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Stories of Freedom in Black New York

3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674008939
ISBN-10: 0674008936
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

New York abolition, which was formally granted in 1817 but not fully carried out until July, 4, 1827, complicated the social structure of the state and city during an awkward, staggered process. During this period a theater troupe called the African Company emerged. White, a professor of history at Australia's University of Sydney, reconstructs the vital life of this troupe in the New York of the 1820s, situating its struggles within the larger context of a sometimes exuberant yet uneasy time. Not only did the company perform Shakespeare's Richard III, one of the era's most popular dramas, as its first production, but the cast often rewrote dialogue and inserted elements from other sources. As played by former slave Charles Taft, the reworked lead role took on an added dimension, becoming a version of the trickster figure from African folklore. Many white critics and community figures were, not surprisingly, scandalized by the productions, and company members suffered harassment at the hands of local toughs and authorities alike. Taft was jailed for theft, and his successor James Hewlitt became the victim of changing audience tastes that doomed his career before he ended up imprisoned as a smalltime con artist. While the African Company's existence has previously been noted by scholars, it has generally been dismissed as a novelty or aberration. Drawing on extensive research, White emphasizes such achievements as the on-stage depiction of slavery, and vividly depicts powerful personalities like Taft and Hewlitt. He makes a persuasive case for the company's cultural importance, particularly as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance that was still a century away.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The early decades of the nineteenth century were turbulent as blacks and whites struggled with the end of slavery in New York. It was an era marked by race riots, forced segregation, and degrading depictions of black life, even as whites demonstrated a voyeuristic fascination with New York's black citizenry. Drawing on newspaper accounts, court records, and other documents, White recounts the black theater, balls, cotillions, and other social expressions that provoked virulent attacks and editorializing from whites uneasy with the new freedom blacks enjoyed. The author, a history professor, focuses on a black theater group, its leading actor, James Hewlett, and a Jewish newspaper editor, Mordecai Noah, as telling representatives of how blacks sought to express their freedom and whites sought to keep them in their place. Hewlett was prominent among performers trying to maintain their dignity in a range of dramatic productions, including Shakespeare, at a time when minstrel shows were coming into vogue. White captures the vibrancy and difficulties of the era when a distinct black culture began to emerge, and draws parallels to the current American cultural melange and contemporary racial attitudes. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 29, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674008936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674008939
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,164,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By R. A Burt on August 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is an extremely well-written and well-researched account of black New York in the nineteenth century, concentrating mostly on theater. Especially fascinating to me is the story of Shakespearean black actor James Hewlett and his [ublished responses to an English actor who had tuaght Hewlett Shakespeare and later mocked his performances on stage in England. The book got a rave review in the New Republic from Christine Stansell. I highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
I bought this book because I have an interest in the artistic life of early America. A book about a black American actor in the 1830s sounded like my kind of book. I must give author White credit for the outstanding research he has done. The biographical data on the life of James Hewlett is very scanty. It must be difficult to write a book on a subject when the actual evidence is virtually nonexistent. Alas, White has filled in the gaps with a lot of assumptions and wishful thinking. He takes the tack that Hewlett was a great actor denied his place in the pantheon of American artists because of Americans' innate racism. Because white audiences laughed at Hewlett's mangling of Shakespeare, White labels them racists. (But would not I get laughs if I recited Shakespeare with a Brooklyn or a West Texas accent? Would not audiences laugh if I said in a dialect, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of NEW York"? No doubt they would also laugh if I substituted the phrase "brass candlesticks" for the word "basilisks.") Later in the book, when comparing Hewlett with the far more successful black actor Ira Aldredge, he admits that Hewlett was barely literate and lacked the training that Aldredge had received. The impression I get from the actual evidence is that Hewlett's ambition exceeded his abilities. But White finds racism lurking everywhere and attributes all of Hewlett's misfortunes to it. Among the farfetched assertions is that one Jewish newspaperman, Mordecai Noah consciously created an offensive stereotype of blacks. I personally do not see how one man could CREATE a stereotype.Read more ›
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