Once slavery reared its ugly head, the existence of the African became consigned to that of chattel. Only their spirit, their indomitable will . . . .nay their determination to survive remained. This alone was the African’s only recourse, their only hope of maintaining some semblance of self. Once locked into the grasp of the American slave system the African was not merely denied access to his independence, history, culture, religion, language and dignity but he was robbed of his identity as well.
One of the primary tenets of the American slave system was to keep the African ignorant at all costs. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now . . .. if you teach that nigger . . . how to read there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master as to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
To be discovered teaching a slave to read was punishable by law. In some locations to educate a slave was considered such a serious offense that the penalty for being found guilty of such behavior could be as severe as death. So intent was the desire to keep Africans ignorant that in some southern states (such as Georgia) it was against the law to teach a free African to read and write. “A white man is liable to a fine of five hundred dollars and imprisonment . . . for teaching a free negro to read and write; and if one free negro teach another, he is punishable by fine and whipping; or fine or whipping.”
Such was the environment from which William Wells Brown emerged and that he recorded for posterity in his play “Escape: A Leap for Freedom.”
I believe it is important to impress upon the students that one of the methods utilized to maintained the African’s status as a slave was to withhold education. This is a good opportunity to discuss with them how important it is for them to get an education so that they may be a productive, self-reliant member of society as opposed to being dependent and vulnerable to it.
B. Reading Assignment
“Escape: A Leap for Freedom” by William Wells Brown
A victim of the American slave system, Brown states in the preface of “Escape”: “The play, no doubt abounds in defects, but as I was born in slavery, and never had a day’s schooling in my life, I owe the public no apology for errors.” Escape, is unmistakably autobiographical. The parallels between Brown’s “own experience of eighteen years at South,”
and the characters and incidents in the play are shamelessly obvious. For example: Brown was born a slave near Lexington, Kentucky on the plantation of John Young, a physician. Conceived as the result of a union between his mother (a mulatto slave) and a relative of his master it is safe to assume that he was particularly sensitive to the conditions which African females were subjected to under slavery. Like the characters of Glen and Melinda, Brown “was a house servant. He also worked as an apprentice to . . . the editor of the St. Louis Times [which no doubt enabled him to develop his writing skill]; . . . and assistant in Young’s medical office; and as a factotum to . . . a Missouri slave trader, whom he accompanied occasionally to the New Orleans flesh markets.”
The experience he gained from the latter was conceivably drawn upon when he developed the character of Bill Jennings, a slave speculator, for his play. To go even one step further, I don’t think it would be too farfetched to assume that he put together information he acquired on his “excursions” with the slave trader to plan his escapes. It was not until his third attempt that he successfully escaped the grips of bondage. Each time that he failed and was recaptured Brown was severely punished. “His first recapture resulted in “Virginia play,” a punishment in which the slave was tied in the smokehouse, flogged, then smoked by setting piles of tobacco stems afire. After the slave had coughed his lungs out, he was untied and sent back to work.”
The work of a true griot, “Escape” is not just a condemnation of slavery but, a record of a portion of Brown’s personal history. The very climax of the play is a battle between the escaped slaves and their pursuers which ends with a frantic leap into a boat as it sets sail for freedom. This scene is a re-enactment of an actual fight waged between Brown and friends in Buffalo, who fought authorities to keep them from capturing fugitive slaves.
The play is great fun to read aloud in class. Students are very receptive to it (I would imagine this is partly due to the Brown’s use of dialect which is not quite as difficult to ‘translate’ as Paul Laurance Dunbar’s can be). The approximately 26 roles may be distributed quite easily among students with roles suitable for varying reading skills. Because some of the characters only appear once in the play, students may be requested to play more than one role if necessary without any confusion at all. However, you should be forewarned that some of the soliloquies of Melinda and Glen tend to be slightly stiff (bordering on lofty). Reading their particular monologues could be an excruciatingly painful experience for all concerned if assigned to students who have limited reading abilities.
1. Stage Directions
To facilitate discussion of stage directions provide students with a copy of the diagram marked Appendix A (see attached) and a list of basic Theater Terms which you can compile yourself using a theater or literary dictionary. Often a glossary can be found in the back of various drama reference books (see bibliography). Discuss both the terms and stage directions with students in depth. To assist them in grasping the concepts of stage right, left etc., suggest that they visualize the action from the perspective of the actor on stage facing the audience. Once the basic stage directions have been discussed, take slips of paper, on which you should have previously written stage directions, for example:
Enter stage left, move to center stage take a bow, exit stage left . . . . . . . . . .
The paper should then be folded and placed in a box, hat, etc. Designate an area in the room to be ‘the stage’. Select students one at a time to select a slip of paper from the hat and follow the directions that appear on the paper. After each actor completes his assignment ask the class to tell you what stage directions the actor has been following.
Pass out copies of blank stage diagrams marked Appendix B (see attached). Ask students to select a scene in which their character appeared and using symbols (i.e. x’s; o’s; etc.) and colored pencils indicate the stage directions for all the characters in the scene entrances, exits and so on. See sample identified as Appendix C. Tell students to include a key and indicate any props or sets that they feel would be appropriate.
Once the students have completed this exercise instruct them to write out all applicable stage directions for each character in the scene. Ask them to make the directions as explicit as possible so the reader can clearly envision the picture they are relating.