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← A historical musical that examines black identity in the 1901 World's Fair

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Showing Revision 8 created 11/08/2019 by Erin Gregory.

  1. The archive.
  2. One may envision rooms and shelves
  3. stocked with boxes
    and cartons of old stuff.
  4. And yet, for those who are
    patient enough to dig through it,
  5. the archive provides
    the precious opportunity
  6. to touch the past,
  7. to feel and learn from the experiences
  8. of once-living people who now seem
    dead and buried deeply in the archive.
  9. But what if there was a way
    to bring the archive to life?
  10. Jon Michael Reese: "The world
    is thinking wrong about race."

  11. Melissa Joyner: "This country insists
    upon judging the Negro."

  12. JMR: "Because it does not know."

  13. AYGTK: What if one could make it breathe?

  14. MJ: "By his lowest
    and most vicious representatives."

  15. AYGTK: Speak.

  16. JMR: "An honest, straightforward exhibit."

  17. AYGTK: And even sing to us,

  18. so that the archive
    becomes accessible to everyone.
  19. What would performing
    the archive look like?
  20. A performance that is not
    simply based on a true story
  21. but one that allows us
    to come face-to-face
  22. with things we thought
    were once dead and buried.
  23. (Piano music)

  24. This is what "At Buffalo,"
    a new musical we're developing,

  25. is all about.
  26. Using collections
    from over 30 archival institutions,

  27. "At Buffalo" performs the massive archive
    of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition,
  28. the first World's Fair
    of the 20th century,
  29. held in Buffalo, New York.
  30. Now, if you've heard of this fair,
  31. it might be because this is where
    then-US president, William McKinley,
  32. was assassinated.
  33. For nearly 17 years,
  34. I've stayed inside the gates
    and the archive of this fair,
  35. not only because of that story
  36. but because of a real
    life-and-death racial drama
  37. that played out on the fairgrounds.
  38. Here, in a place that was like
    Disney World, the Olympics,

  39. carnivals, museums, all in one,
  40. there were three conflicting displays
    of what it meant to be black
  41. in the United States.
  42. The archive says white showmen presented
  43. a savage black origin
  44. in the form of 98 West
    and Central Africans,
  45. living and performing war dances
  46. in a recreated village
    called Darkest Africa.
  47. And across the street,

  48. a happy slave life,
  49. in the form of 150 Southern
    black performers,
  50. picking cotton,
  51. singing and dancing minstrel shows
  52. in a recreated antebellum attraction
    called Old Plantation.
  53. As a response,

  54. the black Buffalo community championed
    the third display of blackness:
  55. the Negro Exhibit.
  56. Codesigned by African American
    scholar W.E.B. Du Bois,
  57. it curated photographs,
    charts, books and more,
  58. to show black Americans
    as a high-achieving race,
  59. capable of education and progress.
  60. When I first encountered this story,

  61. I understood from my own life experience
  62. what was at stake to have members
    of the African diaspora
  63. see each other like this.
  64. For me, as the child of immigrant parents
    from Ghana, West Africa,
  65. born in the American South,
  66. raised in Manhattan, Kansas,
  67. (Laughter)

  68. and having attended the same
    elite school as Du Bois,

  69. I could see that the Buffalo fair
    effectively pitted
  70. the black Northerner
    against the Southerner,
  71. the educated against the uneducated,
  72. and the African American
    against the African.
  73. And I wanted to know:
  74. How did these three distinct groups
    of black folk navigate this experience?
  75. Unfortunately, the archive
    had answers to questions like this

  76. underneath racial caricature,
  77. conflicting information
    and worse -- silence.
  78. (Piano music)

  79. Still, I could hear musical melodies

  80. and see dance numbers
  81. and the rhythms of the words
  82. coming off the pages
    of old newspaper articles.
  83. And learning that this World's Fair
  84. had music playing everywhere
    on its fairgrounds,
  85. I knew that live, immersive,
    spectacular musical theater,
  86. with the latest technologies of our time,
  87. is the closest experience that can bring
    the archival story of the 1901 fair
  88. out of boxes and into life.
  89. Stories, like Tannie and Henrietta,

  90. a husband and wife vaudeville duo in love
  91. who become at odds over performing
    these "coon" minstrel shows
  92. while striving for their
    five-dollar-a-week dream
  93. in the Old Plantation attraction.
  94. Like African businessman John Tevi,
  95. from present-day Togo,
  96. who must outwit the savage rules
    of the human zoo
  97. in which he has become trapped.
  98. And stories like Mary Talbert,
  99. a wealthy leader
    of the black Buffalo elite,
  100. who must come to terms
  101. with the racial realities
    of her home town.
  102. MJ: "The dominant race in this country

  103. insists upon judging the Negro
  104. by his lowest and most
    vicious representatives."
  105. AYGTK: Like Old Plantation
    and Darkest Africa.

  106. MJ: "... instead of by the more
    intelligent and worthy classes."

  107. AYGTK: When fair directors
    ignored Mary Talbert

  108. and the local black Buffalo community's
    request to participate in the fair,
  109. newspapers say that Mary Talbert
  110. and her club of educated
    African American women
  111. held a rousing protest meeting.
  112. But the details of that meeting,
  113. even down to the fiery speech she gave,
  114. were not fully captured in the archive.
  115. So, "At Buffalo" takes the essence
    of Mary's speech
  116. and turns it into song.
  117. (All singing) We must, we are unanimous.

  118. We must, we are unanimous.
  119. MJ: We've got something to show --

  120. we're going to teach a lesson in Buffalo.
  121. It would benefit the nation
  122. to see our growth since emancipation.
  123. Colored people should be represented
    in this Pan-American exposition,
  124. it would benefit the nation
  125. to see our growth since emancipation.
  126. (All singing) They made a great mistake

  127. not to appoint someone from the race.
  128. We must, we are unanimous.
  129. We must, we are unanimous.
  130. We must, we are unanimous.
  131. AYGTK: Mary Talbert successfully demands
    that the Negro Exhibit come to the fair.

  132. And to have the Negro Exhibit in Buffalo
  133. means that the musical must tell the story
    behind why Du Bois cocreated it ...
  134. and why Mary and the black elite
    felt it was urgently needed.
  135. JMR: "The world is thinking
    wrong about race.

  136. They killed Sam Hose
    for who they thought he was.
  137. And more men like him, every day,
  138. more Negro men, like him, taken apart.
  139. And after that -- that red ray ...
  140. we can never be the same.
  141. (Singing) A red ray

  142. [A man hunt in Georgia]

  143. cut across my desk

  144. [Mob after Hose;
    he will be lynched if caught]

  145. the very day

  146. Sam's hands were laid to rest.
  147. Can words alone withstand the laws unjust?
  148. [Escape seems impossible]

  149. Can words alone withstand the violence?

  150. Oh, no, oh.
  151. [Burned alive]

  152. [Sam Hose is lynched]

  153. Oh, no, oh.

  154. [His body cut in many pieces]

  155. Oh, no, oh.

  156. [Burned at the Stake]

  157. [Ten Cents Slice Cooked Liver.]

  158. [Fight for souvenirs.]

  159. (Both singing) Who has read the books?

  160. Our numbers and statistics look small
  161. against the page.
  162. The crisis has multiplied.
  163. Our people are lynched and died.
  164. Oh, Lord.
  165. Something must change.
  166. AYGTK: Something must change.

  167. "At Buffalo" reveals
    how the United States today
  168. stands at similar crossroads
    as 1901 America.
  169. Just as the name of Sam Hose
    filled newspapers back then,
  170. today's media carries the names of:
  171. JMR: Oscar Grant.

  172. MJ: Jacqueline Culp.

  173. Pianist: Trayvon Martin.

  174. AYGTK: Sandra Bland.

  175. And too many others.
  176. The 1901 fair's legacies persist
  177. in more ways than we can imagine.
  178. MJ: Mary Talbert

  179. and the National Association
    of Colored Women
  180. started movements against lynching
  181. and the myth of black criminality
  182. just as black women today
    started Black Lives Matter.
  183. JMR: And some of the same
    people who fought for

  184. and created the Negro Exhibit,
  185. including Du Bois,
  186. came to Buffalo,
    four years after the fair,
  187. to start the Niagara Movement,
  188. which set the groundwork
    for the creation of the NAACP.
  189. AYGTK: It's not just black folks

  190. who had a peculiar experience
    at the 1901 fair.
  191. An official handbook informed fair-goers:
  192. MJ: "Please remember:"

  193. JMR: "... once you get inside the gate,"

  194. AYGTK: "... you are a part of the show."

  195. Performing the archive in "At Buffalo"
  196. allows audiences to ask themselves,
  197. "Are we still inside the gates,
  198. and are we all still part of the show?"
  199. (Music ends)

  200. (Applause and cheers)