Jenna Gibbs

Jenna Gibbs, Florida International University

Radical Re-Imaginings of Racial Performance: Tom and Jerry; or, Life in London at the African Theatre in New York

After its wildly successful London debut in 1821, William Moncrief’s play, Life in London; or, Tom and Jerry, quickly traveled across the ocean to American theaters, opening to wide acclaim at the Park Theatre in New York in 1822. The following year, the African Company—as they were billed—produced their version at the African Theatre in New York. Moncrief’s burletta features Tom and Jerry as young white dandies who ramble through scenes of “low life” London and encounter two characters, African Sal and Billy Waters, who were performed for laughs in blackface makeup by white actors. At the African Theatre, all these characters were performed by African Americans in a variety of settings that differ from the London scenes. This paper will discuss the African Theatre’s reinterpretation of Tom and Jerry for a predominantly white audience against this racially-charged backdrop and in comparison to its London iteration.

Jenna Gibbs (PhD, UCLA) is an Associate Professor of History at Florida International University. She researches race, imperialism, politics, and theatre in the long eighteenth century. Her celebrated book Performing the Temple of Liberty: Slavery, Theater, and Popular Culture in London and Philadelphia, 1760s-1850s (John Hopkins University Press, 2014) examines race and historical performances. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies (Berlin, 2013-14) and the Stanford Humanities Center (2015-16). Recent publications include: “The Signifying Monkey: Interdisciplinary Ripple Effects and Six Degrees of Separation,” (Early American Literature) and “Toussaint, Gabriel, and Three Finger’d Jack: ‘Courageous chiefs’ and the ‘sacred standard of liberty’ on the Atlantic Stage” (2015, Journal of Early American Studies), garnering honorable mention for best article in EAS.