Jesse Owens, Act One

Synopsis

 

Set in Alabama around 1920 Jesse is introduced as a boy on the share-cropping farm of his parents. Life is hard for them and they sing of the difficulties that they have in working the farm. A local African American preacher takes a church service for the family and further events from Jesse's childhood are sung as counter-melodies to the main service. In the background, offstage, can be heard fragments of a white Christian church service, and the side drum and whistles of a white parade preparing to march. The Bonnie Blue flag introduces a menacing sequence where the African American preacher is set upon and lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. The Owens family respond to the murder and decide to move to Ohio.

 

Overture

 

A short, 'running' motif in the strings opens the opera (an impression of this can be heard here); this is followed by a section which has enough edge to remind the listener of the troubled times in the world (1914-18). But the overall feel is lively, not least from the use of a fragment of blues from W.C. Handy which is spread across the brass. (You can hear the original here.) The chorus announce Jesse at the close of the overture.

 

Alabama about 1920, a farm shack and tree

 

Scene 1: Introduction

 

Chorus 
Jesse

 

Emma 
Where's Jesse? Jesse! Jesse!

 

Henry 
Wait till I get hold of that boy… He'll know it good

 

Emma 
Lord, give me strength. Where's that child?

 

Henry 
Where that damn boy's gone to? He sure ain't been to school again.

 

Emma 
Henry, you got to talk to him For his own good. He's running wild.

 

Henry 
I'll get me my belt.

 

Chorus 
Jesse, take care, run and hide.
The cotton fields stretch far and wide.

 

Boy Jesse 
I am running, I'm running free, Ma,
Catching cotton flying high.

 

Chorus 
Go, Jesse, go!

 

Boy Jesse 
My feets on fire, Ma.

 

Chorus 
Go, Jesse, go!

 

Boy Jesse 
I'm free as a bird

 

Chorus 
Run Jesse, run for your life.

 

Henry 
Let me get my hands on that boy.

 

Chorus 
Easier said than done,
Not the way Jesse runs..

 

Henry 
I'll tan his little butt.

 

Emma 
Don't be too hard. Jesse, Jesse.

 

Chorus 
You won't tan him
You'll never catch him,
He's too fast for your belt.

 

Henry 
I couldn't catch him,
He's gone running like crazy again.

 

Emma 
Jesse, Jesse.

 

Chorus (like children in a playground)
Told you so,
We told you so,
Jesse's too fast,
You're too slow.

 

Scene 2: Home

 

Old Jesse 
Thirty years sharecropping
And what he got to show

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Nothing but the mule he riding

 

Middle-aged and Old Jesse 
And now the mule moves kinda slow

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Sharecropping is all my papa knew
And for better or for worse
His earthly possessions are few

 

Old Jesse 
His earthly possessions are few

 

Henry 
I work this cursed land
But I can't make it pay

 

Emma and Henry 
O Lord, We can't make it pay

 

Henry 
Ain't no way to earn a crust, 
Surviving day to day

 

Emma and Henry 
O Lord, We can't make it pay

 

Henry 
I work hard for my kids,
Slaving I would say,

 

Emma and Henry 
O Lord, help us, 
We can't make it pay

 

Henry 
Can't put food on their plates,
wish I could run away

 

Emma and Chorus 
Wish I could run away

 

Old Jesse 
Thirty years sharecropping
And what he got to show

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Nothing but them tatty clothes

 

Middle-aged and Old Jesse 
To shield him from the sun and snow

 

Middle-aged Jesse 

Sharecropping is all my papa knew
And for better or for worse
His earthly possessions are few

 

Old Jesse 
His earthly possessions are few

 

Henry 
Can't seem to find no peace

 

Emma and Henry 
As we struggle on our way

 

Henry 
I'll ask my maker why on Judgement Day

 

Scene 3: Church

 

(spoken)

 

Preacher 
Brothers and sisters, Hell is God's chain gang

 

Chorus 
Amen

 

Preacher 
The flames will be torment as long as God lives

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah

 

Preacher 
Now I wanna talk to young people this morning from the fourteenth book of John

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Amen/Oh yeah

 

Preacher 
The second verse when Jesus said let not your heart be troubled

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah/OK

 

Preacher 
Ye that believeth in God believeth in me also

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh have mercy

 

Preacher 
In my Father's house are many mansions

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah?

 

Preacher 
If it was not so, I would have told you

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah?

 

Preacher 
I'm going to prepare a place for you

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah?

 

Preacher 
And if I go and prepare this place for you, I am comin' again

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh yeah

 

Preacher 
And will receive you under myself

 

Emma, Ruth, Chorus 
Oh Jesus

 

Preacher 
Let's sing

 

Preacher, Emma, Ruth, Boy, Athlete Jesse, Henry, Female Chorus 

(with honky tonk/out of tune piano)
I say Hell ain't got no bottom
Some say Hell ain't got no bottom
Some say Hell ain't got no bottom
When my soul is moving along

 

Can't you...
Give those gamblers a hiding
Can't you give those gamblers a hiding
Can't you give those gamblers a hiding
When my soul is moving along

 

(sung with Give those gambler's a hidin')

 

Old Jesse 
Grandpa was a slave

 

Boy and Athlete Jesse 
And Granma,

 

Old Jesse 
My folks they sharecropped,

 

Athlete and Old Jesse 
Half to the owners,

 

Old Jesse 
Ain't a fair exchange

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
God, that shack was hot

 

Preacher 
He says…

 

Preacher, Emma, Ruth, Boy, Athlete Jesse, Henry, Female Chorus 
How I'm gonna hear my Lord a callin'
He says how I'm gonna hear my Lord a callin'
He says how I'm gonna hear my Lord a callin
Oh my soul is moving along

 

(sung with How I'm gonna hear my Lord a callin')

 

Athlete and Old Jesse 
I was a sickly child, the devil's cold

 

Boy, Athlete and Old Jesse 
The devil nearly took me

 

Emma, Boy and Middle-aged Jesse 
God that shack was cold

 

Preacher, Chorus 
Are you...

 

Preacher, Emma, Ruth, Boy, Athlete, Henry and Female Chorus 
Hanging in the fire
Are you hanging in the fire
Are you hanging in the fire
Oh my soul is moving along

 

(sung with Are you hanging in the fire)

 

Henry 
Heat up the knife dear.

 

Emma 
Hold him

 

Henry 
I'll hold him.

 

Emma 
The boils are near the heart

 

Boy and Athlete Jesse 
Was my leg

 

Old Jesse 
My heart

 

Henry 
He'll bleed to death

 

Emma 
We've got to take that chance

 

Boy, Athlete and Middle-aged Jesse 
Oh my soul is moving along

 

Female Chorus (off-stage)
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty

 

Boy Jesse 
What's that, Mama?

 

Emma 
Ssh, it's the white church

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on my Lord
Let the church move on my Lord
Let the church roll on my Lord
Let the church roll on.

Every heathen in the church, my Lord
And it won't do right, my Lord
Join them up, my Lord
Let the church roll on.

 

Female Chorus (off-stage)
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty

 

Boy Jesse 
There it is again

 

Emma 
Don't you worry yourself

 

Female Chorus (off-stage, against I got shoes) 
Early in the morning my song shall rise to thee

 

Preacher 
I got shoes

 

Henry and all Jesses 
You got shoes

 

Preacher and all Jesses 
All God's children got shoes

 

Henry 
Good Lordy

 

Preacher, all Jesses 
When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes
I'm gonna walk all over God's heaven
Heaven

 

Henry 
Lord

 

Preacher and all Jesses 
Heaven

 

Henry 
Hallelujah

 

Preacher and all Jesses 
Heaven

 

Henry 
In the kingdom

 

Preacher and all Jesses 
Everybody talking 'bout heaven ain't going there heaven

 

Henry 
Lord

 

Preacher and all Jesses 
Heaven

 

Henry 
Hallelujah

 

Preacher, Henry and all Jesses 
Gonna walk all over God's heaven

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus (off-stage, increasing in volume
My lord

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher, Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
Let the church roll on

 

Preacher 
Hypocrite in the church

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher 
Now that ain't right

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher 
Well what you gonna do?

 

Old Jesse 
Have him up, turn him out

 

Preacher, Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
And let the church roll on

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher 
Let the church roll on

 

Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
My Lord

 

Preacher, Ruth, Emma, all Jesses and Full Chorus 
Let the church roll on.

 

Preacher, Emma and all Jesses 
Let the church roll on

 

Preacher and Boy Jesse 
Let the church roll on

 

Emma, Athlete, Middle-aged and Old Jesse 
Let us pray

 

(leaving church)

 

Athlete Jesse 
Have you heard 'bout Unclue Clarence...

 

Boy Jesse 
Didn't take shit from no-one,

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Wash your mouth out

 

Boy and Athlete Jesse 
... his latest story is one of the best

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
You mean the tallest yet

 

Athlete Jesse 
Ain't no word of a lie, went up to the white man's house

 

Boy Jesse 
The one with the mad bulldog

 

Athlete Jesse 
Come on in, said the white man ...

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Not a good idea

 

Athlete Jesse 
... the dog's wired.

 

Boy Jesse 
Hurry up, tell us, what happened?

 

Athlete Jesse 
You sure that damn dog is fenced in? Oh yeah, it's quite safe, come on in.

 

Boy Jesse 
Come on, come on in

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
He shouldn't, I wouldn't

 

Athlete Jesse 
Clarence went in. The dog run up ...

 

Boy Jesse 
I knew it would

 

Athlete Jesse 
... all froth and spit.

 

Boy and Middle-aged Jesse 
Did it bite him? Then what, was he scared, hurry it up

 

Athlete Jesse 
Clarence picked up the white man, swung him round, beat the dog with his feet, a shoe fell off

 

Boy Jesse 
Oh yeah, I wasn't born yesterday

 

Athlete Jesse 
Ain't no word of a lie, Clarence just knocked that dog down a goin and a comin.

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
OK, let's get on back

 

Boy Jesse 
You can't think I'd swallow that. I'm not that dumb, no way.

 

Scene 4: The Klan

 

Chorus (sung to The Bonnie Blue Flag)
We are a band of brothers,
And native to the soil
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil,
And when our rights were threatened,
The cry rose near and far
Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag
That bears a single star!
Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern right hurrah,
Hurrah for the bonnie blue flat that bears a single star

 

Male Chorus 

We are the ghosts of Confederate soldiers
We are the Knights of the White Camelia
Shots into houses
The Iron-Clad Oath
Chasing through woods
The Damnesty Oath
Weekly assaults
The White League
Leave the bodies in the road
The Red Shirts

 

Full Chorus 
Hunting the game
Ours is a promised land

 

Old Jesse 
I remember the fear in my family,
My father was a nervous man
Grandparents spoke of bad times,
But they was still around.
The Klan casting its shadow
Even on our daydreams.

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
Stories, the tree (cross), swinging in the wind, 
I was too little for knowing,

 

Old Jesse 
But not too little for fright. A good reason for running.

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
A good reason for running fast.

 

Female Chorus 
We believe in the Brotherhood of God, 
The brotherhood of Jesus Christ,
And the eternal tenets of the Christian religion
As practiced by enlightened Protestant churches.

We believe in the American home
As the foundation upon which rests secure the American Republic,
The future of its institutions,
And the liberties of its citizens.

 

Preacher 
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Ye that believeth in God, believeth in me.

 

Female Chorus 
We believe the Stars and Stripes the most beautiful flag on earth, 
Symbolising the purity of race,
The blood of martyrs,
And the fidelity of patriots.

 

Preacher 
Swing low, sweet chariot,
The flames will be torment as long as God lives

 

Full Chorus 
We believe that the current of pure American blood
Must be kept uncontaminated by mongrel strains
And protected from racial pollution.

 

First Male 
Listen to them nigger songs.

 

Preacher 
Who's there?

 

Female Chorus 
We believe that the perpetuity of our nation
Rests upon the solidarity and perpetuity of our native-born
White, Gentile, Protestant men and women.

 

Preacher 
Swing low, coming for to carry me home

 

First Male 
Listen to them old coon songs, swing high

 

Second Male 
We told you to clear out of here,

 

Preacher 
Get your hands off

 

First and Second Male 
We thought we told you, clear out

 

Preacher 
When I'm ready

 

First and Second Male 
Too late

 

Full Chorus 
It's too late

 

Preacher 
Leave me alone,
I ain't done nothing,
You got no right.
I'm doing the Lord's work

 

Second Male 
So are we, boy.

 

First Male and Chorus 
Look what we got

 

Second Male and Chorus 
Just listen to the uppity nigger.

 

First Male 
What's the matter, eh, boy,
Not so uppity now are we boy.

 

First and Second Male and Chorus 
Look what we got

 

Preacher 
I'm on my way, sir, I swear, yes sir, I'm going, just like you telled me.

 

First and Second Male and Chorus 
Liar! Bastard! Shit! Look what we got

 

First Male 
That's enough boys.

 

Preacher 
I know you, Tom Flint ain't it , do you remember, I helped your son plough his field last year. Please Mister Flint, I'm going sir, I just needed a little more time

 

Second Male and Chorus (holding the preacher's face almost tenderly
Hush, hush now, didn't we tell you,
No second chance?

 

Preacher 
Yes, you did, sir, yes, you did. Please sir.

 

Second Male 
Didn't we tell you, no second chance?

 

First Male 
We told you to clear out but you're still here

 

First and Second Male 
We ain't going to tell you again

 

Preacher 
I'm going, I'm on my way

 

Second Male and Chorus 
We ain't gonna tell you again now,
Are we boys?

 

Chorus 
Sure ain't!

 

Preacher 
Oh yes sir, I don't need telling twice, I'm going.

 

First Male 
But you're still here boy,
Getting all them others
Uppity and fired up.
Why just the other day one said he weren't paid enough.
We can't have that can we boy?

 

Preacher 
Oh Lord, sweet Jesus

 

Chorus 
We can't have that

 

Second Male 
Answer the man, boy!

 

First Male 
Answer me boy

 

Preacher 
Oh Lord, wash my soul clean, I ask you,

 

Bass Chorus 
He ain't gonna answer no-one now

 

First Male 
Answer me, boy

 

Second Male 
Answer the man, boy

 

Preacher 
Please Lord, forgive them their sins

Bass Chorus 
We are the Knights of the Red Camelia

 

First Male and Tenor Chorus 
What do you reckon Tom, He's lost his senses?

 

Bass Chorus 
The iron clad fist, The Damnesty Oath, the White League,

 

Female Chorus 
He's lost his senses

 

First Male and Male Chorus 
I reckon we got a lynching.

 

First and Second Male and Chorus 
We've got a lynching

 

Full Chorus 
You'll be swinging real sweet.
We're gonna make you swing real high
So high that you'll need no chariot .

Emma 
Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!

 

Henry 
What you on about, Emma? You looks like something real bad happen.

 

Emma 
Preacher! Preacher Samuels
They done strung up Preacher from a tree.

 

Henry 
That good old Baptist man.
Didn't want him preaching to us black folk.
Feel he was putting ideas in our souls.

 

Emma 
Felt like my own heart was hanging
When I got the news ...

 

Chorus 
Lamentations hang from the trees.
Hooded vengeance speaks.
They can hang the messenger high
But the message never dies.

 

Emma 
Poor preacher

 

Boy Jesse 
Preacher gone to heaven mama?

 

Old Jesse 
I remember, the talk of moving away...

 

Emma 
What chance have we got, this ain't no place to raise a family

 

Henry 
What you saying Mary Owens

 

Old Jesse 
My father was a nervous man.
My mother showed great courage ...

 

Emma 
I say it's time to go, leave Alabama for Ohio

 

Henry 
Hang on to yo horses, you moving too fast for me

 

Old Jesse 
The life was so hard

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
So hard, they talked of leaving, 
Starting a new life, away from the hangings,

 

Old Jesse 
Our neighbours did it themselves.

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
A good reason for moving.

 

Henry 
What I be doing in Ohio. This place is still home, how I gonna start all over

 

Emma 
But not for me, I say we pack up and head north

 

Boy Jesse 
I've never been from the farm before. Where we going? Ma, where we going?

 

Middle-aged Jesse 
I had never been away before

 

Henry 
You tell 'em, Emma, it's your idea

 

Emma 
J.C., go and run the mule to Mr. Clannon's, don't dawdle

 

Henry 
How I gonna start all over, in some cold north city? I ain't as young as I used to be.

 

Emma 
Sylvester, you get the tools and go with J.C. 
Girls, we'll wash this house down
'Cause I don't leave no dirty house
For someone else to live in.
Think big Henry, that's what life's about.

 

Henry 

Tie your belongings, boys,
We've gotta be out by sundown.

 

Boy Jesse 
But where're we gonna go, Momma?

 

Emma 
We're goin' on a train, J.C.

 

Boy Jesse 
And where's the train gonna take us, Momma?

 

Emma 
J.C., you are the one, more questions than you got answers, 
It's gonna take us to a better life.

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© 2018 Michael Stimpson