Printer Friendly

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 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, f'inally broke the boycott in April 1898 and opened A Trip to Coontown at the Third Avenue Theater. (4) A Trip to Coontown toured the United States for three years and appeared in New York City two more times before it closed (Woll 5-6, 12-13).

In order to make sure that A Trip to Coontown did not exist, I checked every possible library and archive noted for its African American musical and theatrical collections. The institution nearest to my home was the most fruitful the Library of Congress. With assistance from Mark Horowitz, from the Performing Arts Division, and Alice Lotvin Birney, from the Manuscripts Division, I first looked at the Library's Copyright Deposit Drama Readers Collection, but I found nothing. Then, I was horrified to learn from Birney that a zealous administrator had destroyed most of the Library's nineteenth-century dramatic holdings about twenty-five years ago in an attempt to clean out its storage facility, and if Cole and Johnson had deposited a copy of their play, it probably did not survive (Conversation n. pag.). When nothing turned up, Horowitz recommended that I continue searching and visit the U. S. Copyright Office to check whether A Trip to Coontown had even been copyrighted and if so, whether they had a copy.

On the fourth floor of the Madison Building at the Library of Congress is a room filled with card catalogs. In a digital age, card catalogs may seen quaint, but this room has a different purpose--its contents are the records of every copyright application in the United States from 1870 through 1977. (5) The U. S. Copyright Office has hardly any visitors anymore, and the majority of those who do visit it are copyright lawyers or staff at the Library of Congress. Sadly, scholars appear to have forgotten about the Copyright Office and its usefulness, but it is this room that ultimately led me to discover the lost manuscript for Bob Cole and Billy Johnson's A Trip to Coontown.

Near the back wall of this vast sea of card catalogs are two large red volumes, entitled Dramatic Compositions Copyrighted in the United States, 1870-1917. Despite their size and color, you would almost miss them (I did several times until the reference librarian helped me). For those of us who work in the history of the performing arts in the United States during the turn of the twentieth century, these books are quite useful. They list every -kind of dramatic performance, both published and unpublished, that was copyrighted during this period, giving an exact copyright date, number, and name(s) of the copyright's owner(s). As part of any application, the copyright claimant was to submit two copies, one to be housed as part of the Library of Congress's collections and another to be held by the Copyright Office to be used in the event of copyright infringement.

There it was! A Trip to Coontown was copyrighted on September 27, 1899 (Reg. No. 62711). (6) Although the play was written two years earlier, it is possible that Cole waited until the show was a success before feeling the need to have it protected by copyright. The precise reason for the delay, however, is ultimately unknown. Scholars know that scripts such as Cole's were continuously modified, and songs and skits would be cut and then new ones added. Still, Cole would have submitted the most complete script that he had, which most likely had parts from the 1897-1898 season, including "The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon."

With A Trip to Coontown's copyright information in hand, Birney put me in contact with Frank Evina, Senior Public Information Specialist at the U. S. Copyright Office, to request a special search for the original copyright application. All copyright applications are housed at Iron Mountain, a former mine in western Pennsylvania that is considered to be one of the most secure, privately run archives in the United States (Haynes n. pag). Special searches at Iron Mountain are not free--the U. S. Copyright Office charged me $150 and said that it would take at least four to six weeks. There was also, of course, no guarantee that they would find anything, but Evina believed--based on his own searches through the copyright applications--that there would be something relevant. A couple months after I had completed my essay on "The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon," the U. S. Copyright Office contacted me that it had indeed found A Trip to Coontown.

There is much more in the text of A Trip to Coontown that further demonstrates how this production played to and against stereotypes of African Americans during the late nineteenth century. Our purposes, however, were in introducing readers to the text and in further expanding the existing conversation regarding the aspirations of African Americans, the creative process, and practices thereto during this period. Although Cole and Johnson faced a resistant theatrical establishment, they nevertheless found a way to the successful production of their musical. Ultimately; their willingness to defy theatrical, and racial convention makes them pioneers in American music and theater, and leaders of many of today's actors and writers.

The Genius of Bob Cole, by David Krasner

The most important individual engineering the success of A Trip to Coontown was Bob Cole (1868-1911). He was born in Athens, Georgia, the son of Robert Cole, St., a carpenter and political activist. His first stage appearance was in Chicago with Sam T. Jack's The Creole Show in 1891. In 1893 Cole paired up with his dancing and singing partner, Stella Wiley, performing in vaudeville. In 1895 he returned to Jack's Creole Show, this time, not only as an actor, but also as a "stage manager," which in today's vernacular means director. Despite his success, Cole was dissatisfied with the depiction of African Americans by whites. He made several attempts to form an all-black theater company and an all-black theater school called the All-Star Stock Company. His aim was to train black performers by developing a high-quality style of entertainment that countermanded the prevalent and debasing minstrel stereotype. In 1895, Cole joined the Black Patti Troubadours as performer and songwriter (he would later team up with another pair of Johnson brothers, J. Rosamond and James Weldon, to produce a string of hits for popular singers such as May Irwin and Marie Cahill). Cole was also a choreographer, staging the musical numbers in his shows. He was a fine singer and excellent dancer, a popular comic, and was known to play several musical instruments. By 1896, his musical arrangement and performance in the Black Patti Troubadours' production of At Jolly Coon-ey Island had become enormously popular. The success of the show prompted Cole to ask for a raise for the company of black actors and musicians. When he was denied, Cole bolted from the show, bringing along with him several others. It was at this time that he created A Trip to Coontown (1897-1901) along with the comedian-partner Billy Johnson. In establishing the production company for A Trip to Coontown, Cole enunciated his goals: "We are going to have our own shows. We are going to write them ourselves, we are going to have our own stage managers, our own orchestra leader and our own manager out front to count up. No divided houses--our race must be seated from the boxes back" (qtd. in Foster 48)

One of the remarkable features of A Trip to Coontown is Bob Cole's performance, in which he portrays Willie Wayside, an inebriated tramp. One reviewer notes two features of Cole's performance that stand out: the actor is praised for his comic talent, and Cole is in whiteface makeup:

 Bob Cole, who plays Willie Wayside,
 the tramp, in a white make-up which
 makes it almost impossible to guess his
 particular tint, is quite the equal as a
 comedian of either Dan Daly or Walter
 Jones, while he has more distinction
 than either of them and is funnier than
 [Hap] Ward and [Harry] Vokes rolled
 together. [Cole] showed last night that
 he is capable of playing any white part
 far better than most Negro comedians
 playing black ones. (Rev. 5) (7) 

The suggestion that white actors might actually "learn" from Cole may have had far-reaching consequences. Cole was one of the first actors to employ the "hobo" persona, the tramp figure that would take hold of American audiences' imaginations during the early twentieth century. By the end of the Civil War, it became evident that railroads would be the dominant means of transportation. The railroads thus emerged as one of the key features of American economic growth. Furthermore, owing to transcontinental travel, the railroad made travel attractive, relatively safe, affordable, and comfortable--and far speedier than covered wagons. The discovery of gold in California encouraged further migration. The Gilded Age, with its emphasis on entrepreneurial individualism, inspired the "gold" rush to wealth. Such motivations, however, also left many victimized by scams. It was not uncommon for people to leave home and family to find fortunes, only to discover failure and nowhere to return. The combination of train travel and poverty quickly coalesced, creating the image--and the reality--of drifters hopping freight cars. These railcar travelers soon captured the imagination of writers and actors, establishing the romanticism of down-and-out "hobos."

Cole's performance, I suggest, inspired popular hobo clowns Emmett Kelly and Charlie Chaplin, as well as several others. (8) The development of the tramp character was not unique to Cole; other actors were adding to this popular mythology of the happy-go-lucky wanderer. But Cole's performance has received far less attention. This is unfortunate, because Cole was a highly popular actor. Thomas Riis observes that Cole "stands tall in the middle of a somewhat neglected generation. One of several performer/composers who were recognized as leaders in his day, his presence was important, perhaps even critical, to the development of black musical theater" (Riis 135).

Hobo "rootlessness" becomes more complicated when African American history is considered. Blacks experienced three major migrations: slavery; during the postReconstruction era (c. 1876-1910); and during the civil rights movement. In the latter two cases, black moved north by railcar in large numbers, seeking work in industrial cities and escaping Southern oppression. Langston Hughes termed these major movements as "Bound No'th Blues," and Jacob Lawrence created a series of migration paintings in honor of the travelers. Although Cole would eventually drop the tramp character in his later shows, the breakthrough performance in A Trip to Coontown established the black hobo character to black and white audiences.

Another significant feature of Cole's performance was his makeup. The quote from the Freeman review above reports that Cole "plays Willie Wayside, the tramp, in white make-up, which makes it almost impossible to guess his particular tint." Cole's performance follows the long history of stereotypes associated with African Americans: drunkenness, laziness, conniving, and craving chicken. For instance, in a musical score titled A Trip to Coontown Grand Finale (located in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University), the unknown author (probably Cole) remarks on the stage directions: "Tramp exits and returns with chicken... Tramp assumes a comical attitude with chicken." Chickens would have been quickly recognized by audiences as a staple of the minstrel caricature. Yet Cole's "white make-up" complicates the obvious relationship between blacks and the semiotic "chicken." Who is Willie Wayside racially, and what does his race mean in association with racial cliches? If the white makeup means Cole is a "white" tramp, what does this say about Willie Wayside? Are the stereotypes associated with blacks--laziness, chickens, and buffoonery--now white caricatures? The makeup, I submit, makes a subtle commentary on blacks and stereotyping. Given the restrictions on African American performers at the time, Cole was limited in what he could do. How could Cole defeat caricatures in this climate? By putting on white makeup and acting the clownish minstrel caricature with a chicken, Cole was making a sophisticated, albeit subtle challenge. Do whites carry chickens, too? As I have noted elsewhere,
 Acting in whiteface was indeed a bold act, an articulation of
 racial difference that dislodged a colonial representation that for
 generations framed the idea of race. In creating new signifiers,
 Cole interrupted the continuity of minstrelsy's semiotic
 tradition.... Cole's whiteface performance disrupted the fixed
 stereotype, creating a transience that interrupted the steady
 stream of cultural signifiers aimed at reducing African Americans
 to ridicule. (Krasner 32) 

Cole's performance, I contend, was a subtle but brilliant attack on racism; audiences could assume that Cole--a known black actor is still the stereotype, but the ambiguous makeup sends a second signal to audiences that assumptions are not necessarily true.

Cole had made prescient remarks on the state of affairs he faced and the hope for the future. He said in his essay that the "greatest dramas of Negro life will be written by Negroes themselves, and I think the day not far off when the American public will witness a play by American Negroes" (Cole, "The Negro" 5). Cole is one of the pioneers of African American theater and hopefully the discovery of this manuscript will stimulate attention to this remarkable figure.

The Music of Coontown, by Thomas L. Riis

The songs in A Trip to Coontown, while typical of their time in many respects, reveal something about the distinctive creative touch of their composer and lyricist. Billy Johnson is usually credited with the lyrics only, and Robert "Bob" Cole with the music, although the roles were sometimes combined or exchanged. Before the emergence of a full script, the evidence in hand suggested that Coontown was little more than an impromptu assemblage of farcical skits and ordinary songs bathed in racial cliches. A startling critique, which appeared in a New York newspaper in 1900, its author unidentified, suggests quite another image, however:
 Something was constantly doing, and if there had ever been any
 superfluous or stupid lines or situations, they had long since been
 rooted out. The speeches of Bob Cole especially, as the tramp, were
 uniformly rich, with touches of the nature which lies deeper than
 pigment, and the quick gleaming flashes came with an invariably
 irresistible quietness and unction. (Anon. n. pag.) 

This description of a subtly timed pantomime would seem to be at odds with the noisy music and jumpy gestures that were the order of the day for most shows in the blackface minstrel tradition. It is likely that this critic, reporting in 1900, saw the third or fourth edition of the show, so the performance was surely a road-tested one, and the play he heard evidently strongly resembled the original version. Between 1897 and 1900, Cole, in whiteface makeup, acted the part of a tatterdemalion with props, including a live dog named Bo and a rubber chicken suitable for waving during the final reprise of the concluding song, "All I Wants Is My Chickens." It is difficult to imagine anything other than buffoonery at this point, yet evidently more was heard by audiences. (9)

Most of the songs in Coontown are less striking for their modernity or charm than their "coon song" words. Such songs are usually made in standard forms and speak a familiar tonal language, as they depict a series of stereotypical situations featuring dice, razors, watermelons, and random acts of mayhem. Cole's tunes are pleasant and singable, with infectious rhythms, mildly flavored with ragtime syncopations. Johnson's rhymes are sometimes clever but often forced. The songs contain two or more narrative verses followed by a rousing chorus. The balanced verse/refrain forms, exuding a generally carefree spirit, conform to the normal recipe. So much is not surprising.

But the songs of A Trip to Coontown, taken together, are distinctive in several respects. They vary in topic, tempo, and function, and their use in the play suggests a grander, even mildly subversive, agenda that may help to explain the critic's effusiveness. Cole and Johnson apparently sought to demonstrate that black singers could work cooperatively to bring off nothing less than a complete and balanced musical banquet--a full evening's entertainment beholden to neither self-mocking minstrel show ditties, nor pious religious folk songs (so-called Negro spirituals), which had captivated white audiences of the previous generation to the exclusion of almost every other African American musical accomplishment (Peterson 359-61). (10) In order to understand the extent of their achievement, we need to examine the total product noting the absence of these older types of song.

That A Trip to Coontown turned out so well is doubly surprising, because its genesis was somewhat haphazard. Only a handful of the songs were written specifically for the 1897-98 season. Some had been created for Cole's earlier efforts, such as the skits he directed with the Black Patti Troubadours and his New York friends at the All-Star Stock Company in 1895. To beef up the musical menu, tunes by other composers--one attributed to Bert Williams, another by the vaudeville dance team of Deas and Wilson, and arrangements made by Willis Accooe, the show's music director in its second touring season--were also added. Some dozen songs were placed in the first act, while fewer were sung in the second, so as to allow the interpolation of Tom Brown's ethnic impersonations and operatic arias by classically trained vocalists, Lloyd Gibbs and Desseria Plato. (Black opera singers came into vogue periodically, when such luminaries as Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), also known as "the Black Patti," gained wide public attention.) (11)

Once the show left New York in the autumn of 1898 for a second triumphant touring season, Cole and Johnson advertised in the New York Clipper (September 24) a set of additional songs for sale, presumably written to replace the weaker numbers in the original run. Such substitution was also standard operating procedure. Producers of early American musical theater neither expected nor especially prized a full evening's work dominated by a single composer. Indeed, such a production would have struck most Broadway aficionados of the 1890s as woefully lacking in imagination and excitement. Some thirty songs were used altogether during the four years of the show's run, including interpolations by actors who were not original members of the cast.

The creative team for most shows was exactly that, a group of contributors which consisted of singers, tunesmiths, pianist-arrangers, comedians, dancers, actor-managers, and whatever other hot talent--even acrobats, jugglers, and animal acts--was available for booking. Concocting a potpourri of fresh acts to entice new ticket-buyers was a preeminent goal for an ambitious impresario.

Along with the practical desire to offer a crowd-pleasing show, Billy Johnson and Bob Cole were dedicated "race men," which is to say, they were committed to presenting African American entertainers in the most favorable and impressive light, minimizing stereotypes and demeaning situations related to African Americans. But they also introduced a plethora of different racial take-offs--using Asian, Arab, and Spanish motifs, among others, in playful ways. They included the widest possible variety of popular styles, rehearsed diligently, and performed at the highest level of quality possible, with the goal of building a diverse entertainment, if not a color-blind one. (12)

Although the songs that came to be associated with A Trip to Coontown cannot be exhaustively interpreted in this brief introduction, there is no doubt that Cole and Johnson achieved a signal triumph with the show by successfully embedding a wide range of musical types, lyrical styles, dramatic attitudes, and individual characterizations. William Foster recounted its seminal impact over twenty, years later in his memoir "Pioneers of the Stage," included in the 1928 edition of Official Theatrical World of Colored Artists, an important industry directory (Foster 48). With script and song list finally in hand, there is still much to explore in this provocative, century-old show.

Works Cited

Anon. Newspaper clipping. 6 Feb. 1900. Harvard Theatre Collection. Pusey Library, Harvard University.

Birney, Alice Lotvin. Conversation with author. 31 July 2008.

Cole, Robert 'Bob'. A Trip to Coontown. New York: Howley, Haviland, 1897.

--. "The Negro and the Stage." Colored American Magazine 4.3 (January/February 1902): 301-06.

Foster, Will. "Pioneers of the Stage: Memoirs of William Foster." The Official Theatrical World of Colored Artists 1.1 (April 1928): 48.

Haynes, Gary "Under Iron Mountain: Corbis Stores 'Very Important Photographs' at Zero Degrees Fahrenheit." National Press Photographers Association. January 2005. Web. 1 Aug. 2008.

Krasner, David. Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895-1910. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. A Century of Musicals in Black and White. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993.

Rev. of A Trip to Coontown, by Bob Cole. Indianapolis Freeman 16 Apr. 1898: 5.

Riis, Thomas L. "'Bob' Cole: His Life and His Legacy to Black Musical Theater." The Black Perspective in Music 13.2 (Fall 1985): 135-50.

Woll, Allan. Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.


(1.) This is not the place for a lengthy survey on the history of African American music and theater in the late nineteenth century, but I would like to direct readers to several important texts. See Thomas L. Riis, Just before Jazz." Black Theater in New York, 1890-1915 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1994); David Krasner, Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness m African American Theatre, 1895-19 (New York: Palgrave, 1997); Andrew Ward, Dark Midnight When I Rise." The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000); Geneva Handy Southall, Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer (1849-1908): Continually Enslaved (New York: Scarecrow, 2002); Lynn Abbot and Doug Seroff, Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009).

(2.) Chinese immigrant caricatures were quite common in African American musicals during this period. The majority were similar to that produced by whites, and were usually set in either a laundry or restaurant where comic patter was driven by intercultural conflict. See Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface. Creating the Chinese in American Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005), 133-42.

(3.) A Trip to Chinatown was loosely based on the popularity of Chinatown as a tourist destination starting in the 1890s.

(4.) The Third Avenue Theater was still a small-time theater, far from Broadway. The week of April 4 usually contained Passover and Easter, the slowest theater week of the season.

(5.) The years 1978 to the present are available online at

(6.) There is a copyright application number for A Trip to Coontown dated 1897 in Dramatic Compositions, but the copyright research staff told me that only the 1899 application number would be of use.

(7.) Dan Daly was a popular vaudevillian known as "the eccentric comedian" because it was said no one could imitate him. He belonged to a well-known theatrical family (his two sisters married Ward and Vokes). Walter Jones was noted for his "tramp" character. The comic duo of Ward and Vokes (a.k.a. Harry Laughlin) were also referred to as "eccentric."

(8.) Emmett Kelly's character was called "Weary Willy." The suggestion of Cole's influence on Emmett Kelly and Charlie Chaplin was brought to my attention by Marvin McAllister, author of White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentleman of Colour" William Brown's African & American Theater (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003). I am grateful for his original insight.

(9.) Cole broke with his first partner Billy Johnson after 1900 and at the close of A Trip to Coontown. Cole then teamed up with another set of Johnson brothers, J. Rosamond and James Weldon. It is these latter Johnsons with whom Cole wrote several more hit songs and at least two more successful operettas over the next decade. The standout song hits, "Under the Bamboo Tree," "My Castle on the Nile," and "The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes," were all the products of this latter partnership.

(10.) The full panoply of Cole and Johnson's musical inclusiveness is discussed in detail in Thomas L. Riis, More than Just Minstrel Shows: The Rise of Black Musical Theatre at the Turn of the Century, I.S.A.M. Monographs: Number 33 (Brooklyn, NY: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1992), 8-22.

(11.) Jones had few peers, and with Gibbs and Plato, has nearly been lost to history. She performed in the most prestigious venues in America and Europe, and received invitations to sing at the White House and before members of the British aristocracy, among other honors. See John Graziano, "The Early Life and Career of the 'Black Patti': The Odyssey of an African American Singer in the Late Nineteenth Century," Journal of the American Musicological Society 53.3 (Fall 2000): 543-96.

(12.) See Thomas Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1989), 77-78.

An Excerpt from Act 1, scene 1 of A Trip to Coontown
 Silas, Jr. (2)
Ah, there they go with Capt. Fleetfoot and his war, and the chances are
that the only war he knows anything about is the South before the war.
But I wonder if Fannie is in the bunch? Her mother has promised to set
the dog on me the next time I came, but I must see her at all hazzards
]. (3)
 (FANNIE enters
Ah, young lady! I was just looking for you. Your mother still objects to
my calling, I suppose?
 Fannie Yes, and its unfortunate that
I dropped my handkerchief and come in search of it.
 Silas Jr. And why unfortunate?
 Fannie Well, my mama says she
doesn't want you to call any more and--
 (MRS. B. enters
 Mrs. B. (4) Fannie!
 Fannie Yes, Mama.
 Mrs. B. Is this the way you obey my
 Fannie Well, Mama--
 Mrs. B. Shut up, Miss! And you, sir,
have I not told you that I wished no such person as you are, to
associate with my daughter? Have I not forbade you calling?
 Silas, Jr. Well, Madame--
 Mrs. B. Madame nothing! Have I not
forbade you calling? Answer my question!
 Silas, Jr. Oh, don't speak that
way! You frighten me! You see, I had good news for the girls.
 Mrs. B. Good news for the girls?
That seems to be chronic with all young men.
 Silas, Jr. Oh, yes, I am troubled
with chronic cheerfulness.
 Mrs. B. Sir?
 Silas, Jr. Well, I thought that news
might also interest you.
 Mrs. B. What news could you bring
that could possibly interest me?
 Silas, Jr. Well, you see, I have a
telegram from father stating that he had received his pension and would
be home this afternoon. (5)
 Mrs. B. Yes? Well, how much was your
father's pension?
 Silas, Jr. Oh, something more than
$5000, I think.
 Mrs. B. Well, Mr. Green, is a real
good man and well deserving of success, and you, my boy, should shape
your life now, so that you will be a comfort and joy to him in his old
age. I am going in the house now and make preparation for him. Old man
Green, is a real good man, and I don't know that Silas is so bad
after all!
 Silas, Jr. What a lovely disposition
your mother has, Fannie.
 Fannie Yes, and she has a lovely
opinion of you.
 Silas, Jr. Oh, yes, since I
mentioned the pension, but I guess she is right. No more race horsing.
No more staying out at night at the Young Men's Investment Club
trying to make a bob tail flush stand up for the real thing. Say,
Fannie, have you ever taken one card to a four heart flush and caught a
 Fannie Why. What in the world are
you talking about?
 Silas, J r. Oh, I was talking about
a friend of mine--Jack Pots.
 Fannie Jack Pots? Why I never heard
of him!
 Silas, Jr. What, never heard of Jack
Pots? Why you must be a stranger in--Well, I was talking about--Just be
seated and I will tell you.
 (Song and exits
) (6)
 (MRS. B. enters
 Mrs. B.
Oh, Girls! Girls!
 (COMP. enters
 Comp. Yes, we are coming!
 Mrs. B. Why, Silas's father
has received his pension, and telegraphed that he would be home this
 Comp, Is that so?
 (SILAS, JR. enters
 Silas, Jr. That's quite right,
ladies. Father telegraphed that he would be home this afternoon, and I
am expecting him on the 2.30 train. I'll lust go down the road and
see if I can meet him.
 (SILAS, SR enters
 Comp. Oh! Here's Mr. Green now!
 Silas, St. Well, children, I'm
back again and I'm mighty glad to be here!
 Silas, Jr. How did you like
 Silas, Sr. Fine! Might fine!
 Silas, Jr. Well, who did you see in
Washington, Dad?
 Silas, Sr. Oh, I seen the Capital, I
seen Pennsylvania Avenue, and I shook hands with the President of the
United States.
 Silas, Jr. Say, Dad, who is
President of the United States?
 Silas, Sr. Why, it's a man
named a--a--Hannah--Hannah. (7)
 (COMP. laughs
And I seen lots of colored folks too; but the colored people there
ain't like them around here, 'cause every colored man in
Washington plays the colored peoples' national game.
 Silas, Jr. What game is that?
 Silas, Sr. Why, policy! Just gather
round me, children, and I'll tell you all about it.
) (8)
 Silas Jr. Here, Dad, here is your
 Silas, Sr. Yes, thank you, son. Now,
children, I heard you all singing when I was coming up the road yonder
and it sounded mighty good; but these new fangled songs ain't
nothing like the old ones, such as "Suanee River," "Old
Black Joe," "Massa'a in the cold, cold ground" and
so on. Thems the kind of songs I like to hear, and above all,
there's one song that always touches my heart and that's
"My Kentucky Home."
) (9) Now, children, I brung you all a present.
 Comp. Oh, give me mine now!
 Silas, Sr. No, run on in the house.
I'll be in there, and give them to you.
 (COMP. exits
 Capt. F. The Pension! Ah, well, I
guess I'll go to Washington myself, and dig up a pension.
 Silas Jr. Come, Fannie, let me see
what father has brought me.
 Silas, Sr. Yes, boy, go in the house
and find my pipe for me.
 Silas, Jr. Ah! Ah! The pension must
be working.
 Mrs. B. Now, Mr. Green, I want you
to tell me all about Washington, what you did and who you saw while
 Silas, Sr. Well, Mrs. Brown,
Washington is a mighty funny place, and there's so many people in
Washington, I couldn't see nobody. I know that after I got my
pension though, there was two mighty curious looking men following me,
they were down to the depot when I was leaving, but it made no
difference to me, Mrs. Brown, 'cause I was thinking of you all the
while, and I made up my mind that as soon as I got back here I was going
to ask you a question.
 Mrs. B. Well, Mr. Green, there is no
one here but you and I. What is it?
 Silas, Sr. But this is a very
'ticular question, Mrs. Brown.
 Mrs. B. Yes! Well, what is it?
 Silas, Sr. Ah! Ah! You remind me so
much of my first wife!
 Mrs. B. Yes, Mr. Green, and you
remind me very much of my first husband, Fannie's father, you know.
 Silas, Sr. Yes, ma'am, I heard
people say that he was a very handsome man.
 Mrs. B. Well, what is it, Mr. Green?
You haven't asked me it yet.
 Silas, Sr. Ah!--Ah! Mrs. Brown, you
don't look like my second wife at all.
 Mrs. B. Well, you don't
expect me to resemble your entire generation, do you?
 Silas, Sr. Well, you know they say
we all look alike, and I--I-- (10)
 (SILAS, JR enters)
 Silas, Jr. Dad, where did you say
the pipe was?
 Silas, Sr. Oh, the devil! Go
upstairs in the cellar and get that pipe, and don't bother me!
 (SILAS, JR exits)
 Mrs. B. Well, I am waiting, Mr.
Green. Why, don't you ask me it?
 Silas, Sr. Oh, I'll ask you
it! If it kills me! Oh, Mrs. Brown, here on my bended knees, I swear to
 (SILAS, JR_ enters)
 Silas, Jr. Oh, Dad!
 (Interruptingly [sic])
 Silas, Sr. Confound that boy!
I'm gwine to get him a job in the workhouse, so he'll have
something to do. Ah!--Come on, Mrs. Brown, I'll ask you this if I
have to take you to Cuba to do it.
 (RUBE enters--song and dance--raps on door.)
 (MRS. BROWN enters)
 Rube Ah, excuse me, Madame, but
is this the residence of the Widow Brown?
 Mrs. B. Yes, I am Mrs. Brown.
 Rube Oh, you be?
 Mrs. B. Yes, I am.
 Rube Well, is there a gentleman
stopping around here by the name of Silas Green?
 Mrs. B. Yes, Mr. Green boards with
 Rube Oh, he do?
 Mrs. B. Yes, he boards with me.
 Rube Well, kindly step in, Madame,
and tell him there's a gentleman out here would like to speak to
 Mrs. B. Won't you come in and
see Mr. Green youself?
 Rube Well, I will, be gosh!
 (FLAM. & WAYSIDE enter)
 Flam. Now that we've
expressed our sentiments, to business!
 Way. To business, yes.
 Flam. The man that we are
following that's got the money that we are trying to get, is in
that house.
 Way. What's his name?
 Flam. Silas Green.
 Way. Who lives in the house?
 Flam. Why, the Widow Brown!
 Way. Widow Brown! Ah, well, I
wonder where Miss Blue lives?
 Flam. Ah! Now this is no time for
 Way. It's about time
we're eating, ain't it?
 Flam. Eating! Why, you're
always thinking about eating!
 Way. Yes, but don't you
think a sandwich would make a little change in my appearance right about
 Flam. Now we must get a move on
ourselves if we want to get to that old guy's money.
 Way. Yes, and I must get a move
on myself too, if I want to get to something to eat.
 Flam. I've got a bonanza!
 Way. Give it to me quick, and let
me eat it!
 Flam. Why, you don't eat
bonanzas! Now, I discovered a deserted pleasure ground about 3 miles
from here, and I've decided to rent it for a few days only and name
it "Coon-town," and I am satisfied that we can get to that old
guy's money if we can get him interested in the affair.
 Way. I'm satisfied that I
could get some comfort, too, if I could get a sandwich interested in my
 Flam. Ah! Never mind that, the
place to which I refer is quite commodious; there's a spacious
house that I can easily convert into a hotel. The only inconvenience is
that there is no water there, and we must devise some scheme or other to
get some water on the premises.
 Way. I must devise some scheme or
other to get some food on my--
 Flam. Ah! Think about the money!
Five thousand dollars! Why, if I can get two thousand of that, it will
bridge me over the winter.
 Way. Just give me fifteen cents!
That will carry me until tomorrow night.
 Flam. You leave that to me.
I'll see that you get carried.
 Way. Well, say, is the man in the
 Flam. Yes, I saw him go in there.
 Way. And he's got the money?
 Flam. Yes.
 Way. Well, come on, and we'll
go and get it.
 Flam. No, now don't you be
too hasty! You lay in the background.
 Way. Lay in the background?
 Flam. Yes, you lay in the
 Way. Well, where is the
 Flam. I mean, you must not be seen
with me.
 (COMP. laughs)
Go ahead now! Get in the background? Hurry up! Hurry! Up! Some
one's coming. Get in the background. Hide! Hide! Hurry up!
 Way. Well, I'll hide under
 Flam. Why, you can't hide
under there! They'll see you. Here go in the dog-house.
 Way. No, sir, I'm a
 Flam. Oh, a gentleman! What are
you talking about? Come on, get in the dog-house.
 Way. Well, suppose the dog comes
home while I am here?
 Flim. Well, he'll find his
house occupied. Hurry up! Now lay dead, lay dead, here he comes.
I'll get him.
 (SILAS, SR. enters)
--Why, how are you, Mr.--Ah--Mr.--!
 Silas, Sr. Green--Green is my name,
 Flam. Ah, yes,--Mr. Green--a
little sudden, I know, but I recognized you from the back. By the way,
how is your--your--ah-
 Silas, St. My son, Silas? Oh,
he's well.
 Flam. Yes, sir, your son, sir. Ah,
he's a great boy, Mr. Green.
 Silas, Sr. Oh, does you know him,
 Flam. Know him? Why, we used to
sit on the same bench at Sunday School.
 Silas, Sr. Well, what is your name,
 Flam. Why, my name is Jim
Flimflammer. (13)
 Silas, St. And what are you doing,
Mr. Flimmy?
 Flam. Why, I am owner of a strip
of land not far from here, Mr. Green. I've named it
"Coontown". I have also organized a company for the promotion
of my Coontown expeditions, which leave every Monday morning for the
richest strip on the L.Y.M. short line, situated four miles to the east
of Lake No Water, and on the summit of lowland mountain overlooking the
most beautiful stretch of scenery man's eyes ever beheld. In
addition to this, sir, you will find in the southeastern corner of my
strip an area of two miles yielding daily gold, silver, iron, copper,
coal and several other valuable minerals. You'll find fruits of all
descriptions, including the red and rosy watermelon.
 Silas, Sr. Watermelons? (14)
 Flam. Yes, sir, the air is as
fresh as the milk that comes from a Jersey cow, there are fourteen
mineral springs within 100 yards of a most magnificent hotel erected in
the midst of a beautiful garden of flowers, able to accommodate one
thousand persons--for which I charge nothing. Mr. Green, if you will
make the small investment of two thousand dollars, and take a trip to
Coontown with me, I will give you a written guarentee [sic] of becoming
a millionaire inside of two years. I will also issue tickets for
yourself and as many others as can be found in a day's walk, for
it's the greatest thing that ever happened, and here's your
 Mrs. B. Mr. Green.
 Silas, Sr. Ma'am?
 Mrs. B. I'm waiting dinner for
 Silas, St. All right, ma'am.
I'll be right in. Now, Mr. Flimmy, come in and have some dinner
with me and we will talk the scheme over.
 Flam. Well, I am not hungry, Mr.
Green, but I'll go in and join you anyway.
 (GREEN exits)
You lay in the dog-house, now, you're a dog.
 Way. Ha?
 Flam. You're a dog!
 (FLAM. exits)


(1.) This scene is set on the lawn of Widow Brown's Boarding House in a suburb of New York City.

(2.) Silas, Jr. is the son of the musical's protagonist, Silas Green, Sr.

(3.) Captain Fleetfoot leads the Black Moguls, a send-up of ethnic-based militias founded in cities such as New York and similar to those first created on the stage by Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart in the late 1870s. Fleetfoot opens the play with stories of questionable veracity about his heroics during the Civil War.

(4.) Mrs. Brown owns the boarding house where the Greens live and is Silas, Sr.'s love interest. She is also the mother of Fannie.

(5.) Silas Green, Sr., had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and has gone to Washington, D.C. to obtain a pension. The Dependent Pension Act (1890) had expanded the number of veterans and their dependents who could receive a federal pension to any veteran who could not perform manual labor, had served at least ninety days in the army, had been disabled for any reason (and not only through military service), and had received an honorable discharge. It is not clear from the script what kind of disability that Silas Green, Sr. had to receive his pension. In general, African American veterans had trouble obtaining a pension and were often manipulated by white agents to defraud the U. S. Pension Bureau. See Donald R. Shaffer, "'I do not suppose that Uncle Sam looks at the skin': African Americans and the Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934," Civil War History 46.2 (June 2000): 132-47.

(6.) In the version of the play performed at the Third Avenue Theatre, Silas, Jr. sings "I Hope These Few Lines Will Find You Well" (1897), written by Bob Cole and Billy Johnson. It is presumable that they wrote this song specifically for A Trip to Coontown, although the sheet- music version of this song does not mention the production. Playbill, A Trip to Coontown, Third Avenue Theatre, New York, NY, week of April 4, 1898, Clippings, Harvard Theatre Collection, Pusey Library, Harvard University; Bob Cole and Billy Johnson, "I Hope These Few Lines Will Find You Well" (New York: Howley, Haviland, 1897), Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University.

(7.) "Hannah" is a reference to Marcus Alonzo Hanna, a prominent Republican politician from Ohio who had helped William McKinley win the presidency in 1896 through his aggressive fundraising campaign. At the time, he was seen as the mastermind behind McKinley's political success, revolutionizing the American campaigning process. Political cartoonists, most notably Homer Davenport of William Randolph Hearst's New York Evening Journal, vilified Hanna's relationship with big business and the unprecedented sums of money that he raised for McKinley. Hanna was also seen as one of the most influential politicians during the McKinley administration.

(8.) It is unclear what Silas Sr. sang here, based on existing playbills, but he presumably sang something about policy, an illegal lottery system that was popular among African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century, in the production at the Third Avenue Theater. Flimflammer and Wayside, along with two female chorus members, sing "(Play) 4-11-44," which is the number combination in policy that leads to the biggest payout. In 1899, George Walker and Bert Williams would write The Policy Players, which was their first full-length musical production together.

(9.) Blackface minstrels originally sang all of the songs that Silas, Sr. mentions here in the 1850s and 1860s. The playbill from the Third Avenue Theatre has Lena Wiser, who played Fannie, singing Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), a sentimental treatment of slavery.

(10.) This comment refers to Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me" (1896), one of the most popular ragtime, or "coon" songs, of the late nineteenth century. The song ridiculed whites for their inability to tell African Americans apart.

(11.) A Rube (also spelled Rueb) is a shortened version of "Reuben," and was a nineteenth-century slang term to describe a country bumpkin. It is likely that Tom Brown, who played this Rube as well as other ethnic caricatures in the production, used whiteface.

(12.) In the Third Avenue Theatre version, Flimflammer and Wayside sing "Two Bold Bad Men." No copy of this song appears to exist.

(13.) "Flimflammer" refers to a swindler or deceiver.

(14.) Cole and Johnson were poking fun at the common stereotype in blackface minstrelsy that depicted African Americans as slaves happily eating watermelon. Later in the production, the authors also poke fun at the perception that African Americans like fried chicken.
COPYRIGHT 2011 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Moon, Krystyn R.; Krasner, David; Riis, Thomas L.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
Previous Article:Contributors.
Next Article:Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes; or, the "Colored Historian's" Resistance to the Technologies of Power in Postwar America.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters