Saturday, February 2, 2008

Race - Parts III and IV: From Darwin to Ota Benga to the Barksdale Stage

Posted by Bruce Miller
Part III
There are those who believe that Barksdale doesn’t do enough to promote racial equity, and I hear from them on a regular basis. We’ll talk about those issues soon.

There are more people who write to me alleging that Barksdale does too much.

My first production as artistic director was the musical comedy They’re Playing Our Song (2001). Director Jan Guarino cast two African Americans among the three men and three women who function as the alter egos of the leads, played by Robyn O’Neill and Steve Perigard, both of whom are white. “If they’re supposed to be alter egos,” a frustrated patron wrote, “why make them black. Please don’t follow the path of the Theatre of Virginia and try to force political correctness down our throats.”
Similar objections were filed when Susan Sanford and Jerold Solomon appeared opposite each other in Olympus on my Mind (2002), when Jan Guarino and Billy Dye exchanged flirtations in Annie Get Your Gun (2003), when two racially mixed couples headed the cast of Where’s Charley? (2004), and when we cast black actors among Beauregard’s extended family in Mame (2006).

I recently heard from a man who was offended because “the colored girl” in Swingtime Canteen (my wonderfully talented friend Katrinah Lewis) asked a white man in the audience to dance with her. His comment centered on the fact that Swingtime was supposed to be a re-creation of a USO show from 1944, and that no “colored female during the war years would ask a white soldier to come on stage and dance with her.” Hopefully it shows how far things have come in the last few decades. When I cast Katrinah in the role, it never even occurred to me that anyone would object.

Sometimes offense is taken from the other direction. I heard from four women, three of whom I believe were African American, who were offended by the fact that Jill Bari Steinberg played all the black characters in Syringa Tree as well as all the white characters.

I don’t want to overstate the problem. For every person who is offended, there are thousands who love what they’re seeing on stage and cheer us on.

Barksdale has a commitment to colorblind casting. This is not in an effort to be “politically correct”; it is simply our policy to cast each show based on talent rather than race. For many people my age and younger, interracial romance is barely noticeable. What I’ve come to realize is that a lot of our older audience members were brought up in a world where being colorblind was not even an option.

In South Pacific, the great American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II got it right when he caustically commented on how racial prejudice had become so pervasive in American society. “You’ve got to be taught,” he said, “to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, of people whose skin is a different shade—you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

The eminent British naturalist Charles Darwin may be the father of evolutionary theory, but he is also, perhaps inadvertently, one of the world’s foremost “teachers” of racism. In his 1859 masterwork, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (yep, that’s the full title), Darwin inferred that the “favoured race” was European and white. He stated that the Australian Aborigine and the African Negro were located on the evolutionary ladder somewhere between Caucasians and apes.

Today, the Human Genome Project has proven that Darwin’s racial suppositions were just plain wrong. Genetically, there is only one race—the human race. As Robert Lee Hotz reported in the L. A. Times, our conception of race is merely “a social construct derived mainly from perceptions conditioned by events of recorded history, and it has no basic biological reality.”

Lee Dye, science writer for ABC News, reports that scientists have found that the basic genetic differences between any two people anywhere in the world is around 0.2%, whether they come from the same “race” or different “races.” “More and more scientists find that the differences that set us apart are cultural, not racial. The so-called ‘racial’ characteristics that people think are major differences (skin color, eye shape, etc.) account for only 0.012% of human biological variation. There is more variation within any group than there is between one group and another. If a white person is looking for a tissue match for an organ transplant, the best match may come from a black person, and vice versa. There are differences among us, but they stem from culture, not race.”

Sadly, the racial attitudes of many Americans were forged more by Darwin than the Human Genome Project. That will change overtime, but not overnight. To understand the pervasive impact of Darwin, consider this story which ultimately brought Darwinism to our home state of Virginia.

(Those of you who need a break during my overly long blogs may take one here. Go enjoy a nice bowl of popcorn or a trip to the gym. Ota and I shall be ready and waiting for you should you elect to return.)

Part IV
In 1904, a 30-year-old explorer, anthropologist and missionary named Dr. Samuel Phillips Verner was hired to sail to Africa to acquire pygmies willing to move to Missouri for the upcoming World’s Fair. Once there, the Africans would join other native people, including Eskimos, American Indians and Filipino tribesmen, and be put on display in replicas of their traditional dwellings and villages. (Think of that next time you hum Meet Me in St. Louis.)

Ota Benga, one of the pygmies Verner acquired, had survived a massacre carried out by the Force Publique, a notorious armed band employed by King Leopold of Belgium to bring his Congolese colony under control. Ota Benga’s wife and two children had been killed in the massacre, and Ota Benga himself had been spared by their killers only so that he could be sold into slavery to another tribe. Verner purchased him at a slave market because he was fascinated by his teeth, which had been filed to sharp points in accordance with tribal custom. (The photo of Ota Benga above and to the left was taken at the World's Fair.)

When the World’s Fair was over, Verner took all eight pygmies back to Africa as free men. Ota Benga had nothing to return to, so he befriended Verner and assisted him as he pursued his anthropological work. In 1906, he returned with Verner to the United States.

Verner was not a wealthy man. Not knowing how to pay for his charge, he took Ota Benga and his other African “collectibles,” including two chimpanzees, to Hermon Bumpus, director of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Bumpus said he would store the cargo, including Ota Benga, while Verner tried to raise funds. A makeshift bedroom was created in a maintenance area. Ota Benga was fitted with a white suit and allowed to roam the museum at will.

As might be expected, he had difficulty assimilating to this new life. At one point he threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim, one of NYC’s most prominent philanthropists. When the situation became untenable, William Temple Hornaday (pictured to the right), director of the Bronx Zoo, agreed to take custody of both Ota Benga and the one surviving chimp.

Officially, Ota Benga was “employed” by the zoo, but records indicate that he was never paid. He was free to travel throughout the zoo as he pleased, and he frequently assisted the zookeepers with minor jobs. A good deal of his time was spent in the Monkey House, where he assumed personal responsibility for the care of Verner’s chimpanzee and became attached to an orangutan named Dohong. (The photo at the top of Part IV portrays Ota Benga with Verner's chimp.)

Prior to his second weekend in his zoo home, Hornaday had his staff encourage Ota Benga to hang his hammock in a cage within the Monkey House. They gave him a bow and arrow, which he seemed to enjoy shooting at a target. They made a sign and posted it outside the cage, listing Ota Benga’s height as 4 feet 11 inches, his weight as 103 pounds, and his age as 23. At the bottom of the sign were these words: “Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

When visitors to the zoo stopped by the Monkey House on Saturday, Sept 8, 1906, they were fascinated by their first glimpse of the Ota Benga “exhibit,” and encouraged to think that what they were viewing was an in-the-flesh example of the "savages" that Darwin had described as being halfway evolved between ape and man. To create atmosphere, a colorful parrot was released in Ota Benga’s cage and dried bones were scattered around the “jungle” floor.

On Sunday, under the excited headline “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” the New York Times stated, “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions … and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.”

The zoo was mobbed that day as thousands of readers ventured out in the afternoon to see the new attraction. From all accounts, Ota Benga played to his crowds, just as he had learned to do at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He practiced with his bow and arrow, and wrestled enthusiastically with the orangutan Dohong.

An immediate outraged response came from the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference. Rev. James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, wrote, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes.” He noted that the exhibit “evidently aims to be a demonstration of Darwin’s theory of evolution. ... We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” A few white churches concurred. “The person responsible for this exhibition,” wrote the white pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, “degrades himself as much as he does the African. Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, we should be putting him in school for the development of such powers as God gave him.”

The ministers sought support from the Mayor of New York, George McClellan (pictured to the left), and were denied. Zoo director Hornaday later applauded the mayor for refusing to meet with the ministers. “When the history of the Zoological Park is written,” Hornaday assured, “this incident will form its most amusing passage.”

Nonetheless, in a belated effort to avoid controversy, the “exhibit” was disassembled on Monday afternoon.

Later that week in an editorial, the New York Times wrote: “Not feeling particularly vehement excitement ourselves over the exhibition of an African ‘pigmy’ in the Primate House of the Zoological Park, we do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter. Still, the show is not exactly a pleasant one, and we do wonder that the Director did not foresee and avoid the scoldings now aimed in his direction. … As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.”

Despite the dismantling of the formal exhibit, the public was not about to relinquish its fascination. Everyone, it seemed, had heard of Ota Benga, and they all wanted to see him personally. On Sunday, Sept 16, 40,000 New Yorkers came out to the zoo. Ota Benga was no longer constrained in the Monkey House (the entrance of which is pictured to the right). As he roamed the zoo’s grounds, great mobs followed him, according to the New York Times, “howling, jeering and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”

Within two more weeks, Ota Benga was moved to the children’s orphanage managed by Rev. Gordon in Brooklyn. Fifteen months later, in 1910, Ota Benga was transferred to the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, an all black school in Lynchburg, VA. (Civil rights icon Vernon Johns would serve as President of the fiercely independent Seminary for five years in the early ‘30s. Their catalogue from approximately this period is pictured to the left.)

While living in various private homes throughout Lynchburg, Ota Benga had his teeth capped and changed his name to Otto Bingo. He was befriended and tutored by the world renowned poet and civil rights activist, Anne Spencer, who lived in Lynchburg. Anne Spencer was the first Virginian and the first African American to have her work included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She figured prominently in the Harlem Renaissance.

Through Anne Spencer (pictured to the right), Ota Benga met W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. After three years of study, Ota Benga abandoned his formal education and went to work in a tobacco factory, where his duties included climbing into the rafters to retrieve tobacco leaves without benefit of a ladder. He was most at home discarding his American clothes and living more freely in the woods.

On March 20, 1916, Ota Binga went into the forest, built a ceremonial fire, burned all his clothes and knocked the caps off his teeth with a stone. He was 32 years old. We’re told he performed a dance native to his Congolese homeland, and then, on the vernal equinox, shot himself with a borrowed pistol.
The obituary in the Lynchburg paper read as follows: “For a long time the young negro pined for his African relations, and grew morose when he realized that such a trip was out of the question because of the lack of resources.” Dr. Verner wrote that Ota Benga “probably succumbed only after the feeling of utter inassimilability overwhelmed his brave little heart.”
Today, efforts are underway to locate Ota Benga’s remains and return them to the Congo. The life mask above and to the left was made of Ota Benga when he lived at the Museum of Natural History, and is labeled only PYGMY.

In 2006, in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of Ota Benga’s experience in the Bronx Zoo, NPR interviewed Carrie Allen McCray who lived as a child with Ota Benga in Lynchburg, and Phillips Verner Bradford, grandson of Dr. Samuel Phillips Verner who first brought Ota Benga from Africa to the United States. This 9-minute recording from All Things Considered can be accessed at

When reading letters from those who are offended by interracial romance on stage, I always try to remember that the world we live in today is, thankfully, very different from the world in which their personalities were formed.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

If you hadn't posted the link to the NPR story, I would have sworn you made this whole thing up. It's unbelievable. This and Loving vs VA too. We forget how very, very much things have changed. The fact that you think of stuff like this when listening to bigots complain about BEAUTIFUL Katrinah Lewis askign a white man to dance astounds me. YOu're a more considerate man than I. Thanks.

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

Yes, despite some of our best efforts, and despite some very progressive people in our community, we have to remember that we are still in the capital of the former Confederacy, and sadly, some of the attitudes that these people once espoused take many generations to die off.

My hat goes off and my heart goes out to Katrinah and all the other talented African-American performers hired by Barksdale and other theatres. It saddens me to no end that they would receive such criticism.