Editor’s Note: In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of MarkTwainStudies.org.
Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm. Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).
The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.
The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:
Ryan Reid ’23: A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.
Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.
Alexander Taylor ’23: My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.
Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.
Samantha Proseus ’23: Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion. I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it. I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been.
Elijah Jordan ’23: The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.
To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.
Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure.
The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner.
It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people.
Brianna Costley ’23: When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.