Matata and Jesse James: An American Tragedy

 (l to r) Yancy, with back to camera, (Johnny Travers), Pap (Sean Turner), Sejata (Ashleigh Awusie), Matata (John Rankin III), Albert (Michael Alcide), Jesse James (Brad Burgess), Frank James (David Gazzo) and Billy Gashade (Guy Prir) Matata and Jesse James: An American Tragedy, Castillo Theatre, April 2018 Photo: Ronald L. Glassman

(l to r) Yancy, with back to camera, (Johnny Travers), Pap (Sean Turner), Sejata (Ashleigh Awusie), Matata (John Rankin III), Albert (Michael Alcide), Jesse James (Brad Burgess), Frank James (David Gazzo) and Billy Gashade (Guy Prir)
Matata and Jesse James: An American Tragedy, Castillo Theatre, April 2018
Photo: Ronald L. Glassman

Matata and Jesse James:
An American Tragedy    

By Dan Friedman

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Post April 2018 Production Version

Characters

Zerelda James
Jesse James
Frank James
Billy Gashade
Matata
Pap
Albert
Sejata
Overseer
Yancey
Jon Edwards

Note: The title of each scene should be projected so the audience can see it during the performance of that scene.

 

The James Brothers Declare War on the United States

(Zerelda and Jesse on the porch of their cabin)

Zerelda
The time has come, son.

Jesse
Yes, it has, ma.

Zerelda
Time to step to it.

Jesse
We ready.

Zerelda
My boys Frank and Jesse James will be Cavaliers of the South.

Jesse
We ain’t Cavaliers, ma. We’re just farm boys.

Zerelda
You will be Cavaliers by the end of this war. You will be Knights of our New Confederacy.

Jesse
I guess we’ll do what we got to do.

Zerelda
I thank the Lord this war has finally come and that I have lived long enough to see the end of the United States.

(Enter Frank James and Billy Gashade.)

Frank
Praise the Lord!

Zerelda
Frank, where you been?  Your pa and I been looking for you for days.

Billy
He been recruiting, Ms James.

Frank
We been riding from town to town, me and Billy here. He been singing our new national anthem. Crowd gathers and I sign up boys to fight for their country.

Billy
You should hear him talk, Ms James.  Your son Frank has got a golden tongue. He tells ‘em how the Yankees got no right to come down here and tell us how to live. Talks about the sacred right of private property and how nobody’s gonna take away our Constitutional right to own slaves.  He talks about natural law…

Jesse
Yeah, Frank does talk a lot. 

Frank
Want to hear the national anthem?

Jesse
Reckon I should know it.

Zerelda
Sing it Billy.

Billy
(sings)

Southerons, hear your country call you!
Up, least worse than death befall you!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!
Lo! All the beacon fires are lighted—
Let all hearts be now united!
To arms! To arms! To arms! In Dixie!

Chorus
Advance the flag of Dixie!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
For Dixie’s Land we take our stand,
And live or die for Dixie!
To arms! To arms!
And conquer peace for Dixie!
To arms! To arms!
And conquer peace for Dixie!


Chorus

Jesse
It sounds too cheerful for a war song.

Frank
It’s a damn good war song.  It’s inspiring.
(FRANK sings. With each “boom,” he pretends to shoot a rifle.)
To arms! Boom! To arms! Boom! To arms! Boom! In Dixie!

Jessie
The way we’ll have to fight here in the hills there can’t be no singing. The Yankees have overrun the whole state. We ain’t got no real army in Missouri. We got to fight them like we fought the jayhawkers, sneak up when they don’t expect it. Hit ‘em hard and disappear. Quietly.

Frank
We know all that, Jessie. Jesus, I don’t know how we come out of the same family. You got no feelings of enthusiasm.

Zerelda
Sure he has, Frank.  Jesse is solid.  Like a rock.

Billy
Like the rock of ages.

Jesse
We’ll all do what we got to do.

Frank
Look out, you Northerons.  The James brothers have declared war on the government of the United States.


Joining the Union Army

(Matata, Pap, Albert, Sejata in slave cabin. Albert leads song:)

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel,
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
Then why not every man?

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel,
Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel
Then why not every man?

Can’t you see it’s coming?
Can’t you see it’s coming?
Can’t you see it’s coming?

Matata
It’s time to join the Union Army.

Pap
How you gonna do that that, Matata?  I don’t see no Union Army to join.

Matata
We take the plantation.

Albert
We what?

Matata
Take the plantation, divide it up.

Albert
Divide it up! It ain’t ours to take.

Matata
We been working it since forever. I say it is.

Albert
What you say ain’t worth a fart, you a slave just like the rest of us.

Matata
What I say is worth whatever you all do with it.

Albert
Crazy talk! Haven’t you ever heard of private property?

Matata
I heard of it, but I ain’t sure I like it.

Albert
Like it? Shit! What’s liking got to do with anything? We don’t even own our ownselves, never mind the Master’s farm.

Matata
That’s just what this war is being fought about, ain’t it?

Albert
Some saying that.  But war or no war, today seems pretty much the same as yesterday.

Sejata
Tomorrow coming. Smell the morning dew.

Pap
You a hopeful little thing, ain’t ya?

Sejata
Old Abe’s Army marchin’ south.

Matata
Marching south and we can join ‘em by emancipating ourselves—and this plantation.

Pap
Matata, it ain’t safe to even think like that, never mind speaking it out loud. You’ll get us killed for sure.

Sejata
Liberty be knocking at the cabin door. I say, open up and let him in.

Albert
How do we emancipate this plantation without killing us a mess of white people?

Matata
Soldiers kill.

Albert
We ain’t soldiers; we slaves.

Matata
The white man made us slaves; we make ourselves soldiers.
Albert
I’m a Christian, Matata. I know the way to Heaven ain’t in being a soldier. It is turning the other cheek.

Matata
We been doing that for some 200 years, as I hear it. We done run out of cheeks.

Pap
Let’s keep this real, Matata. No one has won this war yet. No one. Not Abe Lincoln. Not Jeff Davis.  Now, I hope Abe wins as much as you. You all know the maser cut this foot off after I tried to get north to Kansas.  I hate ‘em as much as most, maybe more. But my hate ain’t my guide. My hate leads to death.

Albert
Lead me not into the temptation of hate. Jesus be my guide.

Pap
I can’t help but think what happens if Satan’s Confederacy wins. We stay slaves. They take slavery west all the way to California. If that happens, ain’t nobody gonna try and free us again for another 200 years.

Matata
You happy to just sit here and watch which way the wind blows?

Pap
Happy?  Happy ain’t got nothing to do with nothing. I don’t know what happy is. I know what happens if we lose.

Sejata
I know what happens if we win.

Pap
No you don’t, Sejata. Don’t none of us know. All we ever known is losing.

Matata
That’s the truth, and now we got a chance to change that.

Albert
How we know Abe’s soldiers really gonna free us?

Sejata
They doing it in Georgia. Sherman marching to the sea, burning all the big houses, freeing everyone. Praise God.

Albert
Even if Sherman’s soldiers win, they gotta leave sometime. Master ain’t gonna go away. Them white folks rather see us dead than living free.

Matata
We don’t know for sure, Albert, we don’t.  What do we know anyhow?  Next to nothing; Master made sure of that. But as I see it, if we got guns and a dead master, we got a better chance of getting free and staying free.

Pap
What you saying exactly?

Matata
Albert, can we trust you to keep your big Christian mouth shut?

Albert
I don’t want no killing. Not us killing them, nor them killing us. I ain’t talking to white folks about what we say here. It’s between us. I just can’t kill nobody, that’s all. God forbids it.

Matata
I got three rifles.

Pap
How you do that?

Matata
Never mind how, I did. And I got a box of bullets, and
(he opens a plank on the floor, takes out a knife)
I got us some knives.

Albert
Sweet Jesus! 

Sejata
As John Brown said, it has now come to pass. “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Albert
I hear the devil approaching.

(Door opens. MATATA hides the knife on his person.  OVERSEER enters.)

Overseer
’Cuse me, folks. Sorry to come by so late.

(Stony silence)

Look, the best way to deal with bad news is to put it out there right away. Better to get it over with. Am I right?

(Stony silence.)

Albert
You right.

Overseer
Here’s the deal. The war’s been going bad. You all know that two of master’s sons been killed and the fighting has messed up the economy too. Can’t get most of the crops to market, not in these parts what with so many Yankees raiding and all.

(Stony silence)

Fact is, we ain’t got enough work for everybody and Master’s losing money. Lots of it. He’s sold Sejata and Albert to a rice planter down in Louisiana. You leave in the morning.

Matata
You know Sejata and me together; we married.

Overseer
I know Matata. It’s rough, but that’s how it is.

Matata
Sell me instead of Albert. That way me and Sejata stay together.

Overseer
Can’t do that, Matata. You the best worker we got, master needs a blacksmith.

Matata
I have to stay with Sejata…

Overseer
There’s more pretty girls than one.

Matata
You know this ain’t right.

Overseer
What can I say?

(MATATA pulls out the knife and slits the OVERSEER’s throat, killing him.)

Matata
You can’t say nothing, I guess.

Albert
Sweet Jesus!

Sejata
Ain’t nobody gonna be sold down the river no more.

Pap
Well, I guess we just joined the Union Army. Matata, where are those rifles? We got to move fast.


The Defeat of the Confederacy

(Frank, Jesse, Billy, Yancey)

Frank
My spit is all ugly tasting, I can’t swallow it, it’s all swishing around in my mouth, making me sick in my stomach.  I got to spit it out. I want to spit it in Abe Lincoln’s face.

Yancey
It’ll pass.

Frank
It won’t pass. It won’t ever pass if we slink back home like dogs with our tails between our legs.

Yancey
We lost, Frank. Ain’t nobody likes it, but we do got to live with it.

Billy
I never thought I’d live to hear my comrades talking like this.  I learned a song from a fellow by the name of Virgil Kane when I was in the army hospital.  He fought with Marse Robert. When I think of the way he sang it, I’m ashamed for you.

(sings)

Oh, I’m a good old Rebel,
Now that’s just what I am,
For this “Fair Land of Freedom”
I do not give a damn!
I’m glad I fit against it, 
I only wished we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I done.

I hates the Yankee nation
And everything they do,
I hates the Declaration
Of Independence too;
I hates the “Glorious Union,”
‘Tis dripping with our blood,
I hates their striped banner,
I fit it all I could.

I followed old Marse Robert
For four years, near about,
Got wounded in three places
And starved at P’int Lookout;
I cotch the “roomatism,”
A-campin’ in the snow,
But I killed a chance o’ Yankees, 
I’d like to kill some mo’.

Three hundred thousand Yankees
Is stiff in Southern dust;
We got three hundred thousand
Before they conquered us; 
They died of Southern fever
And Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million
Instead of what we got.

Yancey
We all feel that way. But we didn’t get three million. And we can’t get no more.

Frank
Why not? We still got our guns. We can keep fighting like we been. Hit and run. Hit and run.  Wear ‘em down. After a while we’d drive ‘em out.  Free the South again.

Yancey
Can’t do it alone. Nobody else fighting on.

Billy
How we know? Maybe in the Louisiana swamps. Maybe in the Virginia hills.

Yancey
We’d hear.

Frank
Even if no one else is yet, they’d hear about us. See that it can be done.

Yancey
We can’t take on the whole United States Army ourselves.

Billy
Not if you’re scared.

Yancey
Not scared, Billy, tired.

Billy
Don’t you love your country no more?

Yancey
Sure I love it, but I ain’t gonna die for a lost cause. I got a wife and kids and a farm. Time to take care of them and let the country take care of itself.

Frank
What about you, Jessie?

Jessie
The way I look at it: Winter’s coming, time to grease my boots to keep out the snow, chop a lot of wood, smoke as much meat as I can, and wait it out.  Can’t tell how hard a winter’s gonna be ‘till it comes.

Frank
We can’t quit, Jessie.

Jessie
Pa needs our help on the farm.

Frank
Our country needs us.

Jessie
The Confederacy’s dead, Pa ain’t.

Frank
Living is not the only thing.

Yancey
What else is there?

Frank
Honor. And you boys used to know that.

Jessie
It’s clear what most of the boys think. It’s decided.

Frank
I’ll be waiting.  ’Cause they ain’t gonna let you live in peace. No way. You’ll be ready to fight again.

Jessie
Maybe.

Frank
No maybe. For sure.


Freedom

(Sejata sits rubbing her nose. Matata enters.)

Sejata
Sometimes I want to rub off my nose.
The hand rubs and rubs.
The nose bends.
It doesn’t come off.
It’s stubborn, this nose.
It’s very stubborn.

Matata
Why would you want to rub off your nose?

Sejata
I don’t know.

Matata
Be a shame not to smell.

Sejata
I suppose.
(Silence)
Matata?

Matata
Yeah?

Sejata
Why you suppose there is black folks and white folks?

Matata
I don’t know the why of much.

Sejata
That seems real important, don’t it?

Matata
Yeah.  I don’t know why, but there it is.

Sejata
Yeah, there it is. (She rubs her nose.) It feels good, rubbing my nose.

Matata
What it means is changing, though.

Sejata
What?

Matata
Black and white.

Sejata
What it means?

Matata
Black don’t mean slave anymore.

Sejata
(Rubs her nose.) 
What’s it mean now?

Matata
Well, I’m not saying I know. I’m just saying it’s changing.

Sejata
We still black; they still white.

Matata
Yeah, but we ain’t slaves no more.

Sejata
Right…

Matata
So that changes everything.

Sejata
Does it? 
(Rubbing her nose.) 
Can’t rub out what happened.

Matata
Nope.

Sejata
We were slaves yesterday.

Matata
Almost two years now.

Sejata
Yesterday.

Matata
Yup.

Sejata
Now?

Matata
We’re free.

Sejata
What’s that mean?

Matata
Means we ain’t slaves.

Sejata
And?

Matata
Means we work for wages now. We can buy land.  And, if the law holds. we’ll be able to vote.

Sejata
Will it?

Matata
Will what?

Sejata
Will the law the hold?

Matata
I don’t rightly know.

Sejata
(Rubbing her nose.) 
Why am I so scared?

Matata
We’re all scared.

Sejata
You too?

Matata
Be a fool not to be. We lived most of our lives in hell. Now we’re somewhere else, somewhere better, that seems sure, but hellhounds still howling and snapping. We all hear them.

Sejata
I do hear them, Matata, I do. They crazed; they mad as wet hornets that they can’t own us no more.

Matata
A lot are, but they’ll get used to it.

Sejata
Will they? 

Matata
I think they’re gonna have to.  

Sejata
Can they ever stop hating on us? Can hornets ever stop stinging?

Matata
Sejata, we’ve seen great changes in our lifetime. We have lived through the Day of Liberty. So I choose to be hopeful.  

Sejata
Hopeful is good.

Matata
As I see it, we’re on a rough road… 

Sejata

… a long and rocky road…

Matata
… a rough and rocky road, but we’re moving along and maybe, someday, we’ll be able to leave those hellhounds behind us.

Sejata
I’m breathing better now.

(Sejata goes to rub her nose; Matata takes her hand gently.)
 
Matata
Leave that nose alone. It’s a right pretty nose.


Damned Be the Railroads

(Zerelda, Jesse and Billy on the porch.)

Billy
(sings)

O Death, O Death, won’t you spare me over to another year?
Well, what is this that I can’t see
With ice-cold hands taking hold of me?

“Well, I am Death, none can excel.
I open the door to Heaven or Hell.”

O Death, I do pray, could you wait to call me another day?

Zerelda
Where’s your brother?

Jesse
Don’t know, Ma.

Zerelda
Your brother ought to be here; his father is, may not…

Jesse
I know, Ma.

Zerelda
Frank is the eldest son; it ain’t right.

Jesse
We’re looking for him, Ma.

Billy
The boys be beating the bushes.

Zerelda
He ain’t in the bushes, Billy. He’s in a saloon somewhere. 

Billy
Yes, ma’am 

Zerelda
All he does since the war ended is drink.

Jesse
Ma, go finish the soup. The soup’s good for pa.

(Zerelda exits.) 

I’ll go look in on him.

(Jesse exits.)

(Enter Frank.)

Billy
Frank, where you been?

Frank
Never mind where I been. Yancey told me Pa’s sick.

Billy
He’s knocking on heaven’s door.

Frank
Yeah, Yancey said. How’s my ma?

Billy
She’s pissed.

(Enter Jesse.)

Jesse
He’s dead.

Billy
May he rest in peace.

Jesse
Lord knows he didn’t get no peace in this life.

(Enter Zerelda.)

Zerelda
There you are, Frank. Go see your father.

Jesse
Ma, it’s over.

Zerelda
No, the soup is almost ready …

Jesse
Soup wouldn’t have saved him. Only a doctor could have saved him. Maybe.

Zerelda
No doctor works for free.

Jesse
Nobody works for free, except slaves and now us farmers.

Zerelda
Damn you, Frank. Where the hell were you?

Frank
I’m here now, Ma.

Billy
Damned doctors. 

Jesse
Damned be the doctors. Damned be the railroads. And damned be the banks. If it wasn’t for the high freight rates and the interest on the mortgage, we could have paid for a doctor.

Zerelda
They killed him.

Frank
Who, Ma, the doctors?

Zerelda
No, you simpleton, the Yankees. When they were looking for you. When they rode up to the farm they took him outside and hung him upside down on the elm. They said they were gonna kill him.  But he wouldn’t say nothing. He wouldn’t say a word.  But later, when they were gone and we cut him down he cried. He never was right after that. The Yankees killed him as sure as if they’d put a bullet in his heart

Jesse
I don’t know how we’re gonna pay for a preacher.

Zerelda
The Lord will show the way.

Frank
If we rob a few Yankee banks we could pay for a whole town of preachers.

Zerelda
And avenge your father.

Frank
Fucking jayhawkers and carpetbaggers running the state.

Zerelda
Jesse, Frank been drinking too much, but he’s right. He’s a good rebel.

Frank
And we sure as hell need the money.

Zerelda
Billy, go fetch a preacher. We got to bury him proper.

(Jesse, Frank and Zerelda exit into the house.)

Billy
(sings)

“The children pray, the preacher preach
Having mercy is out of my reach.
I fix your feet so you can’t walk.
I lock your jaw so you can’t talk.
I close your eyes so you can’t see.
This very hour come and go with me.
I’m Death. I’ve come to take your soul,
Leave the body and leave it cold.
I drop the flesh off of your frame
Then the worms will have their claim.”

O Death, O Death, won’t you spare me over to another year?

(Exit Billy)


Green is Green

(Tavern. Enter Matata and Jon Edwards. They nod at each other, sit at a table.)

Edwards
Okay.

Matata
Okay.

Edwards
Not the safest place to meet, the tavern.

Matata
It’s never safe for a black man in Missouri.

Edwards
Or for a white man doing business with a black man.

Matata
From what I hear, you got courage.


Edwards
What you hear?

Matata
Wouldn’t join Quintrill and his bushwackers.

Edwards
True that. Freesoiler. Fought for the Union even before the war.

Matata
Heard that.

Edwards
They burned down my barn—twice. Tried to burn my house too.  Me and my brother drove them off. My wife, she was shot dead.

Matata
That why you want to leave?

Edwards
No. If I was gonna run, I would have run by now.

Matata
What then?

Edwards
My brother, he moved up to Wisconsin. Plenty of land up there, lumber. He’s making good money. Thought I’d try it too.  Hard to get rich around here.

Matata
Unless you run a railroad.

Edwards
(chuckles) 
Or a bank.

Matata
Yeah. All I want is a farm of my own.

Edwards
Like most.

Matata
Like most, and that’s why this black man’s talking business with that white man.

Edwards
It ain’t much, 64 acres. Got a stream running through it. Soil’s a little rocky, but my daddy feed us off it since the Indians was driven off.

Matata
I just want something me and my family can live on, a home that’s ours.

Edwards
Four cows, but I want to take two North with me.

Matata
Cows included in the price?

Edwards
Two.

Matata
Two is fine.  And the mule?

Edwards
Ain’t you got a mule?

Matata
I do.

Edwards
Thought so.

Matata
Can always use another mule though.

Edwards
Need him for the move.

Matata
Sure. I appreciate the cows.

Edwards
You can pay the price?

Matata
Mr. Edwards, I surely can, four years of labor for wages.

Edwards
Hear you’re a good blacksmith.

Matata
True that.

Edwards
And the bank will lend you the rest?

Matata
Yankee banker from Chicago. Lends to black and white.

Edwards
I always figured green should be green.

Matata
Let’s hope so…

Edwards
That’s why we fought the war.

Matata
For green?

Edwards
Yeah. But around here they sure do hang onto black and white. The blue and the grey.

Matata
You think it’s different in Wisconsin?

Edwards
Don’t rightly know. But given that we fought on the same side, I do think I might get me more friendly neighbors up there.

Matata
Well, I been friendly, Mr. Edwards.

Edwards
That you have, Mr. Matata. I’ll tell you straight; I want you to buy the farm.  Keep it out of the hands of the bushwackers.

Matata
I’m proud to buy it.

Edwards
But, Mr. Matata, I fear I do leave you among angry men.

Matata
White men around here—’cuse me, most white men around here—gonna be angry for quite some time.

Edwards
Why not leave?

Matata
The way I look at it, this is my home.  My people worked it, along with your people, all these years.  Don’t think just when I get a chance to own a little piece of it for myself that I ought to leave.

Edwards
Mr. Matata, you are a brave man yourself.

Matata
I try, Mr. Edwards.  Do we have a deal?

Edwards
We do.

(They shake hands.)


Seeds

(Billy Gashade’s store. Billy behind counter. Enter Matata and Albert.)

Billy
What you doing here, boy?

Matata
I’ve come to buy seed.

Billy
You the slave Matata.

Matata
My name is Matata. I was a slave. I’m a free man now. I’ve come to buy seed.

Billy
What you need seed for?

Matata
For my farm.

Billy
You bought that jayhawker’s dump up on Willis creek?

Matata
I bought Jon Edwards’ land. Not a dump though. Good piece of land.

Billy
That a fact?

Matata
That a fact.

Billy
Who this?

Matata
This my friend, the Reverend Albert Polk.

Billy
Coloreds got preachers now too?

Albert
Yes, sir. We have been saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes all: white, black, even the savage Indian into his heavenly kingdom.

Billy
That a fact?

Albert
John, Chapter 3, Verse 17: “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

Billy
You read that in the Bible?

Albert
Yes sir.

Billy
You can read?

Albert
Yes, sir. Important to read the Lord’s word, wouldn’t you say?

Billy
I’d say I never heard of no coloreds reading before.

Matata
Times are changing.

Billy
That a fact?

Matata
That a fact.

Billy
Now Matata, rumor has it you’re a slave that killed his master.

Matata
Rumor has it, Billy Gashade, that you’re a bushwacker killed a mess of people.

Billy
That a fact?

Matata
No, that’s a rumor.

Albert
Now, Mr. Gashade, we’re farmers.  You’re a shopkeeper. We’ve come to do business.

Matata
Come to buy seed.

Billy
What if I don’t want to sell you no seed?

Matata
Then I reckon we go over to Arcola and buy the seed there.
(Long pause)
I guess you’re a rich man and don’t need my money.

(Matata and Albert turn to leave.)

Billy
That a fact?

Matata
No, that’s a guess.
(Long pause)

Billy
What seed you need?


The James Boys Ride Again

(Frank, Jesse, Billy, Yancey)

Frank
The Northerns say peace has come.  But for us there is no peace.  The Northern railroads bleed us dry with their freight rates.  The Northern banks got our farms locked up in their cursed mortgages. The Yankee is vengeful and full of malice. When Jesse here, seeking peace, the peace they promised, went into Liberty to take the pledge of loyalty to their blood-soaked flag, a Yankee solider recognized him and opened fire.

Jesse
He wasn’t a good shot.

Frank
He only ripped a hole in Jesse’s side. That ain’t peace. That’s the same war we been fighting and we’ll fight for another hundred years if we have to.  The Yankees and the Jayhawkers won’t be happy until every Rebel’s dead or kissing nigger ass. Jesse and me can’t live like that and we’re guessing you boys can’t neither.

Yancey
What you propose we do about it?

Jesse
We start robbing their banks and trains. Do what we need to do to feed our families, keep our farms …

Frank
… And keep the spirit of the Confederacy alive.

Billy
You know I never wanted to quit Frank. I’m a true blue Rebel.

Jesse
You’ll be risking your store, Billy. We’ll all be risking our lives.

Billy
I don’t like having to do business with slaves. And slaves they still are, as far as I’m concerned. Better to die on our feet that live on our knees.

Yancey
What’s your mama say about this Jesse?

Frank
She’s burning for vengeance. She’d ride with us if she could.

Billy
I guess it’s settled; we ride again.

Jesse
Here’s the deal. There’s a bank, the Daviess County Savings Association, over to Gallatin. We rob it in the middle of the day. No one will expect that. Ain’t never been a day time robbery of a bank.

Billy
Jesse, you’re a genius, a fucking genius.

Jesse
The bank manager is Samuel Cox. He’s the Jayhawker who killed our commander Bill Anderson and cut his head off back in ’64. When we rob the bank, we take him out.

Frank
The South will rise again!


Tales of Jesse James

(Matata, Pap and Albert sitting at table. Albert has a newspaper. Sejata is lighting candles on the table.)

Sejata
Okay Albert, you got enough light?

Albert
Yeah, that’s good.

(Sejata sits as well.)

Matata
Any news on the railroads?

Albert
(Looking through newspaper) 
Well, there’s a story here about a train robbery.

Sejeata
Imagine that. How they do it?

Albert
Says they stopped the train with logs across the tracks. The train stopped, they pulled out their guns and climbed on up.
Matata
Jesse James again, like that bank last week?

Albert
You got it right, Matata. It say, “The band of ten bandits, led by the gentlemanly Jesse James, as they moved through the cars had each passenger hold out their hands. If the hand was smooth and soft, its owner was relieved of his purse, watch and jewelry. If the passenger’s hands were calloused, James and his men passed them by. ‘I don’t rob from hard working people. I only take the ill gotten gains of the idle rich,’ declared the bandit before exiting the train.”

Sejata
Talks pretty fancy for a bandit.

Albert
I think sometimes the writer fixes the language up some.

Sejata
You think Jesse really said that?

Albert
Oh yeah, maybe not those words exactly, but that sentiment.

Matata
How’d they get away?

Albert
It just says, they “remounted their horses and disappeared into the woods.”

Sejata
The farmers hide him out.

Albert
That’s what I hear.

Sejata
You all know Mary Chapman, that white woman who takes in wash down in town?

Albert
Yeah, she come from a Jayhawker family, good Union people.  

Sejata
That’s her, so unlike most while folks, she talks to me, you know, friendly like. She told me the story of what Jesse did for a widow woman up near Booneville. 

Matata
What’d he do?

Sejata
The way Mary tells it, Jesse and his boys had robbed a bank in Arrow Rock the day before. They’d been riding through the woods all night and was mighty hungry when they came upon this small farm house. There was a widow woman there alone with three little kids. Jesse asked if she could feed them. At first she hesitated. Who wouldn’t, all these rough men riding out of the woods? But when Jesse showed her they had they money to pay for the food, she said okay. So as she’s bustling around fixing them bacon and eggs, Jesse notices there be tears running down her cheeks. 

“What’s making you so sad, ma’am?” Jesse, he asked.  At first she said that she was just missing her husband who had died the year before. She served them the food and they lit into them vittles like a pack of hungry wolves, which, in way, I guess they were. When they was done eating, Jesse saw the widow working hard holding back her tears and he asked her again what the matter was.  

This time she ’fessed that she was months behind on her mortgage and that very morning the banker was coming in from town to foreclose on her farm. Jesse asked her how much she owed.  She told him $1,600. And wouldn’t you know it? Jesse went out to his saddlebag, counted out $1,600 and laid it on the kitchen table. The widow’s eyes bugged out. She said she couldn’t accept a loan ‘cause there was no way she could ever pay it back. Jesse, says, “This ain’t no loan. This is a gift.” Then she really starts crying.

Well, Jesse he had her write out two copies of a receipt for the $1,600, which said the farm was now hers free and clear. He told her to make sure the banker signed both receipts and that she kept one.  Then he asks her which way the banker would be coming and she tells him “Right along that road there.” It was a road that come up the mountain from Booneville and run right by her farm. Jesse and the boys thanked her for breakfast—like the paper says, Jesse is always polite. They go down the road apiece and hide themselves up behind some rocks and bushes up a little hill by the side of the road.

Sure enough, about an hour later, along come this banker in a fancy buggy heading toward the widow’s farm and he is looking awful grim. Jesse and the boys just let him pass. Another half hour and he’s coming back the other way with a big satisfied grin on his face and Jesse and the gang swoop down and rob back the $1,600.  

The widow gets to keep her farm, Jesse keeps the money he robbed from the bank in the first place, and there ain’t a thing the bank can do about it.

Matata
That really happen?

Sejata
Mary heard it from her sister-in-law whose cousin goes to the same church as the widow.  

Pap
Enough of all this talk about white folks doings. I don’t see how Jesse James and some white lady concerns us at all. Ain’t there no colored news in the paper?

Albert
Well, it says here some former bushwacker is going to run against the colored state senator from Columbus.

Pap
See?  That’s what I mean. They should never have let them confederates vote again. Black folks is in for a hell of fight and you all telling stories about white bandits.


Border Crossing

(The porch of Matata, Sejeta and Pap’s farmhouse.)

Sejeta
(sings)

Paul and Silas bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

(Refrain)

Hold on, Hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

The only thing that we done wrong
Was staying in the wilderness to long.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

(Refrain)

The only thing that we done right
Was the day we begun to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

(Yancey enters from the woods.)

Yancey
You got a pretty voice.

Sejeta
Sweet Jesus!  Who’re you?

Yancey
Sorry to startle you. I ain’t here to do no harm.

Sejeta
What are you here for?

Yancey
Well, I’d like to talk with the owner of the farm.

Sejeta
That be me.

Yancey
You?
 
Sejeta
Me and my husband, Matata.

Yancey
Well, then may I speak with your husband?

Sejeta
I reckon.

Yancey
We’re a little pressed for time. Me and my friends
(Billy, Frank and Jessie emerge from the woods) we’re in something of a hurry.

Sejeta
(Opening the door to the house, in a strong whisper…)  
Matata, we got us some visitors.

(Matata enters from the house holding a rifle, followed by Pap and Albert.)

Billy
(Under his breath) 
Oh shit, Jessie, I know this uppity…

Matata
Can we help you, gentlemen?

Yancey
Well, yeah…

Matata
How’s that?

Billy
Fact is, we got a posse after us.

Matata
Why’s that?

Frank
Why?  Well, nigger, we got a posse after us ’cause we done robbed a bank.

Jessie
Please excuse my brother. He’s tense.

Albert
No offense, sir.

Yancey
I reckon we’re all tense… Reverend.

(The two groups eye each other in silence.)

Matata
What’s this posse got to do with us?

Jessie
The long and the short of it is, we need a place to hide…

Sejeta
You wouldn’t be Jessie James, would you?

Jessie
Yes. I would be Jessie James.

Sejeta
You don’t look nothing like the drawings in the newspapers.

Jessie
No, I don’t. Them fellas got big imaginations.

Sejeta
I heard how you helped that widow up near Booneville.

Jessie
Did you now?  

Sejeta
Is that a true story or is that somebody’s imagination too?

Jessie
It happened pretty much like they tell it.

Yancey
It’s a fact; we don’t harm poor folk

Pap
Even poor Black folk?

(Beat)

Yancey
This is a peculiar situation, folks. We didn’t expect this to be, to be, a colored farm.

Frank
Maybe we ought to keep riding.

Billy
Yeah, we’re wasting time here.

Jessie
I don’t think so, boys. The way I’m seeing it, this here is a lucky break.

Frank
How you figure that?

Matata
Lucky for who?

Jessie
Lucky for me and my boys and lucky for you and yours. No way a posse would think a colored farmer would hide out the James Gang…

Pap
No way a colored farmer would…

Jessie
We are prepared to pay well for the shelter and whatever you are kind enough to feed us. And you have my word that we will do you no harm.

Albert
Do you know what will happen to us if we’re caught?

Jessie
Yes, I do. 

(Beat)

Matata
Tie your horses down by the creek. No one will see them in the brush there.  How many of you are there?

Jessie
Four.

Matata
We have a hiding place in the attic that’ll fit all you-all.

Billy
Is that where Jon Edwards used to hide run-away slaves when he owned this spread?

Matata
It just might be. Now you running; you want it or not?

Jessie
Yes, of course.  It’s very kind of you. We’re much obliged.

Albert
It’s the Christian thing to do.

Pap
It’s the foolish thing to do.

Matata
It’s probably both.  

Jesse
Yancey, hide the horses.

Frank
(To Jessie) We can’t hide in no run-away slave attic.

Jessie
(To Frank) You got a better idea?
(To Matata) We’ll be gone before dawn.


Black Heart White Heart

(Matata, Sejata, and Pap sitting around the table doing their finances.)

Matata
Well, I ain’t never been to school, but not even one of them professors could change these numbers.

Sejata
Nope.

Matata
I ain’t no preacher, but it’d take a Biblical miracle to make the price of corn higher and the railroad rates lower.

Sejata
Amen.

Matata
I ain’t no fortune teller, but I know that when the first of the month come around we ain’t gonna be able to pay the mortgage.

Sejata
Again.

Matata
Again.

(Beat)

Sejata
What we gonna do?

Pap
Can’t pay the mortgage; lose the farm. Happening all over.

Sejata
What happens to us without the farm?

Matata
Get jobs.

Pap
Or starve.

Matata
Get jobs.

Sejata
Or starve.

(Beat)

Matata
We’re not going to lose the farm.

Pap
Who’s gonna make the miracle?

Matata
Jesse James.

Sejata
You think he would?

Matata
We hid him out when they was on the run.

Pap
Yeah, and that was one of the dumbest things you ever done, Matata. We could’ve all been strung up for hiding him and his thieving bushwackers.

Matata
Yes, he owes us, don’t he?

Sejata
He surely could help us, if he only would help us.

Matata
He’s been giving away money to poor farmers all over Missouri to pay their mortgages. It’s in the papers.

Sejeta
It surely is. We know he helped that widow up near Booneville.

Pap
He giving it to poor white farmers.

Matata
Well, we poor black farmers, we helped him the same as a white farmer would, and Lord knows we need the help.  Seems to me, it’s worth looking into.

Pap
Black is black, Matata. It don’t rub off and they ain’t gonna let you forget it.

Matata
Yes, sir, and that seems fine. I don’t want to rub nothing off. And I don’t want to forget nothing. Fact is, we need to remember.

Pap
Me, I’d just as soon forget. But then, I’d like to have my foot back again too.

Matata
And we’d all like to keep this farm.

Sejata
We got to keep it.

Pap
Well, that’s a fact, Matata, that’s a fact. But no white man’s gonna help us keep it.

Matata
Don’t know, Pap, don’t know ‘till we know.

Pap
I know. Lived forty-some years. Our people been in this American land for hundreds and hundreds of years, for ages. Never known a white man to help an African man.  Just don’t happen.

Matata
Ya see, Pap, there’s something you missed. Something big. A lot of white men did help us. Thousands of ‘em, hundreds of thousands, more people than we ever seen or can imagine, died to free us.

Pap

Not these white men.  They fought to keep us slaves.

Matata
Way I see it, men are men. Men can change what they do. Can grow. We have. Jesse James killed for the slave owners, but he owned no slaves. He was poor. Now he robs trains and banks and gives to the poor. We poor.

Pap
We black.

Matata
Robbing the rich ain’t the same as killing for the slave owners. Looks to me like he changed. 

Pap
Ain’t no more slave owners to kill for. 

Matata
Well, that too. But he seemed like a decent enough fellow when he was here. 

Sejata
Hard, but decent.

Pap
Jesse James just ain’t gonna help no black man. He hates black men.

Matata
You hate white people, but I do believe if you could help some poor white son of a bitch who needed your help, you would.

Pap
White people don’t have the same kind of hearts as black folk. They’ve been raised to be the boss, not to feel.

Matata
We’ll see, Pap, we’ll see.

Sejata
Matata, what you gonna do?

Matata
Gonna return Jesse James’ visit.


Crossroads

(Jesse and Matata)

Jesse
Well, Mr. Matata, that right, ain’t it?  Matata?

Matata
Yes, Matata.

Jesse
Well, Mr. Matata, my man Yancey says you wanted to talk. And since you and yours was kind enough to help me and mine when we needed it, here I am.

Matata
I appreciate it, Mr. James, and I’ll get right to the point. Like a lot of folks in these parts I’m having a hard time making ends meet.

Jesse
Why’s that, Mr. Matata?

Matata
I reckon you’ve heard it all before, Mr. James. Price of corn down, railroad rates up. Mortgage don’t change.

James
That’s a fact.

Matata
It’s not a secret, Mr. James, you been finding ways to help out farmers.

Jesse
Sometimes. Some farmers.
(Silence)

Matata
Mr. James, I’m no fool. I know you fought for the Confederacy; you probably ain’t happy I got me a farm at all.

Jesse
I did fight for the Confederacy and as I see it, I still am. Railroads and banks all owned by Yankees.

Matata
Well, Mr. James, things have changed and I’m hoping you can change as well.

Jesse
I don’t seem to be too good at changing, Mr. Matata. If I was, I reckon I wouldn’t still be fighting.

Matata
None of us are good at changing, Mr. James, but even so the world changes. We’ve both seen it; ain’t no slaves no more. Now it’s just rich and poor, and as much as you don’t like it, we both poor.

Jesse
I was, ‘till I started robbing banks.

Matata
Yes sir, now that’s just my point. You raising the hopes of a lot of poor folks with that bank money you giving away.

Jesse
And you’re one of them?

Matata
I am one of them. 

Jesse
You also colored.

Maata
Mr. James, you know as well as me a lot white folks around here looking for any excuse to take my farm and string me up if they could. I didn’t have to put you up that night; if that posse had stopped I would have lost it all. But I did put you up. Now what you going to do?

Jesse
I don’t rightly know.

Matata
How’s that? 

Jesse
I ain’t saying I want you to lose your farm. I don’t. I ain’t saying I don’t owe you. I do. It might, in fact, be very helpful to have colored folks on my side these days. But I ain’t working alone, and as I think you saw the night we visited, not everyone in the James Gang is as, well, as flexible as we might want.

Matata
Ain’t you the boss?

Jesse
Yeah, I’m the boss, but that don’t mean I can do whatever I want. Me and my boys come out of a certain history—so do you. Times may change, Mr. Matata, but we still carry our histories with us. Our histories don’t change.

Matata
Might be what we do today changes what yesterday means.

Jesse
Mr. Matata, you got some interesting ideas. And you had the decency to help me when I needed it, and the courage to come to me, face to face. Ain’t no colored ever done that before. You got balls, I’ll give you that.  

Matata
Is that yes or no?

(Silence)

Jesse
It ain’t either. I’ll talk to my boys and get back to you.

Matata
I appreciate your time, Mr. James, indeed I do.


Frank Argues for Natural Law

(Jesse, Frank, Billy and Yancey)

Frank
The remainder.
What remains, that is.
What’s left of the South
Will not be preserved if you help this killer slave.

Jesse
Why you so set on preserving, Frank? Ain’t like we got much to preserve.

Frank
Not now we don’t, now that these Yankee dogs been loosed on Dixie.

Jesse
Frankie, what’d we have before the war? Not like we had much then neither.

Frank
We had our white skin.

Yancey
Still do, as far as I can see.

Frank
Yeah, but what’s it gonna mean if the colored be taking our land and jobs and thinking they white?

Billy
We all know what that means. We can’t be helping no colored keep a farm. The James Gang don’t do that.  

Jesse
He just wants what anyone else wants.

Frank
That’s just it, Jess, don’t you see? It ain’t natural for a colored to want the same things as a white man.

Yancey
How you know that?

Billy
How he know it? Jesus Christ, how you not know it?

Frank
See? This is why we lost in the war—we forgot natural law.

Jesse
Natural law? What the hell you talking about? Nature looks about the same to me.

Frank
Shit, Jesse, you know damn well what I’m talking about: the white man ruled…

Billy
… as God intended… 

Frank
… and the black man slaved.

Jesse
I didn’t see no black man on my farm. You ever see any black men slaving on my farm, Yancey?

Yancey
Can’t say I did, Jess.

Jesse
Frankie, you’re my older brother, was there any black men slaving on our farm when I wasn’t looking? I remember you, me and pa and ma doing all the slaving.  What exactly do you remember, Frank?

Frank
You know what I’m talking about.

Jesse
Don’t guess that I do, Frank. I’m remembering as hard as I can and I just can’t remember sitting up in the Big House while the darkies was singing in the cotton fields.

Frank
No, but it could have been. That was the promise of the South, the promise to every white man. Before the war we had the right to pursue happiness. With hard work and a little luck you could make it.

Jesse
I guess we just missed out on the little luck, huh, Frankie?

Frank
Luck, shit!  Our whole world is lost, gone, ravaged.  

Billy
Ugly Abe Lincoln has laid it to waste. What we got now? We ain’t got shit.

Frank
The white man has been robbed of his birthright.

Yancey
As I see it, poor is poor and that colored man is as poor as us. Poorer. Hell, he’s only owned his ownself, never mind his land, for a few years now.

Frank
He got no right to own hisself.  Why the hell should we risk our lives to protect that God-forsaken piece of land that ought to belong to a white man anyway?

Yancey
Poor is poor.

Frank
For the love of Jesus, Yancey, we didn’t fight a war for poor people, we fought a war for white people.

Yancey
Maybe we fought the wrong war.

Frank
Wrong war! Yancey you talking crazy.

Yancey
I’m talking sense.

Billy
You sound like some kind of fucking radical from Chicago or someplace.

Yancey
Some kind, I guess.

Frank
Jesse, there ain’t nothing to discuss. Black is black and white is white and you know what’s right.


Nebraska

(Sejata and Pap. Pap sings:)

Pap
(Refrain)

Which way, which way
Do that blood red river run?
From my back door to the setting sun.

Now the dumper says, “Loader,
Please bring me six feet of clay.
’Cause that blood red river, brother,
Is rising six feet every day.”

(Refrain)

Go down to the camp
And tell my brother Bill
The dream he’s chasing is
Sure gonna get him killed.

(Refrain)

(Enter Matata.)

Sejata
What he say?

Matata
He said no.

Pap
What’d I tell ya?

Matata
Don’t need that, Pap.

Pap
No, what we need is money to pay the mortgage and we ain’t got it.

Matata
What you want me to do, rob a bank myself?

Pap
Hell, no. Colored man can’t hardly walk into a bank, never mind rob it. 

Matata
So what you saying, old man?

Pap
I’m saying you shouldn’t have to humble yourself in front of no white man. Those days should be done with. Ain’t that what you been saying since we burned the big house?

Matata
Those days are done, Pap. 

Pap
You knew from the start the answer’d be no.

Sejata
We knew no such thing.

Pap
I did.

Sejata
Matata done what had to be done to save the farm.

Pap
Didn’t save nothing. 

Sejata
He tried.

Pap
He went begging. Shit, I guess we’ll all being doing that soon enough. Begging some rich white man to let us back on the plantation, sharecropping.

Matata
There was no humiliation in it, Pap; it was man to man.

Pap
You was just the wrong kind of man.

Matata
I reckon so.

Sejata
We still got three chickens, two pigs, one mule and a wagon.

Pap
So’s we can eat us some bacon and eggs in the woods before we have to go hat in hand to the white man.

Sejata
Mary Chapman, she say a lot of folks—colored as well as white—heading for Nebraska.

Pap
What’s in Nebraska?

Sejata
Not much yet except for land, lots of cheap land.

Pap
And where in hell is Nebraska?

Sejata
North of Kansas.

Matata
North?

Sejata
North of Kansas

Matata
How far?

Sejata
Don’t know exactly. Far. Far away from these bushwackers.

Pap
You still a hopeful little thing, ain’t ya Sejata?

Sejata
Ain’t got much else but hope and Jesus, and I guess they’re about the same.

Pap
Missouri or Nebraska, a white man is still white.

Matata
A good blacksmith, black or white, can always find work. I reckon they need horse shoes and such in Nebraska.

Sejata
I hope it ain’t too cold up there.


A Scalawag Goes Home

(Yancey and Jesse)

Yancey
Jesse, I’m going home.

Jesse
Alright. You ain’t been home in a long while. We’ll pull the next job without you. This new kid Robert Ford can ride instead. I want to see what he’s made of.

Yancey
I ain’t coming back

Jesse
What you saying, Yancey?

Yancey
I ain’t gonna ride with us no more. I’m going home and I’m staying there. 

Jesse
Ain’t this your home?

Yancey
You all are my brothers, Jesse. But my heart just ain’t in it no more.

Jesse
This got to do with Matata?

Yancey
I suppose it does.

Jesse
I didn’t like it a whole lot myself. But the boys, you heard ‘em.

Yancey
Yeah I heard ‘em.

Jesse
You ain’t turning into a scalawag are you?

Yancey
It don’t seem like we’re fighting for nothing any more. 

Jesse
We’re fighting Yankees.

Yancey
I don’t see it, Jess. We’re robbing banks.
(Silence)

Jesse
What should I tell the boys?

Yancey
Tell ‘em good luck.


Moving On/Passing Over

(Pap, Sejata, Matata)

Pap
I ain’t gonna make it to Nebraska.

Sejata
We got a wagon, Pap. You ain’t gotta walk.

Pap
Ain’t just the foot.  I lived twenty years without the foot. I got pains.

Matata
Pains?

Pap
All up in my gut. Something killing me.

Sejata
You never said nothing.

Pap
No need to until now.

Sejata
What kind of pains?

Pap
Bad pains. Cold sweat pains.

Sejata
Maybe you should try some herbs.

Pap
Way past herbs, Sejata. Way past. These dying pains.

Sejata
How you know?

Pap
I know.

Matata
What brought this on, Pap?

Pap
Damned if I know. Maybe it’s the times.  I’ve lived to see the Great Emancipation. The new day ain’t very bright; got storm clouds piling up. The new moon got blood dripping off it. I don’t think I got the strength for what comes next.
Matata
Maybe not alone, but together we do, Pap.

Pap
You young. You got to believe that. That good. You got something to hope for. When I was your age I had nothing to hope for except escaping North. I tried; I lost.

Sejata
We won.

Pap
Suppose we have. All I’m saying is, more war ahead. Ain’t no telling which way the blood red river gonna run. You know that as well as me. And I ain’t got the strength for no more fighting.

Matata
I got to believe white people and colored can live in peace.

Pap
Yeah, well, folks believe all sorts of things. They believe a white man died on a cross to save ‘em. They believe they can cast spells. They believe in mojos.  I ain’t seen proof of none of it.  I sure as hell ain’t seen peace between white folks and black folks.

Sejata
Albert say Jesus is the God of Love and if we all embrace him…

Pap
That one really hard to swallow, Sejata. Jesus be a white god, brought to us by white people who sure as hell didn’t love us.

Sejata
God is for all people, ain’t he?

Pap
As far as I can tell, white man’s heaven is black man’s hell. Ain’t that what our lives tell us?

Matata
Well, if that true, hell has been overthrown.

Sejata

Satan has been cast out.

Pap
Maybe, but you know as well as me, we still got hellhounds on our trail. That’s why you running to Nebraska.

Matata
Ain’t running. We’re looking for our forty acres, and some peace.

Pap
Go on and look for it, Matata. I ain’t begrudging you that. That’s what the Great War was fought for, right? to give us a chance to pursue happiness.

Sejata
That’s what the Yankees say.

Pap
All I’m saying is, while we pursuing happiness the hellhounds be pursuing us. Don’t forget to look over your shoulder now and then. You all got to keep ahead of them.

Sejata
We ain’t gonna just leave you here, Pap. No way.

Pap
I ain’t be alone, Sejata honey. Albert got his church all established up in town now and he say I’m welcome to stay with him ‘till I pass over.

Matata
So that’s it?

Pap
That’s it. The wisdom of an old slave turned freeman. I’ll stay here where I lived all my life. It ain’t been a good place to live, but maybe it’s a good place to die.  We been dying here for a long time.  Maybe that white god of Albert’s will gather me in his arms. Maybe I’ll go home to our ancestors in Africa. Maybe I’ll just rot and turn into soil and help the cotton grow.

Sejata
Help the cotton grow?

Pap
Helped the cotton grow all my life. Why would I stop now?

(Matata and Sejata exit.)

Pap
(sings)

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel,
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,
Then why not every man?


THE END