Research projects can begin in a variety of different ways. On one end of the spectrum, a query about some aspect of the past may prompt the scholar to seek out and identify relevant primary sources that help answer their question. On the opposite end, a scholar may discover source materials that lead them on an entirely new path of research, with new queries that they had not thought to ask before. That is, sometimes the questions draw researchers to primary sources and sometimes the primary sources lead researchers to the questions.
The staff of the William L. Clements Library has the opportunity to watch historians grapple with (and often enjoy) these investigative processes. Moreover, on a daily basis, staff members frequently discover tantalizing, yet unstudied primary source texts and images, with the potential for deeper investigation. Recently, for example, the Library acquired a never before studied 18th century letter, in which the author described attending a theatrical performance in Baltimore. This production starred a mixed-race female lead actress. The following is a preliminary study of the letter, which will, we hope, inspire further research.
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|This detail from French geographer A. P. Folie’s 1792 map of Baltimore shows the location of the “Play House” in which the Comedians of the French Theatre performed. It is marked with a “V” at the corner of Grandby and Prince Streets, in view of the nearby windmill. Map catalog record: Plan of the Town of Baltimore and It’s Environs : Dedicated to the Citizens of Baltimore.|
Robert David Ritchey’s 1971 dissertation “A History of the Baltimore Stage in the Eighteenth Century” provides a four-paragraph description of the Comedians of the French Theatre. He notes that between March and July 1796 they performed 38 “plays, operas, pantomimes, and ballets,” and that “little information exists concerning their productions.” Some, or all, of the actors and actresses of the troupe were French refugees who had fled the violence of the Haitian Revolution. Ritchey identified several individual performers who appeared in other theater companies before and after the 1796 season in Baltimore, suggesting that the Comedians of the French Theatre existed as a troupe for only the 1796 season.
Enter the Clements Library’s newly acquired letter. The letter arrived with the Civil War papers of Gen. McClellan’s aide-de-camp Richard B. Irwin and his sister Agnes Irwin, future first dean of Radcliffe College. Contained in the papers is correspondence from the Irwins’ relatives and colleagues, including a compelling May 1796 letter from future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander J. Dallas (1759-1817). In it, Dallas described the construction of Washington, D.C., and his experience seeing a small acting troupe (the Comedians of the French Theatre) in a “vile barn-like hovel” in Baltimore. He sat in box seats with friends Robert, Miss McKean, and Miss Hopkinson. Dallas believed that the personal struggles of the refugee actors showed through in their performances, and that despite being “novices,” their plight and poverty “stimulated them, and conciliated the audience.” He found the play “execrable,” although Robert disagreed. The audience appeared to enjoy it.
Despite his scathing review, Dallas found himself impressed by and attracted to the mixed-race actress who played Julia, the lead role. Of her, he wrote, “I did not think that nature had ever designed so elegant a set of features to be clad on such a dusky skin. Her eye was wonderfully brilliant, and we all agreed, that we had never seen so intelligent an expression of countenance, a corrector form, nor a more seductive manner.” Though clearly sexualizing the performer, he concluded: “In these opinions the young Ladies of our party concurred.” The presence of a mixed-race woman in lead role on a U.S. stage in 1796–a woman who did not pass as white, in a role not crafted as a racial caricature or stereotype–was a profound circumstance. Dallas, who worked in Philadelphia for the Supreme Court, was well aware of this when he quipped that the even the idea of such a lead performance would have met with outcry in his city. He wrote: “What would the delicacy of our Philadelphians urge, against the introduction of a Mulattoe on our Stage!”
Questions immediately arise. What was the name and background of this actress? What was her relationship to the white performers in the company? Can we identify when and under what circumstances she arrived in the United States? Can we find corroborating evidence to help us answer questions like these? Where does this yet to be identified woman fit in the history of African-descended actors in the United States? The Clements Library looks forward to seeing scholars and other researchers discover more about her and fit her story into the historical record.
Cheney J. Schopieray
Curator of Manuscripts
 Robert David Ritchey, “A History of the Baltimore Stage in the Eighteenth Century,” PhD diss. (Louisiana State University, 1971): 220.
 The full title of the play is Guerre Ouverte; ou, Ruse Contre Ruse. The Baltimore play, however, was advertised by the title “The Midnight Hour,” presumably because the troupe performed the English translation/adaption by Mrs. Inchbald.
 Ritchey, 59.