Reclaiming and reimagining Uncle Remus. Playwright explores character at Powers New Voices Festival at The Old Globe.
Playwright Aaron Coleman discusses the experience of Black storytellers — past and present — in his play, “Uncle Remus, His Life and Times, as Told to Aaron Coleman,” featured in The Old Globe’s 2023 Power New Voices Festival.
Like a lot of people in a lot of families, playwright Aaron Coleman grew up hearing the stories of Brer Rabbit, the cunning character from African folklore who outsmarted his animal adversaries. These stories survived the Middle Passage through the oral tradition of enslaved Africans here in America. In 1880, the stories were published in a compilation written in dialect by a White author, Joel Chandler Harris, who created the fictional Uncle Remus character. Uncle Remus is a kindly, old Black man who shares the stories with the young son of a slave owner, and was notoriously brought to life on screen by Disney in the 1946 film, “Song of the South.”
For decades, there has been a rejection of this portrayal of Uncle Remus as a stand-in for Black people, who appears as this two-dimensional character, blissfully entertaining White people with Black culture without a care toward our own oppressive circumstances. Coleman seeks to reclaim and give new voice to the man in his play, “Uncle Remus, His Life and Times, as Told to Aaron Coleman,” which is part of The Old Globe’s Powers New Voices Festival this year, and will be featured in a free reading at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15.
“It’s taking these very classic and, perhaps, now controversial stories and repositioning them in a way to reintroduce them, or look at them anew, for today’s audience,” he says.
Coleman, who grew up in Los Angeles and lives in New York, writes works that re-examine what it means to be a person of color in America today by subverting theatrical or narrative forms in unexpected ways. He took some time to talk about “Uncle Remus” and the experiences of being a Black storyteller in America, and the responsibility he understands that comes with that. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: What is your play about?
A: It’s about a contemporary Black writer (Aaron Coleman being a surrogate for me) who is not connected to a Black experience and has been enlisted to write about that experience. The first subject that he gets inspired by are these Brer Rabbit tales that he grew up with from his father in the South. In the context of the “only can happen in theater play,” the contemporary writer goes to the plantation cabin of the Uncle Remus character, that is most familiar through films like “Song of the South,” in order to understand what it means to be a Black storyteller. Through this journey, he discovers what the legacy is of Black storytelling in America from its roots and how that can translate to him today, and how he can learn to step into being a proud, Black creator within America.
Q: Can you talk a bit about who Uncle Remus is, and his significance, particularly as it relates to storytelling?
A: Uncle Remus is the fictional narrator of the Brer Rabbit folktales, created in the late 1800s by a White man named Joel Chandler Harris. In the later part of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, Remus became this very popular character amongst children’s literature as this storyteller who appealed to children, but the character became problematic because the character is a former slave, created by a White man, whose sole purpose in life is to entertain young, White children. Also, I have to say that, in the scope of this, there were many Black writers who took Uncle Remus and made agreements of their own within the history of Black storytelling, also. Although that has largely faded away, thanks to things like the Disney film, “Song of the South,” which very much promoted Uncle Remus as a storyteller for White children. That was the end-all-be-all of his existence, so naturally, where we are today in the 21st century, this sort of figure is frowned upon.
I think that there is value to looking at the character of Uncle Remus through today’s lens. I think that, if we are able to create this figure that comes from us as Black people, telling these stories to Black people, we can once again embrace what the character should ideally represent — the handing down of an oral tradition that came from Africa, kept alive through the enslaved, and then passed down to today. Because the character of Uncle Remus has been, more or less, controlled by non-Black people, there’s a sense that we have to erase that, we can’t look at that, we have to turn that away. What if we took the character and gave him a fuller life and began to understand what are the reasons why this character was telling these stories? What are the modes of survival that these stories represented, and how can we look at these stories within the context of what they meant to the enslaved people in the South, throughout the history of slavery? And how can they still resonate with us today?
So many of those folktales strike me as really incredible, and I think it’s a shame that there’s a sense of, ‘Oh, we can’t. We shouldn’t look at these tales. We shouldn’t tell these tales.’ I think there’s still room to bring these characters alive, once again, in the 21st century. Now, I think it’s a time for a Black voice to take control of what these folktales mean. Also, what surprises me is that a lot of Black folks today don’t know Uncle Remus and don’t know the Brer Rabbit folktales, considering how hugely popular they were in the late 1800s, and definitely in the 20th century. There’s been a sort of derision with them. I can see that point of view, but also, why don’t we take this character in and look at him more deeply, and give him more agency than just the jovial storyteller who was only there to entertain young, White children?
Q: What was the inspiration for this play?
A: I was introduced to the Uncle Remus/Brer Rabbit stories as a child through my father, who comes from the South (Shreveport, La.), so I always had an affinity for these stories. I love the fact that they were even written in a dialect. The dialect is now considered problematic because it seems as if it’s making a mockery of the speech of the Uncle Remus character and the Black characters at the time, but I believe that the dialogue was at least intended, at the time, to be an homage to a particular speech pattern that is very real. In reading it, there is definitely a flavor and a cadence and a life to it, that I believe would be lost if it were written in a standard English, so I think there’s a way that we can begin to embrace this. So, I was enchanted by this as a young child. These were my foray into Black storytelling because, as a kid, there’s still not the ability to understand that this is within the construct of a White perspective on this. It is hearing somebody who comes directly from the South, telling tales that come from the Black psyche. The tales themselves are the actual tales that were told, Joel Chandler Harris just, essentially, transcribed them. So, I’ve known these tales my entire life.
Then, a few years ago, I purchased a book called “Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives” and it’s the transcriptions of the slave narratives. I was reading these, and it just sort of shocked me that I never was introduced to this throughout my entire education and that I had to find it on my own. I read the book weeping the entire time. It’s a lot to get through, and it completely humanizes an experience that can feel very distant to us because it feels like they’re in front of you, talking. What I was struck by were the similarities between the presentation of the slave narratives and the presentation of the Uncle Remus tales. I was also very struck by the similarities in themes that came up in outsmarting the White slaveholders, the running from the paddyrollers (what they called the police), the wishing and hoping for better places. Also, the sense of oral tradition, the sense that the slave narratives were spoken from the mouths of the enslaved, versus a third-person distance. Similar with the construct of the Uncle Remus stories, it is like we are sitting down and being told something directly from our ancestors, so I began to see a similarity there.
I started the play, just as an exploration of the similarity between the Uncle Remus stories and slave narratives, and how can the two of them come together in a theatrical way so we can see the reality that they inform each other and the reality of enslavement. We can see the sort of fantastical world of how these folktales were born and bred from the same trauma. Then, I thought, as a construct, ‘How can I do that?’ I thought of placing a surrogate for myself, a contemporary writer on a research trip, trying to understand. Only in the world of theater can a contemporary writer sort of travel through space and time in order to interview the Uncle Remus character, and I came from the perspective of my own Black experience, which is growing up in Southern California at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century. I should also say that I’m half Black and half Nicaraguan, so there could be a sense of distance from what it means to be Black. So, I have this character of me coming in to interview [Uncle Remus].
Originally, I wanted the play to just be about Uncle Remus telling his inspiration for the story, and then sort of building out what his version of a slave narrative would be so we can deepen the character of the man. In development of the piece, people kept saying, “Well, we’re interested in this Aaron character, where he comes from, what’s his point of view on all of this?” So, then the play eventually grew into also an exploration of a contemporary writer looking at the history of Black narrative oral tradition and understanding what his role in that could be. And, coming into his own in the realization of being a Black man in America who is compelled to tell stories and what kinds of stories would come out of him if he didn’t run away from the fact that he is Black in America today.
Q: When were you first introduced to the Uncle Remus stories and what was your first impression of them? How do you see these stories now?
A: As a child, I loved them. My father would tell the famous story of Brer Rabbit in the Briar Patch, so it’s clearly a story that was handed down to him, growing up in Louisiana. He would tell me that story and I used to really love it. Then, there was a bookstore in Palm Spings that had this big, old book that had compiled all of the Brer Rabbit stories. I just loved reading them because I grew up in the era of Disney cartoons and that sort of stuff, so I really loved that sort of fun, playful, joyous type of work. It was interesting that there was this type of storytelling, but from a “Black” perspective. Black fairy tales didn’t really exist, so the sense of fun, when it comes to Black storytelling, is rare. I loved how this was just kind of pure, escapist entertainment from a “Black” perspective. When you dig deeper, yes, it’s escapist, but it’s also dealing with very intense things, so I love that.
I also remember seeing “Song of the South” as a child. I remember sitting there and, at the same time, understanding that something was off, but being unable to articulate that as a child. The animated sequences themselves were extremely entertaining (and I believe are still extremely entertaining), but when we went into the real world of Uncle Remus telling the stories to the little White boy, there was something off there that didn’t work, that didn’t sit well. This is a sort of innate thing that I think we feel as Black people looking at perceptions of ourselves, even from when we’re very young. Of course, now, as an adult, I can see what those issues are. One, they keep us hazy. It actually takes place after slavery and not during slavery; it takes place after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, but there’s still the impression that, ‘Oh, the Black people just love to be on this plantation, and they are very happy, singing happy songs,’ which is, of course, a falsehood. It’s a White-constructed falsehood. Then, it’s also that Uncle Remus is very much a neutered character. He has no love interest, he has no outside life, he has no existence other than to entertain this little boy, and in the context of these stories, he loves this little boy. Like, his entire being is about this little boy and I sort of turn that on its head in the play; he does that because he has to survive. Also, in the film, there is one Black child that he tells the story to, and this Black child is relegated to the background and, if I remember correctly, has these dirty overalls with holes, while the White kids are dressed to perfection. I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Why is he ignoring the Black child over here?’ Well, of course, we know why — because Walt Disney made this film for the entertainment of predominantly White audiences. In real life, Uncle Remus would be telling the story to the Black children who are around and teaching life lessons on survival, so the film doesn’t sit well and I can see why, but I don’t think we should erase it or ignore it. I think we should look at it and examine it within context. I think it would be hard to show a child the entire film. I think that’s up to a parent because there’s a lot of questions that it will raise, but I don’t think that we should ignore the film. I think that we should look at it and understand its context and its wider complexity.
Q: In the summary of the play, listening to Uncle Remus talk about his own life, might help you find your own truth, and talks about the importance of reclaiming the past to understand the present. When I read that, it reminds me of so many recent efforts to outright suppress the telling and teaching of this country’s history as it involves bigotry and oppression, with the banning of books and policies forbidding teachers from addressing topics like race and sexuality. From your perspective, how is reclaiming the past critical to understanding where we are now?
A: I think that banning of materials was interesting to me. This may be a controversial statement, I don’t know, but it seems to be coming from both extreme sides of the political spectrum. I think that, on one side, the effort to ban things under the guise of critical race theory is folly because we have to understand the history of slavery, of institutional racism, that dogs our existence to this very day. One of the lines that I tried to draw in the play, is how the experiences of the Brer Rabbit character, connect to the experiences within the slave narratives, to the experiences of Black people in America today; that there is a clear line between those. So, when the character of Aaron, in the play, begins to talk about his own experience as a Black person, there is a clear reflection of the historical experiences. The immediate example that comes up is how Brer Rabbit is trying to outsmart Brer Fox, who is always trying to catch him. There’s a line from that to slaves trying to escape the patrollers that were constantly trying to catch them, which is a direct line from that to the way that Black people have to deal with and navigate the police 150 years later, in the 21st century. So, we have to look at this history in order to understand how cycles continue. To me, that also includes characters like Uncle Remus, who are considered problematic. It would be impossible to read these original Uncle Remus folktales to children in school today without the context because they’re written in this dialect, but we also shouldn’t erase characters like Uncle Remus, or ban things like “Song of the South,” because they are problematic. I think looking at them, and the reasons why they are considered problematic, will help us understand and reframe their existence today.
Q: What truths does your “Uncle Remus” play reveal about the experience of being a Black storyteller, both then and now?
A: The truth I think it reveals about being a Black storyteller in America is that we cannot write without acknowledging the fact that we are, indeed, Black. If we are being honest. I have, in my writing journey, written many stories where the characters are not Black, where the characters are “White,” which is all fine and dandy, but there’s a level of me not exploring my own existence within that. I think writing is about exploring one’s own existence here on planet Earth, so I think as, really, any creator—Black, Latin, Asian, White, queer, gay—that there are elements of our own experiences that are going to be filtered into the writing and that we should not run away from that. We should lean into that, and we should embrace that. I think that is the reality.
I grew up in Los Angeles County, in West Covina, and it was a very diverse community. Very few Black people, but it wasn’t 90 percent White and 10 percent Black, it was very hyper diverse; but there was still a sense of what I’ll call a “White ethos” around the entire thing. So, the Aaron character comes in from this environment and says, ‘I just want to write fun stuff. What fun stuff can I write?’ Within the course of the play, he realizes that if you want to lean into being Black in America, you’re going to have to deal with something that is not purely escapist because we can’t just go out into the world and our skin color disappears. When we face our existence, there will always be that tension there. I think, particularly now, how do we find that balance? Of course, there’s also the desire to lean into Black joy and to not have everything be stories about trauma. I think that’s still an open question. The play itself is very much about that. The Uncle Remus character says, “You want to hear a story? I’ll tell you a story. I was born a slave —” and the Aaron character says, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I know this story. I don’t want to hear that story, I want to hear the fun stuff.” And the Remus character, through the course of the play, says, “If you want to do the fun stuff, you have to know that trauma, also. They are inseparable from each other.” When we tell stories, as Black individuals, we can’t separate the two. I think it’s a disservice to separate the two. I know that I have spoken to many Black people who are like, “I don’t need to hear any more stories about slavery,” and I can appreciate that, but I personally believe that we should be telling those stories forever and ever, all the time. They ground us in a reality that we should never, ever look away from. There are also people who are like, “Well, let’s not talk about that anymore, we’re past that,” but that is just going to do America a disservice. I know that there are White people who are like, “I don’t want to see another story about ‘bad White people’ and what we did,” but that’s also just the reality of the history of America. I think that, as storytellers, it’s our duty to acknowledge that.
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