A Modern Miracle Play

SEVERAL years ago, while spending the summer in the mountains of southwest Virginia, I was so fortunate as to see a remarkable entertainment given by the Negroes of a little village for the purpose of raising money for their church. The entertainment consisted of a dramatic representation of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, — a modern miracle-play,— and, like some of the early religious dramas of England and of the Continent, it was arranged by the pastor of the church (himself a Negro); the entire performance was given in the church under his direction, and the actors were members of his congregation.

The church in which the play was held was a dilapidated frame building, untouched by paint inside or out, and the stage arrangements were of the crudest character imaginable. The curtain, stretched upon a clothes-line, consisted of sheets, skirts, and bedspreads clumsily pinned together. Various large openings revealed to us, in the gallery, glimpses of busy preparations going on behind the scenes.

The curtain was slow in rising, and the motley crowd below grew impatient for the ‘show’ to begin. There were whistles and cat-calls from dark corners. At last a signal was given, a sudden hush of expectancy fell upon the audience, and two young Negro girls in blue lawn dresses began with nervous eagerness to draw back the curtain from the centre toward each side. The scene did not burst upon us suddenly, for the curtain met with many a hitch, and it took several helping hands to pull it over the knots in the clothes-line. As the curtain went back, the stage-manager who, from behind the scenes, acted as expositor, called out loudly, ‘Opens wid song.’ Immediately there appeared ten singers, standing awkwardly in a row before us: five women, four very black men, and a little girl, all elaborately costumed, who without any accompaniment sang, with some sweetness and occasional operatic flights, ‘Come w’ere de lilies blow.’ The curtain was then pulled together amid the applause of an appreciative and not too critical audience.

After a brief intermission and further impatience among the audience the curtain was once more pulled apart, and the stage-manager announced, ‘King on ’is throne wid all ’is maidens’; and there at last sat before us King Solomon in all his glory.

He was a young mulatto of about eighteen or twenty, with a smoothshaven face and black, kinky hair parted in the middle. His costume consisted of a black sack-suit, a white shirt, white collar and cuffs, a carefully tied black bow, and a brilliant stud in his shirt-bosom. The only thing indicative of his royal rank was a crown of tall gold points, made of pasteboard, covered with gilt paper, and sewed upon a black skull-cap, with a large red bow on the left side and a little double white bow on the right.

His ‘throne of mighty state’ was constructed of a dry-goods box, covered with pink cambric, over which mosquito-netting was draped and looped up with pink bows. With his legs stretched stiffly out in front of him, he sat reading a well-bound, gilt-leaved Bible, as might have been expected of the wisest of men. His reading was interrupted by an attendant, who brought in a glass of water and held it to the King’s lips, as it did not become one of his royal dignity to touch it with his hands. As he glanced toward the audience, he seemed to find difficulty in maintaining his composure, especially since he could not help over-hearing such stage-whispers as, —

‘Law! Lookee, Gabriel! Don’t he think he’s somebody! Dat don’t look like no king; he ain’ got no train!’

Below him on each side sat his ‘maidens,’ four little Negro girls dressed in white, even to their stockings and slippers, and with hair carefully ‘wropped,’ and standing out from their heads like spikes.

Just as the silence began to grow painful, and the actors were about to lose their gravity, there came a loud knocking behind the scenes. King Solomon turned and, in a loud voice, called out, ‘Isabella!’

In a moment out from behind the curtain came Isabella in response to the royal call. She was a good-looking young mulatto girl, dressed in a lownecked pink waist and a light-gray paper-cambric skirt, with long white mitts up to her elbows. She wore gilt bracelets, a necklace of brilliants, and a diadem of pasteboard with silver points. With a conscious air she came tripping forward and stood before the throne, uttering as she approached, the single monosyllable, ‘Suh?’

‘Isabella, somebody at de do’,’ said King Solomon gravely; ‘go ter de do’.'

Without a word Isabella turned and disappeared behind the scene, but in a moment came forth to announce the important news: —

‘Hit’s de Queen of Sheba, suh, f’um de South.’

Apparently not in the least surprised at this intelligence so abruptly announced, King Solomon replied, ‘Tell ’er ter come in,’ and calmly continued his reading.

In a few moments Isabella reappeared from behind the curtain, followed by the Queen of Sheba herself with her maids. The Queen was in full evening costume, consisting of a white star-spangled dress, with a skirt covered with gauze pasted all over with silver stars, and with a body of blue cheese-cloth, fastened at t he shoulders with bows. A broad gold pasteboard crown, a pavilion gauze veil, long white mitts up to her elbows, gilt bracelets, and a necklace of beads completed her costume. Her first maid-of-honor, provided with a gold crown somewhat smaller than the Queen’s, was also dressed in white. Two other spangled maids were in attendance.

As the Queen advanced, King Solomon, gravely closing the Bible, but with finger still in the Book, descended from his throne to meet her.

Isabella introduced the Queen to his Majesty: —

‘Mister Sollermun, de Queen of Sheba.’

Whereupon both exclaimed, ‘ Pleased ter meet you,’ and shook hands cordially.

To make his visitor feel at home, the King invited her to be seated, saying in an informal, hospitable manner,—

‘Take a cheer.’

The royal visitor and the King then seated themselves near each other, while the maids stood round in awkward positions and endeavored to look interested.

The Queen began the conversation.

‘Mister Sollermun, I come f’om de South, an’ year in my lan’ dat you is a king wid great wisdom an’ riches an’ power, an’ I come ter see ef dat am true.’

King (complacently): Hit am.

Queen: Who give yer all dish hyeah ?

King (hesitatingly, confused, and finally prompted from behind the scenes): De Lawd.

Queen: W’at fur?

King: Fur to rule Iserl.

Queen: How long you been King?

King: One thousand an’ forty year.

Queen: I see you got a lot uv servants ter wait on yer.

King: Yeh.

Queen: Den de ha’f have not been tol’ me!

King: Stay ter supper; we got big supper. (Turning to the servant) Isabella.

Isabella: Sub?

King: Fix supper.

In front of the curtain a long table had been set, with brown oil-cloth cover, and upon it plates were laid for about a dozen persons. On the table were dishes of ham, eggs, bread, preserves, several large cakes, a dish of fruit, two plates of biscuits, and a large glass pitcher of water.

Up and down behind the table walked a maid in pink waist, vigorously ringing a large dinner-bell. After an awkward pause, a man-servant escorted the Queen to her place at one end of the table, and a maid-servant accompanied the King to his place at the opposite end. All stood respectfully while a courtier said grace: —

Lawd make us able Ter eat all on dis table,

An’ ef any mo’s hot,

Ter eat all in de pot.

The King and Queen being seated, the servants, consisting of one man and three maids, all crowned with crowns of various colors and sizes, passed pieces of brown wrappingpaper to represent menu cards. The King, after considering long and carefully, ordered fried eggs and ham, leaned back in his chair, and ate rapidly and greedily with his knife. The Queen’s appetite was more dainty, and she partook but sparingly of the viands before her. As the King and Queen left the table (and the feast was surprisingly short), the servants, not prompted by dramatic instinct, but overcome by human weakness and the desires of the flesh, struggled and fought over what was left. In less time than it takes to tell it, the table was cleared of the eatables, and in the struggle many dishes were smashed on the floor. Thus ended the play.

As the curtain was drawn together, the applause was so loud and long that the stage-manager finally came forth and announced that the performance would be repeated at once. So the curtain was carefully pinned up again, and when opened once more disclosed to us a new King Solomon. The former king, having been degraded, possibly for his occasional want of dignity, played the rôle of servant. The new Solomon appeared more at ease on the stage, and shook hands with the Queen with elaborate grace. The dialogue was essentially the same throughout. At table the King rocked nervously in his chair, while the Queen chatted easily and constantly with the maids. When the feast was over, there was the same quarrel of the servants, interrupted this time by the former King Solomon, who rushed in, shaking a stick threateningly over their heads, and crying out, ‘W’at you niggers doin’?’ while, as the curtain was pulled together, he was seen grabbing everything he could lay hands on. From behind the scenes called out the voice of the stage-manager, ‘ Closin’ uv de feas’,’and the curtain was finally closed amid tumultuous applause.

After a short delay, the royal personages and their attendants trooped out through the curtain down to the lower end of the church, where they danced round a May-pole left there from some

previous entertainment. Dancing in and out, winding up the ribbons, they sang, ‘Jesus de light uv de worl’'; and when unwinding, all joined in that old, familiar, never-ending song: —


O five uv dem was wise,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O five uv dem was wise,
W’en ’e come:
O five uv dem was wise,
Five uv dem was wise;
Five uv dem was wise, w’en ’e come.


O five uv dem was foolish,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O five uv dem was foolish,
W’en ’e come:
O five uv dem was foolish
Five uv dem was foolish;
Five uv dem was foolish, w’en ’e come.


O fooiish says ter Wise,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O Foolish says ter Wise,
W’en ’e come:
O Foolish says ter Wise,
Foolish says ter Wise;
Foolish says ter Wise, w’en ’e come.


O len’ us uv yo’ ile,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O len’ us uv yo’ ile,
W’en ’e come:
O len’ us uv yo’ ile,
Len’ us uv yo’ ile;
Len’ us uv yo’ ile, w’en ’e come.


O go ter dem w’at sells,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O go ter dem w’at sells,
W’en ’e come:
O go ter dem w’at sells,
Go ter dem w’at sells;
Go ter dem w’at sells, w’en ’e come.


O who’ll be de driver,
W’en de bridegroom come;
O who’ll be de driver,
W’en ’e come:
o who’ll be de driver,
Who’ll be de driver;
Who’ll be de driver, w’en ’e come?

A collection was then taken up, to which all, white and black, contributed liberally, and the audience below trooped noisily out.

Though I dreamed that night of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, I despair of reproducing the scene exactly as I saw it, and I feel, as the Queen of Sheba said to the King, that ‘de ha’f have not been tol’.'