by guest contributor Shane White
In the stage production of “The Sting” currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, (and reviewed in the New York Times on April 9th) the African American actor, J. Harrison Ghee, plays Johnny Hooker. Back in 1974, in the film on which this musical is based, Robert Redford starred in the same role.
This racial sleight of hand, according to the New York Times reviewer, is one of the stage production’s improvements to the original: casting an African American as one of the principal characters “sets up the con even more effectively, and the prejudice he faces, casual and otherwise, puts us on his side.”
For those unfamiliar with the finer details of the world of the confidence game, the defining feature of the con is that the victim is separated from his or her money by words and guile rather than violence or the threat of violence. A con man or woman deceives an unsuspecting stranger into simply handing over his or her cash or goods. Usually, but not always, the prospect of profiting by dishonest means tempts the mark into thinking he or she can get away with a dubious if not illegal transaction. The term “confidence man” was coined by James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald back in 1849 to describe a William Thompson. But, of course, the confidence game, in its many varied guises, long predated this white man’s depredations in Lower Manhattan.
It may well be the case, in theatrical terms, that this new production of “The Sting” does set up the con more effectively by casting a black man in what had been a white man’s role. What is revealing though is that no one—neither those responsible for the musical nor the Times reviewer—seems to be aware that black confidence tricksters have a history. Catering to our views of the way the world should be, most particularly on the issue of race, may win over today’s theater audiences, but it plays havoc with the past. There have been times, for instance in the 1830s, when the occupation of con artist—though I like to think of it as more a profession—was integrated. By the mid-1930s, the period when “The Sting” is set, confidence tricksters were as Jim Crowed as a water bubbler in Montgomery, Alabama.
Mind you, the history of the black con artist has been forgotten. The classic and still razor-sharp ethnography, David Maurer’s The Big Con (1940), on which both the film and musical of “The Sting” are loosely based, does not mention African Americans. Other histories of confidence men skate over the last couple of centuries giving lurid accounts of the doings of such white men as Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, Victor “The Count” Lustig, or Ivan Kreuger, “The Match King,” and their ilk. The occasionally named African American merits only a line or two at best and is essentially an interloper in a white story.
The reason why there is no history of black confidence men and women is not too difficult to fathom. On the very first page of text of Maurer’s The Big Con, he declared that “of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat”, and back in 1940 at least everyone knew aristocrats were white. Maurer went on to describe confidence men as “suave, slick, and capable,” with even their crimes being “very much on the genteel side.” For whites, Harlem was home to the razor and the gun, not the confidence man.
Contrary to what many of the white experts have assumed, the occupation of confidence man has a long and distinguished African American pedigree. From an early age, slaves learned that their survival depended on their ability to observe, deceive and to dissemble, to mask their feelings and thoughts from owners, overseers, and indeed any white person. What was demanded by the circumstances of slavery was further reinforced by the importance in African American culture of the “man of words”—a tradition, which can be traced back to Africa, of placing a high value on verbal facility. “Puttin’ on ole Massa,” was a way of life for blacks held in bondage. But if slavery was the school that honed these skills to a razor-sharp edge, it was freedom that revealed new vistas for their exploitation.
In New York City, there have been in fact two Golden Ages of the black confidence trickster. The first followed on from the end of slavery in 1827 and lasted for a little more than a decade in the 1830s and 1840s. The second, fractionally longer, took place almost a century later in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both were periods of dramatic and abrupt change in African American life, transitional times when new things disrupted older more settled ways. In the first, recently freed slaves established the lineaments of African American urban culture and in the latter their New York born descendants combined with a flood tide of immigrants from the South and the Caribbean to make Harlem the Negro Metropolis, black capital of the world. These were two of the liveliest and most exciting eras in the history of Black Manhattan. Not coincidentally, in both periods city streets were alive with African Americans living off their mother wit. Some were hustlers and con artists of the highest order.
Even as David Maurer was collecting material in the 1930s for his seminal The Big Con, there were innumerable confidence men and women roaming Harlem streets and avenues. Seemingly, their activities did not impinge on the linguist and ethnographer’s consciousness; if they did they certainly had no place in the book he wanted to write. His unwavering belief that con artists were white lingers on down to today. Perhaps the new musical version may begin to undermine the idea that “confidence man” simply means Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting (1973). Perhaps.
Yet with all the talent and money invested in this new musical version of “The Sting,” it is hard not to conclude that an opportunity has slipped by. In today’s racial climate, is it enough merely to tinker with a familiar story, casting a black actor to play the same role previously allotted to a white actor?
Or, shouldn’t considering African Americans as active participants in history force us to reconceive a more inclusive story of the confidence trick? In much the same way that the makers of the film “The Sting” used Maurer’s The Big Con, couldn’t the history of black confidence tricksters have been exploited as a source to arrive at something new?
Who knows? Perhaps following the stupendous financial success of “Black Panther”, Broadway and Hollywood are ready for productions about an integrated gang of “burners” cruising the city streets in 1838 or Harlem’s “voodoo hidden gold swindle” of 1928. There remain an almost endless number of stories of the African American past awaiting their moment in the sun. All you have to do is ask an historian of African America—every one of them has at least one story she or he’d like to see on stage or screen.
Shane White is the Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and, coincidentally, finishing off writing a book on the two Golden Ages of the black confidence trick in New York City.