One Saturday night in the autumn of 1898, following the premiere of his three-act melodrama A Savage in His Elements, playwright, impresario and actor Vernon de Grasse was dragged from the stage of the Prairie Oyster Hotel and partially scalped in the gaslighted streets of North Platte, Nebraska. The text of the play has not survived, but Mr de Grasse has. Now admitting to 139 years of age, the District of Columbia native recently consented to an interview at his residence in the historic West Adams district of Los Angeles. Best known for his 1975-82 one-man highwire-act trilogy (Underwater Eagle, The Green Gulls of Neptune, and My Robins are Blue as the Sea, Damn It), he now lives in semi-retirement as a handyman and landlord. As arguably the oldest surviving black American playwright, Mr de Grasse has some encouraging words for young people embarking on a career in the arts today.
Bitter Lemons: To mount a production that promoted Native American rights, interracial marriage and universal suffrage, in rhymed couplets, for an audience of drunken, illiterate agrarians in the American midwest of the nineteenth century, might strike some as equally noble and suicidal.
Vernon de Grasse: Well, North Platte wasn’t Atlanta. And I don’t think we would have tried it in Mobile.
BL: Even so…
VdG: I admit to some surprise when we got the gig. The Prairie Oyster Hotel was known for hosting the more progressive elements of local politics and culture, but yes, that particular play asked a great deal of its audience.
BL: At what point in the narrative were you lassoed from the balcony?
VdG: Oh, they let us finish the show.
VdG: Oh, yes. The cowboys down front started to yodel pretty early, when the Sioux princess knifed the Yankee cavalry officer for forcing his attentions upon her. But she showed a good piece of leg during that scene, so they put up with it. A little sex went a long way in those days.
BL: Still does.
VdG: Indeed. And I seem to remember some gunfire during the kiss between the white settler’s daughter and the Buffalo Soldier. But you were used to that at the time and place.
VdG: Not like today. These were people who grew up shooting; after the first couple of shots, you knew they weren’t really trying to hit anything. When they tried, they killed you. So we carried on with the show, you know. You have to.
BL: That’s a lot of faith for an actor to have in his audience.
VdG: Well, there was more faith to be had back then.
BL: So was it during the curtain call that…
VdG: Yes. We were taking a second bow, and I didn’t mind they were sailing cow chips at us. We were just happy we were going to get paid. We’d come out on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from Chevy Chase, with six costume trunks and two 150 foot cyclorama of buttes and buffalo and the Eastern Star in the morning sky (they charge the hell out of you for freight; I had no idea) and seven cast members traveling third-class. I was thirty-five dollars in debt and quite preoccupied with the fact before we opened, I don’t mind telling you. My deal was for half the house, and when I got onstage and saw we had over three hundred paying customers in the saloon auditorium at seventy-five cents a head, well, I could hardly keep the smile off my face during the dramatic scenes.
BL: Okay. You’re taking your bows, and they’re throwing livestock manure at the actors, and a rope comes out of thin air…
VdG: Not exactly. I saw the lasso being twirled from the nearest balcony box house left, and I thought, foolishly of course in hindsight, that it might be fun to get swung around over the stage as long as the rope didn’t tighten around my neck. You know, around my arms or something would be fine. So I thought. A high proportion of the audience had become friends of mine in the week we’d been in town, so I expected very little would come of it.
BL: As an African-American, didn’t you…
VdG: As I say, it wasn’t the most intelligent decision I ever made. But I think the naturally adventurous spirit of an artist can swell the heart of a white man, a black woman, a Chinese hermaphrodite, whatever. I don’t agree that race has a lot to say in the matter. So yes, I misjudged the nature of that particular redneck’s intent.
BL: And of the crowd’s goodwill toward you.
VdG: I can see, sir, that you’re more interested in the salacious detail than the larger truth. That’s to be expected in a journalist. (sighs) Yes, there was an incident, after the less enlightened elements of the crowd let themselves get carried away by liquor and the high spirits only art can set free.
BL: If I’m not mistaken, you were tied to a wagon wheel and horsewhipped.
VdG: I believe the vehicle was a buckboard.
BL: And were you not then scalped by a member of the audience?
VdG: Sir, since I have very little hair on my head these days, I hope you can see that your description is an exaggeration of the fact.
BL: It’s true, your scalp looks largely intact. There is something over your left ear that looks like…
VdG: I beg you remain seated, sir.
BL: I beg your pardon. So, I imagine you were properly outraged after being made a spectacle with this public humiliation. How did…
VdG: In what arena does your newspaper specialize, Mr Rohrer? Because with remarks like that, you make it all too clear that you understand not the very first principle of show business. “A public spectacle?” For goodness’ sake, man, I already was an actor! Yes, I took my stripes and got bloodied up a little bit; but that was nothing to the fact that we made the papers as far away as Duluth. My mother read the news of my stardom back home in the DC! We sold out the show through Christmas, and had the Prairie Oyster not burned down in a tragic accident, or disaster-insurance bit of flummery, I’m not sure which, why, we might still be playing that two-bit melodrama today.
BL: You speak rather dismissively of your play. You don’t regret the loss of A Savage in His Elements to the ravages of time?
VdG: A moon and June potboiler. I wrote the last two acts in two days’ train ride, between West Virginia and Illinois. Its one virtue was that it made me a famous playwright, precisely because of its controversial elements.
BL: I don’t know many actors today who would take such punishment on the road to “stardom.”
VdG: More’s the pity, perhaps.
VdG: Well, perhaps not. I suppose nowadays, acting and writing is an altogether less dangerous business.
BL: In this country at least, it rarely comes with the prospect of a public beating.
VdG: More’s the pity, perhaps.
BL: Mr de Grasse, you repeat yourself.
VdG: One good answer serves many poor questions.
BL: How so?
VdG: Ask a writer whether he’d rather take a licking before an interested crowd, or be ignored. You find one, and you ask him. I’ll wait here.
At press time, Mr de Grasse had yet to be proven wrong.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer's education includes New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, the Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow, Russia, the National Academy for Theater and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Village Oaks School in Stockton, California. He reviews film, theater, dance, and music for stageandcinema.com. He tweets as @RohrerWrites. He is less intelligent than he thinks, but then, he would have to be.