Stories of Freedom in Black New York
Shane White uses contemporary newspaper accounts and courtroom proceedings to describe black life, mores, and language in New York City during the early 1800’s. For White, there was an “edgy vitality” in a city where free blacks and fugitive blacks mingled with whites who were not comfortable with black manners and behavior. There was violence against blacks by their white owners (and there were many slaves in the city), who were themselves threatened and attacked by their slaves. Whites reacted to black behavior with contempt, which took the form of caricaturing black language and dress. “Zip Coon,” a white actor in blackface, was subsequently created.
The African Company, a troupe of black actors, was formed September 17, 1821, and staged plays, particularly Shakespearian ones, until 1824, when it folded. Although most attendees were black, there were also many white customers; and the productions were reviewed in New York newspapers. The reviewers, while occasionally offering some grudging respect for the performers, primarily lampooned the productions, focusing on the grammatical flaws in “black English.” Mordecai Noah, who edited several newspapers, among them the National Advocate, was particularly fond of attacking the productions, including the African Company’s performances of some of his plays.
After the demise of the African Company, James Hewett, one of their stars, began producing solo performances of scenes from Shakespeare, especially from Richard III and Othello. Hewett, who did national tours, specialized in copying the work of the celebrated Shakespearian actor Edmund Kean. Hewett’s work was copied, in turn, by Ira Aldridge, another black actor, and by T. D. Rice, a white actor who created the “Jim Crow” character. Whites who had scorned black language and behavior later incorporated it into their own theatrical work.