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The voice of Ed Whaley
Ed Whaley by Katy Massey
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I'll be finished taking this off in just one minute. Take a seat. I can talk awhile but I can't go meet Dorothy with this stuff still on. Coal black face, big white moon mouth turned down and white circles round my eyes. What would she think? I know she seen me like this on stage. She watched me in character, playing Pussy Foot. She said it was the funniest thing shes ever seen. Said that I was bringing coal to Newcastle, or thereabouts, then laughed and laughed. I didnt understand her exactly, but she looks so pretty when she laughs I didn't mind. Small, Dorothy is. Much smaller than me, with dark eyes like currants dotted on her pale face. I met her on the tram shes a conductor. Cute little outfit and a machine for the tickets. Can't wait to see her in it again. That's one of the good things about this job. Two shows a day: 6.40 and 8.40 and most of the day free.
Sorry you caught me giving myself a wash down. Didn't even introduce myself. My name's Edward Peter Whaley of Montgomery Alabama. He who you passed on the hahh, that was Harry Clifford Scott of Cleveland, Ohio. You probably heard o us. Were Scott & Whaley, the Original Black Coons. Harry and me are playing here two performances a night for two weeks, topping the bill o'course. First time at the Sunderland Empire we played bottom of the bill, right where Pansie, Maisie and Little Max are now. Little Max ain't a kid, by the way, just a real small man but big enough to argue with the Mr Barnes, he's the theatre manager - and nearly get all three o them sacked and leave us with no one to open the show. But were at the top of the bill now, so you can see we've come up some.
Anyway's, its my job to get the laughs. Have you seen the show yet? I'm in blackface, that's what this stuff is. War makes it hard to get proper make-up so I burn the bottom of a cork and rub that on. Harry laughs and says as it don't make no difference, as I'm black as the Ace o Spades anyway. And every night I have to get all the damn stuff off. But I tell him: The black face makes it easier. Everybody understands the black face. I put it on over my black face and I'm not me anymore I'm 'The Coon'. My name in the act is Pussy-Foot and they can laugh at me so as they couldn't laugh without the paint on. It's even better that underneath, they know Harry and me, were both the real McCoy. Not somebody pretending, with bits of white skin showing through at the neck and a fake Yankee accent that keeps slipping into Yorkshire or some such every second line. D'ya know, there's more white coons than black coons? Don't make sense when there are so many brothers who can make a better job of it.
Yup, the face has to go on, or it don't work. Without black face we just two black men making fools of ourselves. With black face were the Original Black Coons. Well, were the original black coons over here in England. In New York Williams and Walker topped bills up and down Broadway and their act might have seemed to be very like ours, to an unacquainted eye o course. But they left black face behind years ago. Thought it undignified. They thought it was just white people laughing at us, and black people laughing just to keep from crying with shame. Well, I'd tell George Walker that there ain't hardly any black folk here and the white folk need to laugh more than they need to be told that what I do is undignified. Besides, Harry and me, we go where ever we want to, as long as we don't cause offence. What's undignified about that?
With the black face and the big white blubber lips and goggly eyes, they know I'm supposed to be the stupid one. To make certain, I walk real lop-sided kind of roll along the stage. Harry, he's all dressed up in tuxedo and plays the Gentleman. Walks tall like a proper dandy. Even smells of Cologne. But as I told you, the jokes are mine. We been together thirteen years, met Harry in New York. I came up from the South pulled teeth down there for respectable black folks, but no money in it. And I couldn't take it seriously: blood everywhere and them screaming blue murder. My Pop taught me to play piano and I started making up songs. Couldn't sing much, dance even less. But somehow folks enjoyed what I did enjoyed it more than the teeth pulling anyway. So I went to New York City and left Alabhama behind, as any black man with half-a-mind of his own would. New York was full of Southerners then. The North was a different country to us. Like it is here. I love visiting the North of England, we're real novelties up here, not so easy in the likes of Liverpool and Bristol.
The first car I ever saw ran down Fawcett Street the other day, a big crowd came out to see it mostly women ocourse it flew past faster than a train a big cloud of noise and smoke. I enjoyed it as much as anyone else, the motor car, the Town Hall looking like a palace and as grand as anything in Washington. Me and Scott were the only two black faces in that crowd. What more could we want? Only thing to make it better would have been riding in that automobile!
After we seen the new horseless carriage, I took Dorothy near to her home her on the tram. It was well out o my way, but I didnt mind it. Harry and me we always stay in town at the Mowbray Park. Not a hotel for black folks the Mowbray Park: its just a regular hotel. On the tram, to amuse Dorothy, I did a bit of our routine mine and Harrys parts both.
Whatya limping for Pussy Foot? Whats the matter with your feet?
Man, I got corns on em.
Well why dont you do something for them?
Why should I? They aint done nothing for me, so let em suffer!
Soon I had the whole tram laughing. I could tell there was a sparkle in Dorothys dark eyes. She agreed to see me and I been a happy man ever since. The ladies usually go for Harry see. He wears a tux in the act. On stage hes the clever one. But the stage aint life and Harry, he falls in love too easily. He's a playboy in our act, but out of it he's a fool for women. He had his heart broken so many times and so many times he's done the routine drunk out of his mind. So drunk, I have to hide him from the manager before our cue. There's a bit of our act, when he drinks some whiskey and follows it with a swig o water. I ask him what he's doing and he tells me its an old American custom called drowning the rat. Well theatricals aint real. I told the theatre bar tender: if you see Harry take whisky with water you call me. Cos I aint never seen him drink water in his life.
Anyway, that's the next thing Im going to buy, a car. My Mom and Pop were respectable. But the best we get in America is Nigger Rich. A lot a money among our own kind. Here were rich and we can go anywhere, spend our money on anything we like, even white girls. That's freedom man, even if I have to black up to get it. I was respectable, but I dont want respectable. I want rich. Travelling from Down Town up to Harlem to see the Hoochy Coochy girls rich. Silver-top cane rich. Double-breasted cashmere coat with astrakhan collar rich. Diamond tie-pin and silk gloves rich. Jermyn Street suits with turn-up trousers rich. Dont want for nothing, don't step in my shadow, buy any women I want rich.
Would you believe were on 150 guineas a week? 150 guineas! We split it 60:40 as I write the songs and most of the jokes. Harry's got a better head for business though. He's not mean as such, but hed rather polish a dime than spend it. A laughing salad with musical dressing. Thats our act. I tell Harry all the time: since I got the jokes and I got the songs, the salad and the dressing are mine hes just the waiter. He don't mind none of this. We're tight Harry and me. Have to be. There's too many around who'll give us trouble, but not so many once were in the Empire. In here it's every man for himself dont matter if you're a man who likes ladies, or a man's man, if you get my insinuation. No one cares as long as you get the laughs. And theyve been harder to come by over the last couple a years. The audience now is mostly women and kids and lots a old coots. Sometimes, I swear, I can hear them laughing at my big white eyes rolling and big white mouth grinning but when I look out at the audience the footlights catching more tears than teeth. Makes me feel like were doing something right. So many here mourning their beloveds, they got to have somewhere to laugh.
Dorothy tells me so many people are sad, it's like the city goes on everyday making more and more money: from the coal miners, from the arms, from the river. I stood on Alexander bridge with her yesterday and counted fifty boats on the Wear. But all o this happens through a sort o mist. Not the fog a different mist. Like a veil over the heart, she says. She's an artiste too plays the piano for the flicks. Between her two jobs and my show times there's not much space for us at all. And I'm only here for two weeks. And her father and brothers may be back sometime soon. But she's the prettiest thing I ever did see, and I told her that if shell wait for me then we'll be back with the Kentucky Minstrels in the Fall.
Now, look good don't I? Put these on that hook would you? Its my costume looks like a pile of rags doesnt it?. Look better off stage than on, I tell you. But its off stage what matters to me. You'll see what I mean, anyway. Look forward to seeing you and your friends in the circle sometime soon. Now excuse me, but I have to go. Dorothy'll be waiting.
Copyright: Katy Massey
Katy Massey Biography
In 2003 Katy Massey moved to the North East to study. She stayed on after falling in love with the region, particularly the weather. Katy has always been a writer, but picked up her pen with renewed vigour after finishing her MA in Media and Cultural Studies last year. Katy has been a freelance journalist for eight years and contributes a monthly money column to Cosmopolitan magazine as well as writing for the BBC's online services. She writes poetry and imaginative non-fiction as well as short stories. She is currently attempting longer fiction and lecturing at Newcastle College.