The Exploitation of Joice Heth
This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.
The short play below was written by me for the Metropolitan Playhouse’s annual Lower East Side one-act play festival in 2004. It is a fantasy based on the real life exhibition by P.T. Barnum of the former slave Joice Heth, whom he claimed was the actual nurse of George Washington. It was directed by Yvonne Conybeare and featured Andrew Firda and Laura Johnston:
Scene: The Vauxhall Garden Theatre, New York’s Bowery, 1835.
Seated on a wooden chair is JOICE HETH, a blind, toothless, impossibly wizened elderly black woman in a bonnet, shawl and otherwise appropriate period dress. Her fingernails are extremely long and curved in upon themselves, like Rasputin’s. Standing downstage, facing the audience, is P.T. Barnum.
BARNUM: How fortunate you could be here today, ladies and gentlemen. How lucky and how fortunate. And yet luck has its place. Dame Fortune would present us with opportunities – it’s up to every man to keep himself attuned to her every promising whisper. I make bold to boast that my hearing was in fine mettle of a recent morning when I chanced to light upon this miracle down in the City of Brotherly Love. No doubt if you’ve ears to hear and eyes to read you’ve already encountered the name of Joice Heth. 161 years old if she’s a day, this remarkable negress was born a slave in old Virginny, where at the already advanced age of 54 she contracted to one Augustine Washington for the important job of nursemaid to his infant son George. In my hands, the bill of sale, dated December 12, 1727. Proof irrefutable of the veracity of our claim, and available for individual scrutiny following the presentation.
JOICE: T’aint so.
BARNUM: (sotto voce) Hush! (to audience) In addition to being blind and toothless, Miss Joice, having attained a time of life I’m sure you’ll agree is nothing short of Biblical, has also grown a trifle deaf. As such, she is given to the occasional untimely outburst, which I hope you will join me in forgiving her.
JOICE: T’aint nuther.
BARNUM: Thus and so. (sotto voce, to Joice) Peace, fool! (back to audience) Senescent utterances notwithstanding, I ask you to consider this remarkable woman’s glory days. Cast your mind back, back to a time when a faraway monarch held dominion over this land and these states were but the colonies of a global empire. In those days, this aged oak you see before you was a relative sapling, replete with vital juices, and gave suck to the future father of a proud and independent republic. Consider, ladies and gentleman, that at this moment you regard the nurse not only of the nation’s founder, but of that nation.
JOICE: Ain’t any sech a thing.
BARNUM: (whispers violently) Will you cease, madame?! Leave off or I shall be forced to rescind your allotted portion of oatmeal. (to audience) As I was saying, this woman was the nurse –
JOICE: I weren’t.
BARNUM: You were—
JOICE: I weren’t the nurse, but the tutor.
JOICE: The tutor on the Washington place.
BARNUM: I hardly think—
JOICE: (her character changes drastically, opens her eyes, stands, and walks about as she speaks) A small room in one of the outdwellings served as a classroom. We had George and some of his cousins, and the children of some of the folks who worked on the estate. But my principle charge was young George. It was to him I brought to bear my prodigious readings in all the salient texts that would prepare him for future public life. We studied the Athenian constitution, the Orations of Cicero….Polybius…Aristotle. The Scottish philosophers were not neglected. We also looked at Locke, at Hume, at Montesquieu. But these provided only an intellectual foundation, a framework that allowed him to understand his role in the burgeoning new democracy, you see. The raw material was not promising. The boy was willful, headstrong. But timid in his thinking. Many days we argued. I couldn’t get him to see past the traditionalist half-measure of constitutional monarchy. I badgered, I lectured, I cajoled. He finally came around. He was a simple character. That was his virtue. I was just lucky enough to get him when he was young and malleable, impressionable. I guess you could say that I left my stamp on him. Molded him, drilled him in the cardinal qualities that prepared him not only for manhood but for historically unprecedented challenges, tests that required of him the characteristics of an American Cincinnatus. Tests that he passed. Self-restraint, discipline and probity of character. In after years, I became a sort of Merlin to his King Arthur, never very far away, and never without some useful kernel of practical advice. I taught him his famous rules of civility, which he copied down in a chapbook. The forthrightness and honesty which were to result in the cherry tree episode were due to my influence. Later, I taught him the rudiments of surveying, and through my efforts, young George was to amass a massive empire of Virginia real estate. I was to indoctrinate him too in the ancient principles of the art of war. Strategy, leadership under fire, and all the other manly habits of command. Little did either of us dream how indispensable this education would come to be for George in the ensuing decades. I was by his side when the youthful Colonel fought the French and Indians, and at his elbow too when the reluctant yeoman became the supreme general in the American war for independence. In the heat of battle, ‘twas I who fitted him for dentures. For a man who would take a bite out of John Bull must have his choppers about him, said I. Then – the Battle of Brooklyn. “Run, run, George!,” I Cried, “Save yourself. Save these blessed troops, and live to fight another day!” And come they did, many days and many years of fighting until finally, mercifully, Yorktown. Yet it was still not over. For then this dutiful and battle-tested warrior, this Washington was wrested from his beloved Mount Vernon once again, this time to preside over the drafting of this nation’s immortal charter. And, then he was elected this nation’s first President. Many were the political hurdles we were called upon to face together; many the challenges without precedent. The Whiskey Rebellion was one of mine, but I thought it best for the sake of the country to remain in the background, and let the president take the accolades. Despite our best warnings, party politics and strife beset the administration, however, and in the end there was nothing to do but pass the baton on to an Adams, itself a kind of revolutionary act. Finally, the years of retirement and back to his first love – the farm. But the years of bliss were to be short-lived. George had always been a superb pupil, but on that last day, he did finally ignore perhaps the soundest bit of advice I ever gave him: “put on a coat.” He went for a ride in the snow, caught pneumonia, and died. And that was my boy that I knew and loved, from the cradle, that was my George. Never, in the wildest lunatic’s craziest dreams, never did anyone imagine that I would outlast him by at least 36 years.
Pause as she lapses into what? Reverie? A dream? Senility? Sleep?
BARNUM: (quietly but excitedly to Joice) Why, this is remarkable, madam! I hardly dreamed! Why, if you keep up in this line, there’s no end to our prospects!
JOICE: (snaps to, with newfound authority) If you want your oatmeal, you gone shut up.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.