going to be too difficult to effectively season them and so they will soon be sent back to where they came from. Would these eight young impersonators of the dark continent be able to stay on for a few more weeks? As he makes his request he smiles and tugs at his vest, as though particularly pleased with himself.

.   .   .

He watches the Africans gather up their belongings and make ready to leave. There are a dozen of them, all men except two young women. He notices that they all walk slowly on bare, noiseless feet, and they seldom lift their eyes, as though stricken with some form of malady. The man who stood before him is clearly their leader, for they look to this man for guidance yet none among them ever approach him too closely. Evidently, they are tired, and Bert can only imagine how torturous their journey from Africa must have been. He too has suffered the tedium of a journey on a ship, but he understands that his own passage does not compare to the difficulties that these Africans must have endured. And then to finally arrive in San Francisco, only to discover that they are not wanted, and now they are being dismissed without payment, and they face the painful prospect of a long passage back to West Africa. No wonder they move slowly and without enthusiasm. Their lives have been arrested, and now they must return home empty-handed. And with how many promises broken? Nineteen-year-old Bert stands barefoot with a mottled animal skin draped over one shoulder, and he watches the melancholy men and women of Dahomey prepare for their departure.





Jesse A. Shipp (1869–1934), book
Will Marion Cook (1869–1944), music
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), lyrics


A Negro Musical Comedy



Time: Three months before beginning of play

Place: Dahomey


Je-Je, a Caboceer
Menuki, messenger of the king
Moses Lightfoot, agent of Dahomey Colonization Society
Shylock Homestead, called “Shy” by his friends
Rareback Pinkerton, Shy’s personal friend and advisor
Cicero Lightfoot, President of a Colonization Society
Dr. Straight … in name only, street fakir
George Reeder, proprietor of an intelligence office
Henry Stampfield, letter carrier, with an argument against immigration
Me Sing, a Chinese cook
Hustling Charley, promoter of Get-the-Coin Syndicate
Leather, a bootblack
Officer Still
White Wash Man
Messenger Rush, but not often
Pansy, daughter of Cecilia Lightfoot, in love with Leather
Cecilia Lightfoot, Cicero’s wife
Mrs. Stringer, dealer in forsaken Patterns, also editor of fashion notes in Beanville Agitator
Rosetta Lightfoot, a troublesome young thing Colonists, Natives, etc





(Public Square with a house doorway. Above the door is a sign. “Intelligence Office.” A crowd is assembled around a medicine show pitchman. Applause at rise of curtain. A banjo player acts as interlocutor as Tambo and Bones tell one or two jokes. The banjoist sings a song. Dr. Straight, the pitchman, addresses the crowd.)

After listening to great attempts at beautiful strains of melodious music and pyrotechnical display of humorous humorosities, quintessence of brevity rather than prolix verbosity will best accomplish the purpose for which I appear here this evening. Now that I’ve made everything so plain that even a child can understand, I’ll proceed with business. I hold in my hand a preparation made from roots, herbs, barks, leaf grasses, cereals, vegetables, fruits, and chemicals warranted, by myself, to do all that I claim, even
more. I’m not here to sell this article but simply to advertise the greatest boon that mankind has ever known. I will forfeit one thousand dollars to—hold up the money so that they can see it
(Attendants hold up a large sack marked $1000)
— or I will take the same amount from any dark-skin son or daughter of that
Africanus that I cannot immediately transform into an Apollo or Cleopatra with a hirsute appendage worthy of a Greek goddess.
Look here, Mr. Medicine Man, if you ’specs to sell any of dem bottles of whatever you’ve got there to anybody in this crowd, you’d better bring your language down to the limitations of a universal understanding. I’ve been standin’ here ten minutes trying to figger out what you’re talkin’ about and I tell you as the old maxim says, “Patience ceases to be virtuous.”
Your patience shall be rewarded. I’ll come to the point at once. This compound known as Straightaline is the greatest hair tonic on earth. What will Straightaline do? Why, it cures dandruff, tetter itch, and all scalp diseases at once and forever. It makes hair grow on baldheaded babies. It makes curly hair straight as a stick in from one to ten days. Straightaline straightens kinky hair in from ten to thirty days and most wonderful of all, Straightaline straightens knappy or knotty hair.
(He hesitates.)
In three days.
I’ll take a bottle of dat.
Wait, wait, wait, this is not all. I have another preparation, Oblicuticus, “Obl”—in this case, being an abbreviation of the word “obliterate.” “Cuti”—taken from the word “cuticle,” the outer skin—and “cuss” is what everybody does when the desired results are not obtained, but there is no such word as “fail.” This wonderful face bleach removes the outer skin and leaves in its place a peachlike complexion that can’t be duplicated—even by peaches. Changing black to white and vice versa. I am going to spend only one day in your city, but I am going to convince you by exhibiting a living evidence of my assertions that these two grand preparations,
, are the most wonderful discovery of modern times.
(Attendant stands up—he is possibly made up to be half white and half black.)
This young man is a martyr to science. Here you have the work of nature. Here the work of art. Here is the kinky hair here
(stage business with hair and skin color)
. The long, silky straight hair, here the bronze of nature, here the peachlike complexion. Remember, I leave here tomorrow for Gatorville, Florida.
Give me a bottle, give me a bottle.
Wait a minute—I’m not here to sell, I’m only advertising these two grand articles,
Straight— aline
, and after dispensing with a few coins of the realm, if you will accompany
me to Skinners, I will place a few bottles of
at your disposal. Mind you, I’m not here to sell but to advertise. I’m not here to make money, but to give it away.
(He throws coins and exits. A quartet—the Barbers Society of Philosophical Research—enters and sings “Annie Laurie.”)

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