On this day in theatre history–May 27, 1801–John Fawcett’s pantomime, Obi; Or, Three-Finger’d Jack, opened at New York City’s Park Theatre. The play had been a big hit the year before in London and was soon to become an equally popular play in the United States. The story, loosely based on actual events from the early 1780s, follows the exploits of Jamaican slave and folk hero, Jack Mansong, who escapes and flees into the mountains to begin a revolt using obeah magic (or Obi) to support his efforts. He is ultimately unsuccessful and is defeated by loyal slaves in a spectacular climactic fight scene that had crowds riveted on both sides of the Atlantic. Often overlooked now, the play was an important piece of political propaganda warning gullible audiences of the dangers of slave revolts and the importance of proper vigilance against African-American unrest. New Yorkers were especially susceptible to the play’s message, having experienced two major slave insurrections during the eighteenth century, the Riot of 1712 and the Conspiracy of 1741.
Furthermore, regular news of a major on-going slave revolt in Haiti also weighed heavily on the minds of the upper-class mercantile audiences who still relied on their Caribbean commercial connections for much of their trade. The story of Three-fingered Jack and the Jamaican slave revolt would reverberate for decades as an integral part of American culture up to the Civil War and would not be significantly countered until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.