Dead Man Talking

Northwestern University history professor T.H. Breen was slogging through microfiche back in the mid-90s, researching a book on the American Revolution that would take him a decade to write, when he came upon “The Life, and dying SPEECH of ARTHUR, a Negro Man” and heard the siren call of diversion. “I was bored,” admits the professor, “and I knew that a colonial document in the voice of a black man would be pretty damn rare.” Breen began to read what seemed to be a fragment of a slave’s autobiography but turned out to be a jailhouse confession, written with the help of a clergyman just before Arthur was executed for raping a white woman nearly three times his age. “It was a didactic kind of performance,” Breen says, written and published to dissuade others from following the same path. “My first instinct was that it might be a phony.” At the very least, the minister had tried to push it in certain directions. “Nevertheless, when it came to describing his life–the exploits, the love affairs, and the high jinks–the voice is clearly Arthur’s, and you can see that he’s not really sorry for what he did. He’s a young guy, he’s had lovers of all races, and he thinks he’s pretty cool.”

This would not be grist for The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (finally coming out next year), but Breen was hooked. “I spent a lot of time tracking down the proper nouns of the document,” he says. “And they came out pretty well. By the end of my research I felt you could trust at least the structure of the story.” Breen, who’d already coauthored Myne Owne Ground, a book on America’s first free black community, says Arthur was an irresistible character. Born to a slave in the town of Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1747, and likely fathered by her master (which made him unpopular with the mistress), he was a high-spirited kid who ran away whenever he could, stole whatever he needed, and delighted in outwitting his captors. According to his confession, marked by a suspiciously photographic recall of a long list of petty thefts (a goose, for example, then a kettle to boil it in), he was 18 years old when “the Devil put it into my Head to pay a Visit to the Widow Deborah Metcalfe, whom I in most inhumane manner ravished.” Says Breen: “I’m reading between the lines here, but my guess is they had consensual sex. He stops at her house and one thing leads to another. They have a bottle of rum, and they have each other. The next morning she appears at his master’s door saying, ‘I’ve been raped.'”

The way Breen figures it, Arthur wasn’t the most discreet lover in town, and the Widow Metcalfe “seems to have panicked at the possibility of a small community closing in on her.” To get him out of there, she asked his master to sell him–and for a little payoff. But things quickly spun out of her control. Some of the townsmen filed charges, and Arthur was arrested. He escaped twice (once joining forces with an infamous Irish bandit), was recaptured, and was hung in Worcester in 1768. As many as 4,000 people attended the hanging, and two sermons were delivered as part of the event, but it didn’t sit well with everyone. In the historian’s eyes, Arthur’s death was a catalyst for the end of slavery in Massachusetts. Breen made this argument in a paper he delivered at a National Humanities Center festival in 1996 and figured he had put his digression to rest. But some of Arthur’s charisma must have found its way into the academic work; to Breen’s surprise, he was approached after his talk by a stranger, “a very distinguished African-American gentleman, who said he really liked the lecture and wanted to turn it into a full-length opera.”

Breen was incredulous, but the stranger was composer T.J. Anderson, who already had a chamber opera based on the life of black activist David Walker among his credits. Anderson recruited Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa as his librettist. Northwestern found private support for the project, eventually titled Slip Knot, and Anderson and Komunyakaa have worked on it over the last seven years with the help of NU Opera artistic director Rhoda Levine. A few scenes got a trial run at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, but it’ll have its first nearly complete outing in a workshop performance featuring baritone Eric McKeever as Arthur at 7:30 PM on April 26 in Levere Memorial Temple, 1856 Sheridan Road in Evanston. At 2 PM that day, Anderson, Komunyakaa, Levine, and Breen will talk about channeling Arthur–from coerced confession to history paper to opera–at Northwestern’s music administration building, 711 Elgin Road in Evanston. Anderson and Komunyakaa have taken a few liberties with the story, Breen says, but it already had the classic operatic elements: “sex, violence, betrayal, and humor.”

Joffrey Looks, Doesn’t Leap

Joffrey Ballet executive director Jon Teeuwissen says the company is negotiating for a “stronger partnership” with the new Auditorium Theatre management and is considering a four-year contract. (Teeuwissen had been looking at other options, including the Oriental.) Although Joffrey has appeared on Music and Dance Theater Chicago’s squishy list of groups that will call its venue “home,” it won’t be there for anything more than the occasional special event or workshop. Teeuwissen says MAD “is too small for our subscription series–our running costs are too high for a 1,500-seat house.” The company had an uptick in sales this year, pulling in $512,000 for a Diaghilev program alone. Starting next year it will double the runs of its three regular-season productions to two weeks each and use live music at all performances, thanks to a gift from board member Burton Kaplan and a two-year $500,000 MacArthur grant. Odds are on Leslie B. Dunner (now heading the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra) as resident conductor.

Short Cuts

Snippets from the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center’s Landmarks Policy and Urban Development Conference, held last Saturday under the scalloped balconies at the School of the Art Institute ballroom:

Block 37: “The Bermuda Triangle of development.” –moderator John Callaway

The new Soldier Field: “Destroys a landmark.” –Chicago Plan Commission member Linda Searl

The new Soldier Field: “Is a future landmark.” –architect Doug Garofalo

Cook County Hospital: “We may be able to pull this one out of the fire.” –Landmarks Preservation Council president David Bahlman

Chicago’s elected officials: “Don’t think they can stand up to developers.” –Chicago Architecture Foundation curator Ned Cramer

New federal priorities: “Border stations.” –General Services Administration preservation specialist Joan Brierton

Historic preservation: “A luxury. If your bathroom doesn’t work or you don’t have a job, you’re not worried about your facade.” –architect Michael Shymanski

The conference: “Needs more African-American participation.” –Bronzeville Online president Harold Lucas

The first Mayor Daley on the subject of aldermanic pay: “What do they need a raise for? They’ve got zoning.” –Preservation Chicago president Jonathan Fine