It is a partly cloudy Sunday afternoon in Old Town Alexandria. The air is damp, and it is unseasonably cool. The area, however, is filled with the usual weekend revelers–people walking their dogs, dining alfresco, shopping. At the Potomac Waterfront Park, couples enjoy time together, joggers pace themselves, and several people gather at the dock. Looking. Waiting. Anticipating.
The time approaches 1:00 p.m. and from the distance, a boat begins to appear. A lone black man wearing a dark colored suit slowly rows it toward shore. At the dock await two black women, hands by their sides, dressed in white pants and white tunics, their faces covered with white lace. They face one another, standing just a few feet apart. They do not speak. They do not move.
The boat gradually approaches the pier and docks. Two plain clothed men help the black man out of the boat. Carrying a block of ice wrapped in muslin, the black man walks toward a wooden wheelbarrow on the pier. Inside the wheelbarrow is a bag of ice and an antique ice tong. Attached to the wheelbarrow is a long metal hook upon which four different sized copper iron bells hang. He places the block of ice inside the wheelbarrow and unwraps the muslin. The span of the tongs is positioned around the width of the ice block.
Accompanying his preparation of the wheelbarrow is the improvised syllabic singing of a black woman. Her voice is strong and assured. With every “oh, oh, oh” she sings, her body sways, her arms gracefully wave around her. She is adjacent to the pier, in the grassy area of the park, standing atop a wooden block. Her long white dress gently blows in the wind. Her face, like the other two women, is covered with white lace.
Sweaty, barefoot, and slightly disheveled, the black man lifts the arms of the wheelbarrow. Standing tall, looking forward, his face expressionless, he begins to walk along the pier toward King Street, guided by the two black women dressed in white.
This prelude to Sheldon Scott’s performance art piece, the Finest Amenities, which took place on Sunday, April 23, 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia, is part of Time & Place, an initiative of the Alexandria Office of the Arts’ public art program, in partnership with the Office of Historic Alexandria. The goal of this initiative is to place art, history, and community in conversation. Three artists from across the region were asked to create contemporary works inspired by the history of Alexandria, Virginia in general, and the history of Gadsby’s Tavern in particular. “Time & Place shines new light on familiar stories and uses the arts to draw connections between past and present,” explains Diane Ruggiero, Director of the Alexandria Office of the Arts.
In the Finest Amenities, the inaugural work for the Time & Place series, Scott is interested in “lifting slave narratives” that came out of Alexandria by using the history of harvesting ice from the Potomac River, and the storage and use of this ice at Gadsby’s Tavern, as a starting point. In so doing, Scott aims to “examine the relationships between race, class, environment, luxury, and consumption by interrogating the process related to the use of Gadsby’s ice well.”
In the 18th century, ice harvesting was regarded as “an expensive and time consuming process.” As such, ice, described as “the finest amenity,” was only available to those who could afford it, generally wealthy estate owners. During the winter, ice was cut from the frozen Potomac River and carried, by cart, to Gadsby’s Tavern for storage. The Tavern’s ability to store and provide ice distinguished it as a five star establishment.
In a pre-performance talk, Scott explained that he wondered what it might have been like to be an enslaved person working at Gadsby’s who had to go down to the river, usually on the coldest days, pull ice out of the river, and take it into that space. Once back in that space, what happened? “Not only is the ice an amenity,” says Scott, “but the bodies that served that ice are also amenities.”
Scott also explained that in trying to create a narrative about a historic moment that may not have been documented, or that research may not completely support, he is using “myth making” and empathy as a pathway to truth. “What are the histories we tell,” wonders Scott, “and those we don’t tell?” Research and other records document the names of the prominent wealthy white men who frequented and patronized Gadsby’s Tavern for political, business, and social events. But what about those who labored there? What is known about their lives?
Scott’s procession to Gadsby’s Tavern continues from the Potomac Waterfront to King Street. The crowd of about twenty who had gathered at the dock follow, and along the way, others join. The seriousness and weight of what is happening, for many, is not yet apparent and understood. Passersby and weekend revelers question, “What is this? What is going on?”
It is in walking through Old Town Alexandria and walking past retail shops, boutiques, restaurants, and cafes that the past and the present converge. Scott’s route not only pays homage to the history and presence of enslaved black people in Alexandria, it also creates a historical narrative of this particular time and place. At the same time, he disrupts predominant historical narratives by inserting the voices and bodies of those unknown and unnamed.
According to Lance Mallamo, Director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, Alexandria was the second largest slave trading port in the United States from the 1820s to the 1860s. In a pre-performance talk, Mallamo makes the distinction that many people in Alexandria owned servants to work in their homes who were indentured servants but not “slaves.” Mallamo said Alexandrians would, however, secure additional labor through the slave trades and markets.
Spontaneous slave markets would pop up on street corners before moving to what is now Market Square at Alexandria City Hall. Here, slave markets were more organized. Enslaved Africans were taken to Market Square for sale, as were enslaved blacks who needed to be transported from areas in Northern Virginia to locations deeper south in response to the cotton gin and rice plantations.
What is interesting, Mallamo explained, is that Alexandrians were not so much disturbed that the slave market was occurring but that they had to see it! They did not want their wives and children to see slaves being driven through the streets in handcuffs and so they requested that this activity take place at night.
Scott approaches the corner of N. Lee and King Street, the chimes of the copper iron bells affixed to his wheelbarrow announce his presence. At the corner stands a black woman on a wooden block dressed similarly to the woman near the pier of Potomac Waterfront Park. Her improvised syllabic singing, however, is subdued, the “ahs and oohs” plaintive. As if to acknowledge and show reverence for the woman, Scott pauses, and stands next to her for several seconds. This moment, in broad daylight, and at the height of social activity on a Sunday afternoon in Old Town Alexandria marks one of several important disruptions and interventions.
First, Scott defies 18th century Alexandrians’ desire that slave markets not be seen. He does this by calling attention to the ways in which enslaved black bodies would have been viewed as spectacle in this time and place – not only in the selling of their bodies in an open outdoors space, but also in the exploitation of their bodies, especially as labor. The framing of this moment by Scott may in some ways be defamiliarizing to the onlooker as he and the woman are not adorned with, or placed in proximity to, usual accoutrements of slavery. Nonetheless, Scott, by his mere presence, forces viewers and passersby to see, look, and, hopefully, question what might have taken place on this street corner.
While Scott stands there and the black woman sings her song of lament, a car drives by blaring Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This sonic disruption epitomizes core elements of performance art–chance and indeterminacy. “Thriller,” released in 1983, is often associated with horror, fear, and fright, in part, because of the music video and its repeated play during Halloween. The lyrics describe “evil lurking in the dark,” speak of trying to scream “but terror takes the sound before you make it,” and warn that this is “thriller night and no one’s gonna save you from the beast about to strike…you’re fighting for your life.” The synthesized chords and lyrics of “Thriller” coming from the car, layered with the “ahs and oohs” of the singing woman standing on the wooden block, function as a remix and contemporary rendering of the slave narratives Scott aims to excavate. In much the same way the WGN TV series Underground uses today’s popular music to modernize the telling of a historical time and place, so does the unexpected blare of “Thriller” offer an opportunity to reimagine this moment in Alexandria’s history.
As Scott continues his trek through Alexandria to Gadsby’s Tavern, it is no coincidence that part of his route takes him through a cobblestone alley. Alleys, according to Mallamo, were important havens for enslaved Africans in Alexandria. In a pre-performance talk, Mallamo explained that “people of means” did not go into alleys; therefore, it was a safe space for enslaved Africans to converse with one another, out of the earshot of others. Alleys, then, afforded enslaved Africans a limited means of freedom.
Through the alley and past Market Square, Scott finally arrives at Gadsby’s Tavern. It is approximately 1:31 p.m. Scott rests the wheelbarrow at the corner, and removes the block of ice wrapped in muslin. He places the block of ice next to a marker on the sidewalk which indicates the original location of the ice well hatch where blocks of ice harvested from the Potomac were lowered, stored, and used by the tavern.
Scott, then, positions himself on his hands and knees while the two black women who guided him here put the block of ice on his back, and tie it securely with a rope. Once done, Scott crawls towards the entrance of Gadsby’s Tavern, and climbs the stairs to the Assembly Room. The crowd, which has grown in size to almost forty people, follows him inside. Here, the focus of the audience must now shift from following Scott on his way to the Tavern to deliver ice, to following him throughout the Tavern as a worker in this space.
In the Assembly Room, there is a table with a bowl of punch, clear plastic cups, a hammer, and several antique ice picks. Sitting on either side of the table are two white men, named by Scott as “enticers,” wearing 18th century attire, neon colored wigs, and white masks. In the room with them, standing at the head of the table, is a young black woman, dressed in a white lace dress and wearing white gloves.
Except for the sound of ice being chipped, it is mostly silent as people begin to gather in the room. The two black women who guided Scott on his way to the Tavern chip ice and wipe fallen pieces from the floor. The enticers ladle punch into the plastic cups and walk around the room offering one to each of us.
In this moment, you are pulled into the experience by deciding whether or not to take a cup of punch. The enticers do not speak. They simply stand before you, holding the cup of punch, waiting to see whether or not you will accept it. Some took the cup of punch willingly, politely. The young black w0man would, then, take a handful of the chipped ice and add it to the individual’s cup. You are now faced with another decision. Do you drink the punch?
The enslaved staff, whom John Gadsby would have “employed” to manage operations at the Tavern, and who would have retrieved the ice for patrons of his establishment to enjoy, would most likely never have experienced what it was like to have a cold beverage. If you accept the cup of punch, and the ice that has been given to you, are you now somehow complicit in exploiting the labor that provided you with this “finest amenity?” What is your role in relationship to those who serve you “the finest amenity?”
For the next hour, audience members are confronted with a series of negotiations as they move, with Scott, still on hands and knees, between the Assembly Room of Gadsby’s Tavern and the Banquet Room, where a lavish table with an abundance of food is being enjoyed.
In a pre-performance talk, Scott expressed the following:
“My hope is for people to surrender to the experience in much the same way I do to the performance of the piece. If I can put in all this blackness, all this pain, all this identity, and allow everyone to walk into that experience and feel that pain, feel that empathy, and allow themselves to become this painful figure that you see, dragging this ice up the street, having this ice on his back, then I feel like I’ve done a good job and done what I needed to do.”