Maybe you’re having a difficult time processing what a pro-abolition minstrelsy play would look like. Maybe you’re having a hard time coming to grips that someone that claims to be against slavery could, would, and did create blackface minstrelsy plays. Either way, I would like to present to you: Po’ White Trash.
Po’ White Trash written by Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland opened in Boston in 1897. The play was only performed a handful of other times, and then fell into obscurity. The reasons as to why it didn’t tour any further are unclear but I have my suspicions. By 1897 although blackface unfortunately had NOT gone out of style, minstrelsy plays and shows were on the decline. Maybe audiences saw no need for white actors to play black characters. Maybe the minstrel show was past it’s welcome. Maybe melodrama was giving way to other theater conventions. Maybe the play wasn’t entertaining. To save you the trouble of digging through archives, allow me to summarize the play for you.
Upon raising the curtain, the audience found themselves in a swampy wasteland with the sounds of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” playing in the background. The first character on the scene is Zep Poon, and African American man played by John Bunny(pictured above, left) who is falling asleep below a tree. Running on to the stage is his perhaps girlfriend Milly, played by Mabel Dixey (also pictured above, right). Milly was noted in the stage directions to ALSO be in blackface. Mabel pesters Zep for being lazy. Together they talk about what is going on down the street with the “quality people”. They do not refer to these quality people as white or black, just quality. When Sal rushes in to see Suke who just moved back in to the neighboring cabin, Milly refers to her as “po’ white trash”. And being as such, the “po’ white trash shouldn’t speak to a quality [person] that way.”
This scene is interrupted with Suke telling her backstory to the Doctor who has come to visit her nephew, Drent, after his mother had passed away. Suke knows Drent’s father and wants to confront him, as well as get Drent the help he needs because like his mother he has been sickly. The doctor becomes upset because he is spending time with “po’ white trash” and is tired of waiting for Drent. Magically, the sounds of whistling come from backstage. The tune is “My Old Kentucky Home” and the whistling turns to singing from a male voice that moves every character on stage to tears.
The Doctor wipes his eyes, and scolds Drent for arriving late from his coon hunt. Drent’s bag is empty which causes the doctor to scold him again for coming home without an animal. While strumming the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home” Drent tells the doctor that he came face to face with a scared raccoon and realized his own life was no different than this poor animals. He decided then and there that just like the song he was strumming, “no longer will I hunt the possum or the coon”, and he reflects that he found “something more miserable than po’ white trash”.
Drent’s lady crush comes by to ask him to sing for her and her soon to be husband. Of course Drent says no and throws what seems to be fit. He even goes so far as to throw Carol out of the way. Carol screams bloody murder, and her future father-in-law (also the town judge) comes to her rescue. The judge questions what he should do with the boy, but is stopped short because he realizes that Drent took a rattlesnake bite that was meant for Carol. Suke hears the commotion and sees the Judge who, prepare yourself,
IS DRENT’S REAL FATHER! Suke tells all about the Judge who tried to play her sister. He had found a man traveling through town and paid him some money to go “speak marriage words” upon the Judge and Suke’s sister so he could “consummate” the fake marriage. What he didn’t know was that the traveling man was an actual preacher and his marriage, and child was legitimate. Judge’s life crumbles before him, but the dying Drent tells Suke and everyone to forget about it as he sings the last chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home”. And that’s it. The end.
What are your thoughts as to why it didn’t have widespread fame? Too much melodrama? Too many racist implications?