Sam Lucas

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Cover for Sam Lucas' Songs

Sam Lucas (1850 – 5 January 1916) was an African-American actor, comedian, singer, and songwriter. His career began in blackface minstrelsy, but he later became one of the first African Americans to branch into more serious drama, with roles in seminal works such as The Creole Show and A Trip to Coontown. He was also the first black man to portray the role of Uncle Tom on both stage and screen. James Weldon Johnson described him as the "Grand Old Man of the Negro Stage".[1]

Early career[edit]

Lucas was born in Washington, Ohio, in 1850 to free black parents. He showed a talent for guitar and singing as a teenager, and while working as a barber, his local performances gained him a positive reputation. At age 19, he began his career as a performer with the traveling African-American minstrel companies. Over the next five years, he sang and acted on stage and on riverboats, and composed music for his shows. Meanwhile, he found ways to integrate his African-American roots into the mostly white form; for instance, his tune "Carve Dat Possum" borrowed its melody from a black religious song. As black minstrelsy grew popular with the general public, Lucas became one of its first celebrities, particularly known for his portrayals of pitiable, comic characters. His fame allowed him to choose his engagements, and over the span of his career, he performed with some of the best black minstrel troupes. He never led a troupe of his own, however.

Dramatic roles[edit]

Meanwhile, Lucas attempted to branch out into non-minstrel material. In 1875, for instance, he performed alongside Emma and Anna Hyer in Out of Bondage, a musical drama about a freed slave who is made over to fit into upper-class, white society. He followed this by another stint in black minstrelsy, and in 1876, he was playing with Sprague's Georgia Minstrels alongside both James A. Bland and Billy Kersands.

In 1878, Charles and Gustave Frohman needed an advertising gimmick to help rescue a poorly performing comedy troupe. Their answer was to stage a serious production of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a black man in the lead role. Lucas's reputation as an actor was well known, as was his wealth; Gustave wired Charles, "Get me an Eva and send her down with Sam Lucas. Be sure to tell Sam to bring his diamonds."[2] Lucas became the first African American to play Uncle Tom in a serious production. Nevertheless, the show fared poorly in Richmond, Virginia, and not even a change of venue to Lucas's home state of Ohio could save the production. The problems seem to have been many. One critic remarked that "little" Eva was so large that she nearly flattened St. Clair when she sat in his lap. Lucas had to hawk his stash of diamonds to pay the troupe's transport back to Cincinnati.

Lucas rejoined the Hyer sisters for The Underground Railroad, only to go back to blackface acts after its run. He also continued to write, and much of his output shows a more African American perspective when compared to work of other black composers, such as James Bland.[3] For example, the lyrics to "My Dear Old Southern Home" say:

I remember now my poor wife's face,
Her cries ring in my ear;
When they tore me from her wild embrace,
And sold me way out yere.
My children sobbed about my knees,
They've all grown up since then,
But bress de Lord de good time's come;
I'se freed by dose Northern men.[4]

Another Lucas tune declares, "I nebber shall forget, no nebber, / De day I was sot free."[5]

Later career[edit]

In 1890, Lucas served as an endman in Sam T. Jack's The Creole Show, often cited as the first African American production to show signs of breaking the links to minstrelsy.[6] He married his wife during its run, and afterward they played a succession of variety houses, vaudeville stages, and museums. In 1898, Lucas performed in Boston in A Trip to Coontown, produced by Bob Cole. This was the first black production to use only African American writers, directors, and producers,[6] and the first black musical comedy to make a complete break with minstrelsy.[7]

Lucas later performed in Shoo Fly Regiment and Red Moon while continuing to tour vaudeville houses. In 1915, he became the first black man to star as Uncle Tom in a film version of Stowe's novel. He became sick while filming and died on 5 January 1916.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Johnson (1968). Black Manhattan, p. 90. Quoted in Toll 218.
  2. ^ Toll 217-8.
  3. ^ Watkins 119.
  4. ^ Quoted in Toll 247. Toll does not specify whether this piece was published in Sam Lucas' Plantation Songster, c. 1875, or in Sam Lucas' Careful Man Songster, c. 1881.
  5. ^ Lucas, Sam (1878). Sheet music, "De Day I Was Sot Free". Quoted in Toll 247.
  6. ^ a b Watkins 118.
  7. ^ Toll 218.

Bibliography[edit]

Graham, Sandra Jean (2013). "The Songs of Sam Lucas." Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, http://popmusic.mtsu.edu/lucas/lucassongs.html.

  • Toll, Robert C. (1974). Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Watkins, Mel (1994). On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon & Schuster.