William Edgar Easton came from five generations of human rights activists. His paternal ancestors had served in the American Revolution and his maternal ancestors served in the Haitian Revolution. He had African, European and Native American (Wampanoag) ancestry. His skin color was light enough to pass as white, yet he always identified as African-American.
Much like Angelina Weld Grimké, Easton had some illustrious ancestors and was brought up partially in Massachusetts.
As previously stated, he was the fifth generation in a line of activists – let’s just check in and see who some of those were:
James Easton (1754-1830)
William Edgar’s great-granduncle [great-grandfather’s brother]. Of Wampanoag and African descent.
He fought in American Revolution, worked as a blacksmith, ran his own foundry for over 20 years, opened an academic and vocational school for African-Americans and seemed to have a hobby of using sit-ins to integrate churches. Seriously, throughout his adult life he and his family tried to integrate the segregated congregations to which they belonged.
It seems nearly all of James’ children took up his activist ways, most prominently…
Hosea Easton (1799-1837) was a minister, abolitionist, author and human rights activist.
Next in line is James’ grandson…
Benjamin F. Roberts (1815-1881) who was a printer, publisher, writer and activist. Is greatest claim to fame is pursuing Roberts v. Boston – he sued the city of Boston because of its “seperate but equal” schooling system. Despite the involvement of lawyer (and soon-to-be senator) Charles Sumner and lawyer Robert Morris, Roberts sadly lost the case. The case would be cited in US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 in which “seperate but equal” was enshrined in law.
Octave Oliviers was an ancestor of Easton’s mother Marie Leggett. I couldn’t find out much about him except he was a general in Haïti’s revolution.
Easton wrote the play Dessalines, a dramatic tale : a single chapter from Haiti’s history for the 1893 Exposition. The play was performed in Chicago, but not exactly at the Haïtian exhibit.
Now we must delve a bit into Haïtian history…
Haïti was a slave colony run raped by the French. The export was sugar cane. Eventually the slaves found a way to rebel and did just that in 1791. Dessalines was one of thousands of soldiers fighting the French. He became a leader, working closely with the famous Haïtian badass Toussaint Louverture. Meanwhile, having its own revolutionary problems, France declared slavery abolished. Then it gets kinda weird. Louverture and Dessalines then joined the French to fight the Spanish and British. Louverture invaded the Spanish side of Hispaniola and freed the slaves there.
But France is tricky and in 1801 Napoleon thought it’d be a grand idea to restore slavery. Louverture was taken prisoner and died in France. Dessalines and his followers defeated the French soldiers and secured Haïtian independence. Oh, and he ordered a massacre of almost all the white people in Haïti (except for the Poles). And he became president and self-proclaimed emperor of Haïti. As such, he reimplemented the plantation ssytem, ostensibly to maintain Haiti’s economy, but the people felt like they had been enslaved again and it wasn’t long before Dessalines was killed, but we’re not quite sure how.
Thus, Dessalines’ legacy is quite mixed. He was a brave patriot and competant leader who led Haïti to victory over the hated French. He also ordered massacres and in a way re-enslaved his people. And proclaimed himself emperor.
This isn’t quite the same guy in the play – let’s take a look!!
Cultural note: in the Haïtian Revolution, the dark-skinned Haitians and the mixed-race Haïtians (mulatres) didn’t get along much.
I’ve noticed this seems to happen when the colonizers create a class that isn’t at the top nor is it at the bottom: they tend to be despised by both sides, warranted or not. A similar thing happened to the mixed-race Indos of Indonesia during their revolution.
So mulatre Flavien is kind of a dick. And Placide is pretty direct about his feelings.
Flavien being a dick to Placide. Dessalines shows up and takes all the slaves.Mulatre General Rigaud thinks about joining, but remains loyal to France. Dessalines becomes captor to Rigaud’s sister, Clarisse. Dessalines wants to punish the soldiers who tricked Clarisse and were going to abuse her. Clarisse begs him to spare them. Rigaud and Lefebre meet – again about France. Dessalines shows up. They don’t fight. Later Rigaud confronts him about honor. Fight. Clarisse saves everyone. Clarisse prays. Dessalines becomes Catholic.
Not a shabby plot, but the play is WAY better than the above. The strongest part is truly the dialogue. Easton had a way with words…Flavien is all butthurt over Placide’s insult – he complains to the slaves…
The published volume has several illustrations – the one featuring Dessalines is earlier. These are the others:
Then, after a period of nearly 20 years, Easton published Christophe; a tragedy in prose of imperial Haiti.
The author actually made his own synopsis of the play:
Now it’s not a bad play, but even the synopsis is where things start to falter. There are some things in the synopsis that aren’t even in the play. Not a good sign.
And we must jump back into Haïtian history a bit…
Much like Dessalines, Henri-Christophe had been a general in the Haitian Revolution. Of interest to Americans, he may have served in the American Revolution as a drummer boy with the French at the failed Siege of Savannah in 1778.
On 6 April 1805, having gathered all his troops, General Christophe took all male prisoners to the local cemetery and proceeded to slit their throats, among them Presbyter Vásquez and 20 more priests.
He was involved in the conspiracy to kill Dessalines and when he proclaimed himself emperor, he went all in:
“Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.”
This isn’t quite the Henri-Christophe that appears in the play.
In real-life, Christophe shot himself in the head with a silver bullet [insert werewolf joke here]. In the play he stabs himself with his sword before stabbing someone else.
The play, in my opinion, is quite pedestrian, especially if we compare it to Dessalines. It seems to lack the vigor inherent in plot – it moves forward simply because it has to.
There’s a lot more French used in this play than in Dessalines.
The pseudo-Shakespearean language has been toned down immensely. There’s a part where some Haitians accuse Dessalines of planning to allow white people to live in Haiti:
I found the best bits of dialogue deal with the honorable Dessalines and the traitorous Christophe.
“Puppet of my whims!” <<<< Dessalines pwned Christophe right there.
Sadly, Dessalines dies pretty early in the play. And as previously stated, the play plods… a lot. But the book has illustrations. Let’s check out the Classics Illustrated version:
The most interesting thing about the play is the part played by Henrietta Vinton Davis – that of Valerie, who dresses up like a murdering vengeful priest!!!!
If the entire play had been about a woman dressed as a priest killing people, yeah it would be a classic.
It’s still worth a look and maybe other folks will disagree with my assessment.
The play was produced by Miss Davis at the Lenox Casino in New York City with an opening night of March 21, 1912. Fun fact: in 1912 this “casino” was busted for showing stag films.
This week brings us to the late Neil Simon, the guy who wrote a bunch of plays that seem to exist as scene and monologue material for acting students. This, plus the sheer number of his plays that have been put into film is testament to his influence on American culture, for better or worse.
ANGELA: I made a mistake.
GABE: A big mistake or a small—
ANGELA: Big one.
GABE: Doubt it.
ANGELA: A huge mistake! Ginormous even!
GABE: Now you have to tell me.
ANGELA: (takes a deep breath) I made a deal with the devil and now she’s slowly feeding my soul to a horde of monsters.
Unlike her relatable, yet flawed, characters, Makrenna Sterdan’s plays don’t make many mistakes.
In addition to directing, acting and plawriting, Makrenna is a full-time teacher and is also involved in filmmaking. This post will focus on her plays…
What Would Tina Fey Do? takes its title from a supposed Christian saying that became popular in the 90s and transposing it onto American actress, comedian, writer, producer, and playwright Tina Fey.
Nora is dealing with a difficult actor and turns to her Lord and personal savior, Tina Fey. The play is short enough we can read the whole dang thing:
Aside from the fact Nora has pretty much pegged this dude’s MO: Use a woman’s interest in a project to seduce her. Oh and the “nice guy” thing? It’s not very nice.
In case you didn’t notice, Nora is referencing Fey’s appearence on Saturday Night Live in 2017.
Good for Nora and an interesting treatise on the benefits and dangers of celebrity worship and projecting our lives and problems onto someone who has no vested interest in our lives.
Makrenna’s next short play, Geese, shows us what happens when the bridegroom and the bride’s brother/best man get trapped by a bunch of…geese…at a golf rental store.
The duo strategize…
“Just a little bit.” But Tristan doesn’t want to hurt the poor Canada geese.
And thus we are left with an ambiguous ending. Do Tristan and Ben win? Or do the Canada Geese? Or perhaps the bride?
Makrenna’s next take on society is Doing it for the Fame (the same reason I write this blog).
I like the flexibility Sterdan gives the theatremakers.
In truth the reason could easily be a blend of several.
At the end, the answers are htting the nail on the head. These are commonreasons given by victims of domestic abuse. Don’t believe me? Check out Surviving R. Kelly .
I like that the play/game ends on a positive note.
Our final Sterdan masterpiece is The Iceberg. It’s the play the opening lines of this blog came from. It is also the longest play we’ll go over, clocking in at nearly 50 glorious pages of a coffee shop, some soul-selling and Lilith. And in a kinda postmodern way – there’s more to the story than is apparent.
Gabe goes to a coffee shop that’s full of…monsters. He’s none too happy about this. Oh, and Angela is responsible for said monsters.
Gee, Gabe. Don’t pry.
Meanwhile, the gang run into Lilith who is in charge of the monsters and everything but isn’t really Satan. Angela and Gabe try…
I don’t see that triple-layered dialogue all too often. Interesting conflict here, since Gabe and Angela want opposite sides of what is basically the same deal.
More than meets the eye here.
Hey! It’s the first lines of this blog and also a very common, if successful, trope.
And it all wraps up with Lilith finding peace and Angela finding possible love. Did I not mention this is a romantic comedy? Albeit one with soul-selling, a Babylonian mythological creature and a dude who just wanted some coffee.
She should be a barista. Makrenna was nice enough to answer some questions about herself and her work:
How did you start playwriting?
Although I’ve always had an interest in writing, I transitioned into playwriting naturally during junior high. I took my first drama class in Grade 7, which is when we started writing scenes. I continued writing throughout high school before deciding to pursue playwriting seriously by studying it in University, and producing my first show in 2012.
2. What are your influences?
Hmmmmmm . . . the two main artists who’ve influenced my work are Tom Stoppard and Tina Fey. I love how Tom Stoppard has the amazing ability to integrate philosophy into his plays, along with witty dialogue. I admire Tina Fey for her ability to make comedic stories that deal with serious issues.
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
My most memorable production would have to be one I had the honour of directing. The play was “A Case of Anxiety” by Mark Harvey Levine which I directed for Seoul Players’ 2017 Ten Minute Play Festival. I loved directing this show because the script was amazing, and the cast was as well. For a cast of seven who had a fight scene (along with extensive physicality) to choreograph, I felt like we bonded very well and worked very cohesively as a group. During one of the performances, the final fight scene was off. Of course, I was the only one who noticed, because they improvised the scene brilliantly. Whenever I direct a cast, or commit to doing a theatre production with others, I always strive for this level of cohesion. “A Case of Anxiety” really raised to bar for me and showed how great working on a theatre project can be.
4. What is your least memorable production and why?
My least memorable production would have to be my first show. I produced a one woman show for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival in 2012 called The Death Test. It was my first go at a theatre show, and from a technical standpoint it went well. From an artistic standpoint, I felt a bit empty because I immediately knew the show could have been better. I had written and performed the show by myself, but I knew to make real art I needed a broader community, with more collaboration. After that, I put a greater effort into working with other theatre artists.
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
Well . . . it was actually during a rehearsal for “A Case of Anxiety”. I was terrified during our fight scene because we had wooden swords and there was a lot of running around. I was worried someone was going to get hurt, so I kept telling everyone to be careful, and I think they might have been a bit annoyed by it. But, of course, when I was filling in for one of the actors who was missing, I was the one to (accidentally) hit my then-boyfriend with one of the wooden swords.
He wasn’t even in the show—he just came to rehearsal to help out.
6. What are your writing habits like?
I am a huge Netflix addict, so often when I write I have a television show on in the background for at least the first hour. Of course, I also need to make time to write, which at times can be difficult. But oftentimes after finishing work, or a volunteer shift, I have a lot of mental stimulation which I then reroute into writing.
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
When you have writer’s block, just keep writing. I often find for myself that writer’s block is just the absence of good ideas, not necessarily ideas. Just get the writing done, and worry if it’s good with the next draft.
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
There are a couple Canadian playwrights who I would recommend. Norm Foster is an excellent comedy writer, and I immensely enjoyed the opportunity to direct his My Darling Judith. Joanna Glass is also a very interesting writer, who I feel really captures themes prevalent in Canadian literature.
9. What are common themes in your work?
I find feminist themes are something I keep going back to, and usually with humour or satire. I just find some things I read in the news completely nonsensical, and I write work to reflect how nonsensical it is. I also enjoy throwing in a good dash of mythology and magic realism, just to keep things interesting.
10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
I wished that I had collaborated more with other writers and theatre professionals when I was just starting out. I didn’t know how to reach out to others, though, so I mostly just wrote alone in my room. Theatre got so much better when I started directing and participating in theatre productions in other capacities because it helped me meet other artists.
11. How does your experience as a theatre director inform your writing?
Theatre, film, and art in general is a collaborative process. When I work as a director, I use my playwriting experience to interpret the script. When I write a script, I use my directing experience to inform the writing. Since I know what a director is looking for, and how certain things might be interpreted, I try as much as possible to put those sorts of things into the scripts I write. Another thing directing has taught me is how to let the script go. Putting your script into the hands of a director can be one of the most difficult parts of playwriting—but it’s necessary. Theatre is collaborative. Having directed, I know what aspects of a script are my responsibility to write, and what aspects I need to let the director handle. Directing has opened my eyes to the collaborative nature of theatre, and how the story isn’t the sole responsibility of the playwright—directors, actors, stage managers, lighting designers, costume designers, everybody contributes to the art in a performance. Working with others is what makes art beautiful. Stressful at times. But beautiful and worth doing in the long run.
12. You’re the second playwright on this blog who has mentioned Lilith in a play. What does Lilith bring to the table?
Lilith appears in “The Iceberg”, where throughout you’re not sure if she’s actually the devil or not. Lilith was the perfect name because, depending on the legend, she’s either a demon of the night, or in others she’s just someone who refused to be subservient to a man. She plays different roles depending on whether you look at religion, mythology, literature, etc. For the practicality of the play, I chose the name Lilith to be misleading. She’s definitely one of the most interesting mythological characters.
13. Iceberg started as a short and is now a longer one act. What advice would you give playwrights who want to expand short pieces?
The main thing is to think about why you’re expanding it. Some stories are only meant to be five minutes, others are meant to be two acts. Similarly, some stories are meant to be plays, some are meant to be novels or movies, and flipping between mediums and lengths requires understanding what the new form will bring to the table. For example, a shorter form is great to deliver a message, while a longer form gives a chance to look at characters in depth. If you want to expand a piece, then there should be something more to explore.
14. Where did you get the idea for a game show about domestic violence?
I wrote “Doing It for the Fame”, the game show piece in question, for a specific opportunity. It was for the 2016 Cabaret of Monologues by Sarasvati Productions. The prompt was “Stolen Sisters”, and they were looking for pieces on violence against women. At the time, in Canada, the big news was the Jian Ghomeshi trial that was going to happen in 2016. He was charged with sexually assaulting several women. There was a large group of people who strongly stated that they believed the women. Then, there was also a large group pushing back and saying the women were just “doing it for the fame.” So, I knew I wanted to address the issue women face with believability when they go to trial. I didn’t know which angle to take, though. Some time passed, and I was just listening to music when Lady Gaga’s “Doing It for the Fame” came on. I was inspired. The chorus sounded like an opening theme to a game show! And the perfect title for the monologue. So that was the long process that culminated in a satirical game show that addresses domestic violence, and several of the issues I noticed especially with the lead up to Jian Ghomeshi’s trial.
15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
Red Lips Productions will have a show in the 2019 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. For this show, I’ll be writing a comedic zombie one-act. If you’re in Winnipeg, stay tuned for more details!
A summary of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – his most bloody revenge tragedy.
The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are in contention for the Roman emperorship.
Titus Andronicus, Rome’s most honoured general, returns from wars against the Goths with their queen, Tamora, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor, as captives. Her eldest son is sacrificed by Titus; she vows revenge.
A NEW EMPEROR
Titus is nominated emperor by his brother Marcus, one of Rome’s tribunes. This Titus declines, instead nominating Saturninus.
To seal the bond of friendship, the new emperor, Saturnius, offers to marry Titus’s daughter Lavinia. She, however, is already pledged to Bassianus.
Saturninus, by now infatuated with Tamora, makes her empress instead.
Manipulated by Aaron, Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Lavinia, and killing Bassianus. Aaron falsely implicates two of Titus’s sons in this murder.
In his turn Titus vows revenge and sends his surviving son Lucius to the Goths to raise an army. Titus achieves his revenge by killing Tamora’s sons and serving them up to her at a banquet, and then killing her.
He himself is killed by Saturninus and his death avenged by Lucius, who is made emperor.
Pleasant stuff there. I remember my jerkface English teacher in high school telling us how much Titus Andronicus sucked and how we shouldn’t even bother reading it.
And ask much of a jerkface as my English teacher was, the character of Aaron is a straight up dick.
And, in typical Shakespearean fashion, he’s bad simply because he’s bad. Though one could argue he’s bad because he’s the victim of racist abuse for…like ever.
I found some videos on Youtube of actors doing Aaron’s confession. Aaron is an interesting character for any actor because on one hand he absorbs all sorts of racism and actually kills someone on account of her racial slurs:
“Zounds, ye whore! Is black so base a hue?”
Yet at the same time seems to think having dark skin makes it OK for him to run around killing everyone:
“Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace; Aaron will have his soul black like his face.”
Here is the monologue:
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
There are multiple versions of Aaron’s confession monologue on Youtube. Let’s take a look:
Angelina Weld Grimké was a very unique and interesting writer whose literary output consisted mostly of poetry and a few short stories. She also wrote two full-length plays, one of which was performed and published.
Angelina Weld Grimké wrote from a very personal place, and that personal place was incredibly unique. As another blog described it:
“Her family, within the three preceding generations, included slaveholders and slaves, free black people and white abolitionists.”
Awkward family reunion jokes aside, that’s one interesting way to start life (we don’t really have any choice as to which family we’re born into – thanks Mom and Dad) and Angelina Weld Grimké continued to live her life in a singular way.
Her uncle was a celebrated pastor and civil rights leader. He co-founded the NAACP. Her father was a lawyer, journalist, diplomat and civil rights leader. On the other hand, her half-uncle was a vicious slave owner who owned and beat her father.
Her mother was a leading lecturer and author on the occult.
Her great-aunts were celebrated abolitionists and feminists.
Her life is more worthy of a book than a blog post.
I thought perhaps a timeline version of her life might suit our purposes. Still, one can see cause and effect…
1752-1819: Judge John Faucheraud Grimké lives in Charleston, South Carolina and owns hundreds of slaves. He’s of mixed Alsatian and Huguenot descent (the surname was Grimk until an ancestor changed it). He is our playwright hero’s great-grandfather.
1792 and 1805: His daughters, the “Grimké Sisters” are born (Sarah and Angelina). They are two of 14 children. They are our playwright’s great-aunts.
1820s: The Grimke sisters hate slavery. Both move north and become famous abolitionists and feminists. Angelina marries into the Boston Brahmin Weld family, also abolitionists.
They are still so famous that American high school students are forced to make videos pretending to be them:
I guess they lost their Charleston accents…
1840-1850s: Following the death of his wife, their brother Henry Grimké has three children with one of his slaves, Nancy Weston. Henry and Nancy are our playwright’s grandparents.
1852: Henry dies and wills his children to his son Montague, with the provision that they be treated as part of the family. For a few years Nancy lives on her own with the boys.
1857: Montague doesn’t respect his father’s wishes and takes the boys into his house as slaves. He and his wife beat them severely and often. In fact he even takes Archibald to the local police to have them whip him. Montague viewed Archie as a “surly, callow, ungracious, and insulting servant.” Never mind that they were half-brothers. Archie is our playwright’s father.
1868: Angelina Grimké reads an article about Archibald Grimké being such a great student. She visits him and learns about their family connection. She welcomes the boys into her home. The sisters help them as much as possible. Archibald will graduate from Harvard Law School and his brother Francis will graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
1879: Archibald Grimke marries Sarah Stanley, a white woman from a prominent abolitionist family. Her family opposes the marriage. Information about her isn’t as scarce as Wikipedia pretends.
1880: Their only child, our playwright hero Angelina Weld Grimké is born, named after her great-aunt.
Spring 1882: Sarah takes Angelina to Michigan for a visit to her family. This “visit” turns into her keeping Angelina from the child’s father. Archibald writes a bunch of letters begging her to return.
Fall 1882: She returns briefly after Archibald secures an apartment for her in Boston, but quickly leaves again. She probably suffered from mental illness.
1882-1887: Angelina is raised by Sarah and her white grandparents in Michigan. Archibald continues to beg her to return to Boston. Even as late as 1886, he is asking her to take their wedding vows seriously.
Sarah embarks on a career writing and lecturing about astrology, the occult and metaphysical solutions of illness. Often, while travelling, she brings Angelina with her, including to California.
Archibald was also a writer. He worked as a columnist for the Boston Herald and eventually founded his own newspaper, The Guardian.
1887: Sarah Grimké puts her seven year-old daughter Angelina on a train from California to Boston. All by herself.
She’ll sporadically write letters to her daughter, but will never see her again. The letters have a case of the weirds.
Fall 1887: Now living with her father, Angelina begins attending the mostly white Fairmount School in Hyde Park. She may have attended school in California at some point.
February 1891: Angelina writes her first known poem. It is about death.
May 1893: Angelina publishes a poem in the local newspaper, The Grave in the Corner, about a Union veteran’s grave.
Her published poetry tended to be about nature, elegies, love in general and later about racial themes and civil rights.
Her unpublished poetry seemed to dwell on death and lesbian love.
1894: Following her father’s move to Washington, DC she attends the all-black M Street School for a school year.
Early 1894: Archbald is appointed American Consul to the Dominican Republic. He leaves Angelina with his brother Francis and sister-in-law in DC. Angelina is rebellious and they fight often.
At this time, 14 year-old Angelina took several photos in costumes her father had sent her. She then mailed them to her father.
While at Carleton, she receives letters from former classmate and future playwright Mary Burrill from Washington, DC hinting at a relationship.
Also, she writes a love letter to a “Mamie” – probably a white classmate but also possibly Burrill back in DC. It includes these lines:
I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, ‘my wife’
Later, Mary Burrill and Angelina would be coworkers at the same school, ironically educating future playwrights!
1897: Attends Cushing Academy in Massachsuetts. Writes a love poem “Rosabel” about one of her teachers.
Leaves, that whisper, whisper ever,
Listen, listen, pray;
Birds, that twitter, twitter softly,
Do not say me nay;
Winds, that breathe about, upon her,
(Since I do not dare)
Whisper, twitter, breathe unto her
That I find her fair.
Rose whose soul unfolds white petaled
Touch her soul rose-white;
Rose whose thoughts unfold gold petaled
Blossom in her sight;
Rose whose heart unfolds red petaled
Quick her slow heart’s stir;
Tell her white, gold, red my love is;
And for her, — for her
Early 1898: Her father returns from the Dominican Republic.
1902: Begins teaching Physical Education at all-black Armstrong Vocational Training School in Washington, DC. She does not get along with the principal and receives poor evaluations. Her father intervenes several times. She switches to teaching English.
Writes Give Me Your Eyes. It isn’t published in her lifetime.
Give me your eyes.
I do not ask to touch
The hands of you, the mouth of you,
Soft and sweet and fragrant though they be.
No, lift your eyes to mine;
Give me but one last look
Before I step forth forever;
Even though within that moment’s crashing space,
I shall know all of life and death heaven and hell
She also writes Naughty Nan, which may be about herself [Her nickname was Nana]
If you can
Tell me how your frowns and smiles,
Sudden tears, and naive wiles,
Linked into a glittering band
Follow swiftly hand in hand?
Tell me wayward April-born,
Child of smiles and tears forlorn,
Have you ever felt the smart
Of a lacerated heart?
Are you but a sprite of moods?
Heartless, that fore’er deludes
Tell me naughty Nan?
If you can
Tell me why you have such eyes
Gleaming when not drooped in sighs
Or when veiled by falling rain?
Haughty oft but never vain
Sometime wistful orbs of brown,
Sometimes blazing in fierce scorn
But eyes that are never free
From some glance of witchery.
Tell me why you have such lips
Tempting me to stolen sips
Tender, drooping, luring, sad,
Laughing, mocking, madly glad,
Tell me naughty Nan?
If you can
Tell me why you play with me,
Take my heart so prettily
In your dainty, slender, hands,
Bruise its tender, loving, bands?
Tell me why your eyes are brown
Mock and glitter when I frown?
Flitting, luring, little, sprite
In a garb of moods bedight,
Dancing here, and dancing there,
Changeling strange, but ever fair
You have caught me in your snare, —
1903: Angelina starts writing a diary in response to being rejected by [probably] a white man. In it, she talks of suicide. He was a professional American singer based in London. In her diary she mentions that when he sang “My Rosary” for her she made him stop because it caused too much pain.
*I know several scholars think this was a lesbian affair, but she uses masculine pronouns in the diaries, calls him a man and in a diary entry many years later mentions his name. And she discussed it with her father, who flipped his lid.
This also provides an impetus to her writing and her devotion to her father as the following diary entries indicate:
I am very tired of living. There is nothing to look forward to, only a year of school with a vacation at the end […] There is writing, but the great emptiness of many years before [me] with nothing to look forward to at the end. When people talk about what they are going to do in the future all I think to to myself is ‘What does it all amount to?’ At the end there is only the grave. There is no cure for this everlasting heartache. It never lets up […] I have given up my girlhood. I can never be a girl again. That is gone, and I am an old woman at heart.
Three days later she had this to say:
I have entirely two reasons for living, my dear father and my writing. they must fill my life absolutely. I can never expect to love again. This shall be the beginning, the real beginning of my effort to crush it out forever. […] It almost hurts me to see that my love for you [the man who disappointed her] is nearly as great as that for my father. It hurts me also to see that he has a rival for I do, I do love him so much.
This marked a focus on making her dad happy and writing.
1907: She transfers to the all-black M Street School and teaches English there. She does well there.
Twilight—and you Quiet—the stars; Snare of the shine of your teeth, Your provocative laughter, The gloom of your hair; Lure of you, eye and lip; Yearning, yearning, Languor, surrender; Your mouth, And madness, madness, Tremulous, breathless, flaming, The space of a sigh; Then awakening—remembrance, Pain, regret—your sobbing; And again, quiet—the stars, Twilight—and you.
1911: She suffers a broken back in a train wreck in Connecticut. 14 people died, including a lady in Grimké’s car. She must recuperate for months at a home with her father, uncle and his wife. She will suffer chronic health problems after this.
Still are there wonders of the dark and day; The muted shrilling of shy things at night, So small beneath the stars and moon; The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light Lies softly on the leaves at noon. These are, and these will be Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Each dawn, while yet the east is veil’d grey, The birds about her window wake and sing; And far away, each day, some lark I know is singing where the grasses swing; Some robin calls and calls at dark. These are, and these will be Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.
The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray; Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn, But not for eyes that loved them best; Only her little pansies are all gone, Some lying softly on her breast. And flowers will bud and be Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Where has she gone? And who is there to say? But this we know: her gentle spirit moves And is where beauty never wanes, Perchance by other streams, ‘mid other groves: And to us here, ah! she remains A lovely memory Until eternity;
She came, she loved, and then she went away.
1916: Grimké begins teaching at Dunbar High School, where future playwright May Miller is her student and former [probably] girlfriend Mary Burrill.
Also 1916: She writes an anti-lynching play, Rachel, that is produced and published. We’ll talk about this soon.
1926: She retires from teaching to take care of her sick father.
1927: Publishes much poetry, including:
An Epitaph on a Living Woman
There were tiny flames in her eyes,
Her mouth was a flame,
And her flesh. . . . . . .
Now she is ashes.
1930: Her father dies. Angelina quickly leaves the DC house for New York City and never publishes any new writing again. Scholars have pointed out that the death of her father seemed to rob her of the will to write as well as to live.
1958: Angelina Weld Grimké passes away, having spent nearly 30 years as a recluse.
Like I said, a blog post won’t do her justice.
Now, on to Rachel.
The plot concerns the humble Loving family. They live up North and consist of Ma Loving, her teenaged daughter Rachel and teenaged son Tom. Through incidents in the plot we discover what happened to their father and brother ten years before.
In the course of the story the family adopts a neighbor boy. A young man courtsharasses comes on strong to Rachel.
There is much discussion about race and racism and American society. Rachel gets snubbed by a supposed friend who is white. The young boy they take in gets called the n-word and harassed and Rachel comes to a dread realization at the end.
The absolute most impressive, yet painfully sad, aspect of the play is that despite being written in 1916, it may as well be set in 2019 America.
As the son Tom observes:
For those unaware of voter supression in the US, start here.
Or as Tom’s older buddy Strong remarks:
And as Rachel points out…
She’s talking about the prospect of lynching here, which still exists in America, albeit in an even more nefarious form.
One common criticism of Rachel is that the language is stilted or speechy,
“Her conversation with her mother […] feels stilted, the anecdotes they share rarely of much note.”
But these reviews seem to forget we’re dealing with the author of some badass and powerfully vivid poetry….true, the play may be “speechy” – but the good type of speechy.
Rachel begins the play loaded with optimism. She totally wants to be a mother and loves children.
Interesting thread from the Biblical story of Mary to 1916 Rachel (who, incidentally has a a Biblical name).
She particularly loves “black and brown babies”:
Compare this to how Rachel evolves:
Remember, Grimké herself made a similar vow albeit in different circumstances.
Going from Rachel’s point A to Point B constitutes much of the plot. We’ll explore this in a minute…but first, another reason to commend this play:
Rachel is such a willful, strong and yet conflicted character. It would be a great role for any actress.
She works well with children, plus the kids are awfully sweet:
She provides counseling to a mother whose child has become withdrawn due to racism at her school.
The mother enquires about the school Rachel attended and explains her daughter’s situation:
Rachel does indeed brag up the school – Grimké herself usually attended mostly white schools.
Those plot points I mentioned? Pretty much all of them have to do with Rachel seeing the effects of racism on her family in particular and African-Americans in general.
Rachel learns what happened to her father and brother:
Father and brother dying on the same day does sound a little..
Damn. And by Christians, too. But then the mom gives the reason:
The father had been a newspaper editor (just like Grimké’s own father) and had been threatened, simply because he printed the truth (about the first murder) and then he and his son were killed. Remember how I mentioned this may as well be 2019? There’s a reason Time magazine picked journalists as “People of the Year” (Hint: being good journalists can be lethal)
Remember that child Rachel adopted after his parents passed away? She got to have this conversation with them:
Several critics have looked for autobiographical elements in the play – and they seem to be there. Rachel is “brown” (i.e. lighter complected), she and her family are highly educated. The father was a journalist who fought bigotry. She had a failed romance. The mother suffers from rheumatism, as did Grimké’s. And she foreswore any chance of having children.
Here’s a talented actress using some lines from Rachel as a monologue on Youtube.
Another aspect that appears obvious is mental illness. In fact Grimké herself refers to Rachel as a “highly-strung girl” in a piece defending the play.
Given Grimké’s unique family history – the unusually close relationship with her father, the remarks from others that she seemed unhappy often, her mother’s suicide and claims from others that she was paranoid – it makes sense that the hero of the tale is, well, highly strung.
Killing as a kindness.
Earlier, her mother had found her unconscious after having apparently violently attacked the flowers John Strong had given her.
Rachel goes on…
In all fairness, being called “little girl” when you’re 22 might be a trigger.
So Rachel breaks down cursing God, hearing her children in her sleep and laughing uncontrollably. Yeah.
NOW, on the other hand…she recently learned her father and brother were victims of nice white Christians – and now nice white Christians are harassing her adopted child. And others. WHO could hold it together???
Rachel shares an interesting story with young Jimmy. This would make for a great monologue.
Grimké takes her poet’s pen to even the description. Who here is sick of seeing submission requirements that look like this?
Nobody told Grimké about all this minimalism, or if they did, she ignored it to death – so we get some beautiful descriptions such as:
Pictured above: Grimké’s middle finger to 21st century theatrical minimalism.
If you haven’t noticed, their house has some famous paintings. Let’s take a look:
I like that the play uses real paintings. The second act presents us with different paintings.
Let’s talk about Watts’ Hope, or rather what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“As cheap reproductions of Hope, and from 1908 high-quality prints, began to circulate in large quantities, it became a widely popular image. President Theodore Roosevelt displayed a copy at his Sagamore Hill home in New York; reproductions circulated worldwide; and a 1922 film depicted Watts’s creation of the painting and an imagined story behind it.”
You probably noticed Ethelbert Nevin‘s name pop up a couple of times. It seems Grimké was a bit of a fangirl, as you may recall:
I’m guessing she meant The Rosary by Nevin. This singer was the guy Grimké had fallen in love with. And wow…he could do some damage with just a song. In fact, this song:
“taken a knife and run it all around and, in and out an old unhealed wound.”
Although it seems minor in biographies and such, it’s obvious that Grimké dug Nevin’s music or was at least fond enough of it to have some guy sing it to her and two put two songs in the play.
Another interesting aspect of the play is that it depicts the world of children well:
Finally, we should see how the play ends…
The play had a couple of performances in 1916…
The play was published in 1920 and that’s when it gained wider exposure.
Reviews were generally favorable, the main criticisms being that the character of Rachel is a bit extreme and also that the play appears to be promoting “race suicide” since Rachel seems to have given up on black and brown babies.
“Since it has been understood that ‘Rachel’ preaches race suicide, I would emphasize that that was not my intention. To the contrary, the appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but to the whites.”
She claimed her main purpose was to appeal to white women‘s sense of motherhood and that as mothers, these women would be sympathetic to the play.
Her subsidiary motive was to show white people the “best type of colored people.”
As for the story and characterization in the play, her argument is that Rachel learns or realizes the harsh truth facing African-Americans and has a breakdown “in mind and soul.”
He wrote the play was “a most moving one that has stirred me profoundly.”
Grimké wrote a second play, Mara, which only exists in manuscript form. It has been reviewed extensively by writers who’ve gone through the Grimké papers at Howard University. I haven’t, so I can’t rightly analyze it. It is set in the South, maintains the theme of lynching but also has a very close daughter-father relationship. Some readers have said it is better than Rachel.
Since Hull’s rediscovery of Grimké’s works about 40 years ago, there has been much scholarship as well as several productions of Rachel.
Grimké’s reputation and renown rest mostly on her incredible poetry, which I encourage you to seek out. It really is good. Here’s one of her more famous ones:
There is a tree, by day,
That, at night,
Has a shadow,
A hand huge and black,
With fingers long and black.
All through the dark,
Against the white man’s house,
In the little wind,
The black hand plucks and plucks
At the bricks.
The bricks are the color of blood and very small.
Is it a black hand,
Or is it a shadow?
We’ll see what we can cover in the link dump after this student video based on one of her poems: