Tableaux debuts new play format
By Nita McCann
The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — Natchez is all about history, and the Friday night debut of the new Historic Natchez Tableaux was no exception.
To present a more balanced portrayal of the old South’s history, the newly revamped Tableaux cut some old scenes and inserted some new ones.
Best-selling novelist and Natchez native Greg Iles and dozens of other volunteers produced a show that keeps some perennial scenes in place, but cuts some scenes from years past.
The new Tableaux also adds others meant to tell the story of black people before, during and just after the Civil War, seeking to present a more balanced account of the Natchez history.
New additions to the Tableaux included a scene of a mother and son clinging to each other just before she is sold. In a later scene, the child – now a Union soldier – helps take down the building at that very site.
Telling the story
Black performers said they did not know what to expect when they first signed on to the production, which has run for 83 years.
Terrence Robinson, who portrays the uncle of the bride in one of the newly added scenes and also sings in the chorus, said he didn’t know what to think when fellow actor Beverly Adams texted him to ask if he would participate.
“Let’s be honest,” Robinson said. “Over the years, you hear so much about (the Tableaux), about how black people were not welcome there.”
But he quickly found the opposite to be true.
Robinson, one of more than 200 performers in the Tableaux, had already portrayed William Johnson in last year’s production, so he knew a little of what to expect.
Both Robinson and Adams, veterans of the Natchez Little Theatre, said they have a passion for acting in general.
“Then, when I heard that Greg Iles would be involved, I jumped at it because I’m familiar with his (novels),” Robinson said. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Adams shared that sentiment.
“We have a chance to actually make history,” said Adams, who portrays the aunt of the bride in a new Tableaux scene.
Adams said that before she was called to get involved with this year’s production, she didn’t have any preconceived notions about the Tableaux, which she had never seen.
“But once I got involved and learned some of the history of it, I got excited about being a part of it,” she said. “I knew it was going to be something I’d be proud to participate in.”
She added she is excited by the opportunity to work with Iles and others involved in the production.
According to performers, Iles was very hands-on in the retooling of the Tableaux, down to recording new music for the show and producing brief films about the South’s history. Those films were played as transitions between scenes.
“Everyone was so accommodating,” Adams said. “And Mr. Iles was no exception. You can tell he does things from the heart.”
Something old, something new
Some scenes remain largely untouched in the new Tableaux, such as the Natchez Indians scene at the beginning, the Maypole dances. the Polka, the Running of the Confederate Flag and the Wedding Scene.
“The biggest changes come in how slavery and the Civil War are portrayed,” said Lynn Beach Smith, who both directed and sang in the Tableaux. “These are the biggest changes (the Tableaux) has ever seen.”
For example, one of the scenes shows a 10-year-old and his mother being sold at the Forks of the Road, one of the biggest slave markets in America.
“Then, when the son is an adult, he is one of the ones Union troops get to tear it down,” Smith said.
Another change is that now when “Old Man River” is sung, a performer in a flowing costume dances to the song.
Some scenes were cut from the old performance, including Fannie Elsler, the raising of the flags and the picnic.
Smith said she believes the changes were necessary to revitalize the production. Those cuts also shortened the show’s run time from two hours to 65 minutes.
She added children have at least as much of a role as they have had in the past.
Behind the scenes, the new show has been in the works for about six months, from casting and costumes to the final production, Smith said.
Another change: This year, the Tableaux will only be performed on Friday and Saturday nights during Pilgrimage.
Scene by scene
The first scene, titled “Two Worlds Collide,” saw the Natchez Indians fighting the injustices of the French in 1727. And it ended with a mass execution of the Natchez, complete with a loud crack of gunfire.
That scene was followed by a staple from years past – the scene of the Little and Big Maypoles – with the girls dressed in hoop skirts all colors of the rainbow. That led into the Polka, with carefully choreographed steps.
In a scene set at the Forks of the Road, the second largest slave market in the nation before the war, a mother and son cling to each other as she sings to comfort him.
Then she is sold as slave traders bellow in the background, describing those to be sold like cattle.
The Showboat Under the Hill scene, complete with gamblers and can-can dancers the steamboat captain referred to as “floozies,” was kept from past years.
The wedding scene of years past, “A Natchez Bride for Jefferson Davis,” was kept in, but was juxtaposed with “A Secret Wedding,” a scene of a slave wedding.
The couple featured in the latter scene “jump the broom” as the sound of the hounds gets closer and the bride bursts into tears.
A new scene shows Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, an accomplished singer of antebellum days better known as “The Black Swan,” performing for none other than Queen Victoria.
But the Civil War comes to the foreground during the next scene, “A Confederate Farewell,” better known to locals over the years as “The Soiree” at Jefferson College.
There, young men in uniform dance with hoop-skirted girls just before the men leave to fight.
In the next scene, “The Home Front,” black and white women sing mournful songs while waiting for news of battle.
In “The Forks of the Road, Wartime,” black Union soldiers are ordered by their commander to tear down the old slave-trading site until “not one board is standing.”
It is there that one of the black soldiers – the 10-year-old from the first Forks of the Road scene, now a man – recalls the anguish of seeing his mother sold into slavery.
A gospel choir sings in harmony while the soldiers take apart the building at the site board by board.
In the scene “Home from the War: 1865,” mothers and daughters rejoice upon seeing their family members come home.
But they weep as they are told of another family member that did not make it. They stand by as the father of the family takes down the Confederate flag and hoists U.S. flag in its place.
Both live and recorded music were woven into each part of the Tableaux. Live performances included past favorite “Old Man River” – accompanied by a dancer in a flowing blue costume.
One song featured in more than one scene – including the first Forks scene – is “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” say the lyrics. “But I know a change gonna come.”
Some locals and tourists alike said the performance was done well.
“I think (the changes) have improved it, actually,” Natchez resident Tres Atkins said just after the nearly two-hour show. “It was well done.”
Marge Breuer, a visitor from Minnesota, said she was going to leave for home earlier Friday until she found out about the Tableaux. She said she was glad she decided to stay.
The mix of scenes and music was great, she said.
“It was very well done,” Breuer said. “Is it this good every year?”