May 9-15, 2002
No Slaves to History
Photo by: Christina M. Felice
The black man unloading the truck in Old City on Monday morning took one look at Nora Martin, an employee of Historic Philadelphia Inc. (HPI), and told her he had a problem with her act. Martin, a black woman, was dressed as fictional midwife Clara Porter, in a costume befitting a free black woman of the 1700s: petticoat, short dress, apron and, in keeping with Porter’s African heritage, a short turban. Martin describes the encounter in the dignified, bemused tone of a schoolteacher. “He said, ‘You should be in an African princess costume, not that thing.’ And I said, ‘This is part of our history, too.’ He said, ‘That’s not part of my history.’ And I thought, ‘Where are you from?’”
Martin says that as she walks the streets of Philadelphia’s historic district and sits in its parks, like all HPI “first-person interpreters” do, many people incorrectly identify her. Many assume she’s a slave, or even “a Muslim.”
Photo By: Christina M. Felice
Martin says of white people who encounter her, "A lot of times they don't want to speak to me. They'll avoid me. They don't want to be reminded of slavery, and they assume I'm a slave."
Some black people, she says, assume the same thing and react angrily. "They see my turban and assume that I'm happily re-enacting slavery; what I'm doing is being a free woman in Philadelphia in 1787. People are very loyal to their misconceptions."
Could these experiences be why more black actors don’t go out to HPI auditions? Mark Saxton is program manager for the city-funded HPI, which offers actors full-time summer employment. The gig involves the opportunity to develop a character as well as to learn in-depth history and performance skills such as staying in character no matter what. The new season began this week, with, according to Saxton, just two black players, who will act in “playlets” and as one black “persona”-- Martin’s Porter. The three are returning performers; Saxton says that despite HPI being “inundated with pictures and resumés,” no new black actors were hired this year, mostly because very few auditioned. Though previous years have seen a few more black people hired (HPI has been around since 1994), there are never many black people who audition, says Saxton.
Though the potential reasons for this are numerous, part of it just might be that black actors often react to the idea of black roles set in colonial times the same way most other American citizens do: "Weren't all black people around back then slaves?"
Martin explains to her audiences that there were a good many free black women in Philadelphia in the time portrayed by HPI -- the time between 1774, when the tax revolt occurred, and 1787, the year the Constitution was ratified. This is true: There were free black people in the North, particularly Philadelphia, where an unusual commitment to anti-slavery sentiment existed among an ethnically and religiously mixed population, according to historians.
Yet how many Americans know that by the late 1790s, many black people in Philadelphia were employed as carpenters, tailors, rope makers, bakers and caterers, among other things, and that a small number of black women ran their own businesses? How many know that 3,000 to 5,000 black men fought in the Revolutionary War? Affluent black community leaders and businessmen Richard Allen and James Forten (who was also a war hero) walked the streets of this city.
Noah Lewis, an Upper Darby native, would put his passion for portraying Edward “Ned” Hector to use for HPI, were it not for scheduling conflicts. A teamster and artilleryman, Hector helped save the day at the Battle of Brandywine.
How did Lewis, 48, a minister who has an electric repair shop, come to Hector? "I would go into my children's school to do presentations on electricity and biology," he says. "One day the teacher asked, Do you have anything you could do on colonial America?' Now, around this time I was doing my own genealogy, and had gotten as far as 1800 North Carolina. I was looking at pension records, and there were more blacks there than I thought there would be. At first I was angry. I thought, Why didn't I ever know this? These are my people!' I started to research it.
"I was shocked. I didn't realize what a rich heritage [black people] had in the colonial period. Then I read about a man who had a street named after him in Conshohocken. This was going on seven years ago."
Lewis has been bringing Hector to schools pretty much ever since. Last year, he visited 28 regional schools and several area historical societies.
Children are usually surprised to see Hector looking so well. "I ask, How many of you think black people were all slaves and that we were all poor?'" says Lewis. "Most of the children -- and more black children -- raise their hands."
Saxton says the 2002 audition notice for HPI ran on KYW radio for a few weeks and was on the actors’ bulletin board at Freedom Theatre, as well as posted on the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s website for all of January and February this year. It was in Backstage and several other places. “We advertised [starting] at the end of December, and the auditions weren’t until March 3rd,” he says.
Saxton says there are several possible reasons for low black turnout this year, such as the fate of scheduling restrictions -- HPI actors must spend three weeks training and have the scheduling flexibility to allow for full-time employment for just one season -- and requirements that narrow the pool of all actors, not just those who are black.
Saxton points out that "you have to have experience with historical acting and street theater. It's a different world. If a bus is going by 20 feet away from where you're pouring your heart out regarding how this country was made, you have to deal with that."
The pay is decent enough, especially in the competitive, not-much-work world of acting. That pay is $12 an hour including training (and for players, rehearsal time) plus bonuses. Special events pay $50 an hour. According to Saxton, who was the Philadelphia-area liaison for Actors' Equity Association for five years, it's a great opportunity for actors dealing with summer, when theater "is basically shut down."
Martin tells a story involving herself and former HPI actor Shay Hammond, who is black. HPI sent them to work a corporate party as their characters. Hammond’s persona was a schoolteacher, who, in keeping with her particular African heritage, wore a basket on her head. Martin says, “A black gentleman was so offended by our presence that we were asked to leave. We didn’t.”
Martin says she and Hammond remained and asked to speak to the man and explain their roles, but he refused to speak to them.
Still, she says she likes her job and insists there are plenty of rewarding times.
Martin says that in her experience with HPI, black actors have chosen without exception to interpret free black people, not slaves. She says playing slaves would be limited, because of public sensitivity, to "playing firebrands." She says portrayals of the miseries of slave life wouldn't be accepted well. And that's not all. "What if you played a slave that didn't hate his master -- oh, you can forget that."
Lewis says, "Here is the problem: There aren't many blacks who want to see slavery portrayed. It's like showing something on the Third Reich to Jews. It's a shock to the black psyche."
Both he and Martin say that slave portrayals should be undertaken, both to give dignity to those individuals and an accurate sense of history to the public. "We take the whole picture or none of it," says Lewis, who asks, why treat slaves like something to be shunned? "They didn't ask to be slaves."
Martin says she doesn’t know if she’ll be back next year, but there’s a chance. “Clara won’t leave me alone. I get to teach without having a degree. I get to challenge people and get them to open up. … This job is where my heart lives.”