A Little Lower than the Angels by David Christner

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This Play is the copyright of the Author and may not be performed, copied or sold without the Author’s prior consent

      ACT I, SCENE II

      SCENE: LIGHTS COME UP on CONSTANCE CLARKE, 23, in the living room of
      a colonial Newport home a week later. She is attractive and bright, a
      schoolteacher, and from one of Newport’s wealthiest and most
      respected families. She is pacing about anxiously, waiting for
      Charles; she is made up and dressed in the fashion of the period. Upon
      hearing a KNOCK ON THE DOOR, she rushes to open it and is
      disappointed.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Oh, Father . . . come in.
     
      (THOMAS CLARKE, 55, ENTERS. He is a wealthy and highly respected
      Newport merchant and community leader. He is on the board of Trinity
      Church and a Revolutionary War hero. He is an entrepreneur and has
      established a far-reaching business empire, which stretches from the
      west coast of Africa to Europe and the West Indies.)
     
      THOMAS (entering):  You need not be so enthusiastic, Constance.
     
      CONSTANCE: I am sorry, Father, it’s just that I was expecting—
     
      THOMAS:  Someone else?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles.
     
      THOMAS:  I am well aware of that, and he will be here within the
      hour. The Providence just made Brenton Point and will be dockside
      momentarily.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Father, I hope you do not think that I am in need of a
      chaperone to reacquaint myself with my husband to be.
     
      THOMAS:  No, in fact I have made arrangements to dine out this
      evening. That is not why I have come.
     
      CONSTANCE (after a moment):  Very well. Why did you come?
     
      THOMAS:  It is about—this wedding gift from John Rutledge.
     
      CONSTANCE:  We have not yet received a gift from John.
     
      THOMAS: Indeed, you have. The—gift was delivered to my office this
      very afternoon.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Yes . . . and?
     
      THOMAS:  Did you know about it?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles wrote me that a gift was coming from his brother.     
     
      THOMAS: But not what?
     
      CONSTANCE:  No.
     
      THOMAS: Did Charles know?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Only that a gift was coming. It was to be a surprise.
     
      THOMAS:  That it is, my dear. That it is.
     
      CONSTANCE: A surprise. (A beat.) Well—those are invariably the best
      gifts of all.
     
      THOMAS:  One would like to think that.
     
      CONSTANCE:  But that is not the case in this instance?
     
      THOMAS:  I suppose that is a matter of opinion.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Then perhaps you should let me form my own.
     
      THOMAS:  You have always been free to do that, Constance, and whoa be
      it to those who would keep you from it.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Did you bring the gift home, or do I have to venture to
      the wharf to retrieve it?
     
      THOMAS:  The—gift—is in my carriage.
     
      CONSTANCE: Shall I get it?
     
      THOMAS:  No, please—sit. I will see to it.
     
      (Thomas opens the door. SOPHIA, 18, a Negro slave from South Carolina
      ENTERS. She is bright and confident; she has learned how to adapt and
      how to best survive. She has a firm grasp on the English language,
      having been raised in the household of the Rutledge plantation.
      Constance assumes the worst—that Sophia is a wedding present.)
     
      CONSTANCE:  Father, please tell me that what I am thinking cannot be
      true.
     
      THOMAS:  Constance, if you are thinking that this Negro is given to
      you as a wedding gift, then I cannot in truth tell you anything
      different. Although for legal purposes, I think it best that she be
      referred to as an indentured servant.
     
      THOMAS (showing a document):  This is a deed.
     
      CONSTANCE (shaken):  This cannot be.
     
      THOMAS (checking the document):  Until your wedding, it will be
      Charles who actually owns her. After that, perhaps joint ownership can
      be legally obtained if that is what you desire.
     
      CONSTANCE (standing):  It is most certainly not what I desire. I will
      not have a slave in my house.
     
      THOMAS: This is my house, Constance.
     
      CONSTANCE:  And I have run it since Mother died!
     
      THOMAS:  When your house is complete, you can take her there and do
      with her what you will. It is not my concern.
     
      CONSTANCE:  I will not have a slave in my house!
     
      THOMAS:  You made that point previously. And I was quite certain that
      those are the exact sentiments you would express, however, it is not
      my role any longer to advise you of such difficult matters.
     
      CONSTANCE: I seek no advice. All I request is that, if need be, this
      woman can be housed under your roof until such time that her position
      . . . can be clarified.
     
      THOMAS:  She may, of course, be housed in the garret with the
      household staff until such time that—you and Charles decide what is
      to become of her. Now, I must take my leave. Charles will be her
      straight away, and I . . . don’t want to get in the way of your
      reunion. (A beat.) Shall I take the girl?
     
      CONSTANCE:  No, she can stay.
     
      THOMAS (to Sophia):  You cannot escape from here. You are on an
      island.
     
      CONSTANCE: You will not be mistreated here.
     
      THOMAS:  She was not mistreated on the way here, but I understand she
      tried twice to escape.
     
      SOPHIA:  Three times. (A beat. Then to Constance.) I will not run
      away, ma’am.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Do I have your word?
     
      SOPHIA:  Yes, ma’am. You have my word.
     
      THOMAS:  I must go.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Good evening, Father.
     
      THOMAS (exiting):  Good evening, Constance.
     
      CONSTANCE (turning to Sophia):  Please, sit.
     
      SOPHIA:  Oh, no ma’am, can’t sit if you’re standin’.
     
      CONSTANCE:  You can in this house. Please, sit. (A beat.) I shall sit
      too. (They both sit.) Well . . . do you know where you are?
     
      SOPHIA:  I know the name of where I am—Newport in the State of
      Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—but jist zakly where that
      is, I don’t rightly know.
     
      CONSTANCE:  It is hundreds of miles north of South Carolina—where
      you came from.
     
      SOPHIA:  Charleston, in South Carolina.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Yes—Charleston. Do you know why you are here?
     
      SOPHIA:  ‘Cuse me for saying so, ma’am, but I don’t worry much
      ’bout why. I jist do what’s expected of me. Less trouble that way.     
     
      CONSTANCE: My god! (A beat.) You know, here in New England, the
      institution of slavery is—
     
      SOPHIA:  Is what, ma’am?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Is—practiced to a—lesser extent than in the South.
     
      SOPHIA:  I see, ma’am—“a lesser extent.”
     
      CONSTANCE:  Do you know what that means?
     
      SOPHIA (thinks, then pointedly):  Do you?
     
      CONSTANCE (after a moment):  You are very bright, but you must know
      that.
     
      SOPHIA:  Does that surprise you?
     
      CONSTANCE: No. It does not. I teach in a school for Negro children;
      given an equal opportunity for learning, I have found that there is no
      difference in the learning capacity of Negro children and the children
      of European descent. (A beat.) I suppose what I was trying to tell you
      is that in New England we have—far fewer people in positions of
      subservience than in South Carolina.
     
      SOPHIA:  Why is that, ma’am?
     
      CONSTANCE (thinks, then):  Well, I suppose it is because—we have
      less of a need for—laborers.
     
      SOPHIA:  I see, but, on my trip here, all the people I saw working
      the fields were dark skinned.
     
      CONSTANCE:  In any case, you will not be a slave in any house of
      mine.
     
      SOPHIA:  Do you have a house, ma’am?
     
      CONSTANCE:  No, but I will within the year—after I marry. This
      house belongs to my father, Thomas Clarke, the man that brought you
      here.
     
      SOPHIA:  He is—very kind.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Yes, he is. And a pillar of the community. For a wedding
      gift, he is building a house for my future husband and me.
     
      SOPHIA:  I am a wedding gift too, that right? From Massa John?
     
      CONSTANCE:  What is your name?
     
      SOPIHIA:  Sophia.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Sophia, I am Constance Elizabeth Clarke, and I will not
      accept another human being as a gift. I do not want you to think of
      yourself as—my property.
     
      SOPHIA:  Then will I be the property of your husband?
     
      CONSTANCE:  That may have to be the case until this affair is
      settled. Now, I must receive my fiancée and I am sure you want to
      freshen up after your trip. There is a guest room through that door;
      you will find everything you need. I will speak with Charles when he
      arrives and then call for you.
     
      SOPHIA:  Thank you, ma’am.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Please don’t call me that; you are not a child.
     
      SOPHIA:  All right—Miss Constance. I will wait for you to call.
     
      (SOPHIA exits. Constance begins pacing. She goes to the window, pulls
      back the curtain and peers out. Finally, she sits down on the edge of
      the couch and picks up a copy of the Newport Mercury.)
     
      CHARLES (off): Constance. Constance!
     
      (Constance jumps off the couch and rushes to the door as Charles
      begins pounding. She flings the door open and CHARLES ENTERS. They
      embrace and kiss passionately like the lovers they are.)
     
      CHARLES:  Constance. My beautiful Constance. How I have missed you.
     
      CONSTANCE: And I you.
     
      CHARLES:  Oh my sweetness, I have ached for your touch.
     
      CONSTANCE:  As have I ached for yours.
     
      CHARLES:  I must have you—here—now. Is your father about?
     
      CONSTANCE:  No, I made him promise to give us a few hours,
      but—Charles . . .
     
      (He picks her up and heads for the door leading to her bedroom.)
     
      CHARLES:  No protests, my love, I have been without you too long.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles, wait. There is something we have to discuss.
     
      CHARLES:  We can have a discussion later.
     
      CONSTANCE:  This is a matter of great urgency.
     
      CHARLES (kisses her):  So is this!
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles, no! Put me down.
     
      CHARLES (putting her down): Very well, my dear, if you have a matter
      of greater urgency than my desire for you, then I must accommodate you
      for a moment—but only for a moment.
     
      CONSTANCE (fixing her dress, etc.):  Would you care for some spirits?     
     
      CHARLES:  You know what I’d care for.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles, please.
     
      CHARLES:  No spirits. Just get on with it.
     
      CONSTANCE (pouring him a drink):  I think you should have some
      spirits.
     
      CHARLES (staring at her):  My god you are beautiful, Constance. And
      what I ever did to deserve your love I do not know. Just one more
      kiss—before you go on.
     
      (They kiss again. THERE IS A KNOCKING ON AN INTERIOR DOOR. Constance
      jumps up.)
     
      CHARLES:  Who is that?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Yes?
     
      (SOPHIA ENTERS.)
     
      CONSTANCE:  Oh, Sophia . . .
     
      SOPHIA:  I have finished unpacking, Miss Constance. Does you need
      help with something else?
     
      CHARLES (from the couch):  Who is Sophia?
     
      CONSTANCE: Sophia is our wedding gift from your brother. She is what
      I wanted to talk to you about.
     
      CHARLES (rises and sees her):  Sophia? Sophia!
     
      SOPHIA:  Hello, Massa Charles.
     
      CHARLES:  Little Sophia?
     
      CONSTANCE:  You know this girl?
     
      SOPHIA:  We both growed some, Massa Charles.
     
      CONSTANCE:  You know her!
     
      CHARLES (hugging her):  Sophia! (A beat.) How are you?
     
      SOPHIA:  Much better now that I sees you.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Do not ignore me, Charles.
     
      CHARLES (to Sophia):  Your family—are they—still . . . close by?
     
     
      SOPHIA:  No, after the accident that took your folks . . . everybody
      went somewheres else.
     
      CHARLES:  I am sorry for that, Sophia.
     
      CONSTANCE:  What does she mean—“went somewhere else?”
     
      SOPHIA:  After you leave for schoolin’—you never come back.
     
      CHARLES:  After the accident, there was nothing left for me down
      there.
     
      SOPHIA:  I never forget those days.
     
      CHARLES:  I guess I did. (A beat.) I am sorry.
     
      SOPHIA:  No fault of yours, Massa Charles. You young and—
     
      CHARLES:  Foolish. Now I am older—but probably no less foolish. I
      should have been there.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Sophia, since my fiancée is ignoring me, would you
      please tell me what you two are talking about?
     
      SOPHIA:  Old times, Miss Constance. Old times when Massa Charles and
      me was children.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles?
     
      CHARLES:  Sophia’s family worked in the main house—cooking,
      cleaning, mending; her father was the gardener. Mattie, Sophia’s
      mother, had as much to do with my upbringing as my own mother. She
      told us stories, and on days when she was working, she would have me
      read stories to Sophia. I was only ten; Sophia was five, but I kept it
      up until I left for college.
     
      SOPHIA:  I jist becoming a woman then.
     
      CHARLES:  The accident happened my first year at Harvard, and I never
      went back until I started working for your father.
     
      SOPHIA:  It was Massa Charles taught me to read. Taught me lots of
      other things too.
     
      CHARLES (to Sophia):  Did I ever get a beating for that!
     
      CONSTANCE:  Well, maybe I should leave you two alone to catch up?
     
      CHARLES:  Sophia, I feel terrible about what happened; maybe if I’d
      been there—
     
      SOPHIA:  You couldn’t of done nothin‟. Massa John always did what
      he wanted.
     
      CONSTANCE:  What did he do?
     
      CHARLES:  Sold off Sophia’s family.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Good Lord! Sold them off . . .
     
      SOPHIA:  You own me now, Massa Charles. You and Miss Constance.
     
      CONSTANCE:  We will never own you, Sophia.
     
      CHARLES:  No, not in a philosophical sense, but in a very real legal
      sense, we do or will jointly when we marry.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Charles, we have to return her.
     
      CHARLES:  To what? She would be much worse off down there.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Then we will free her.
     
      CHARLES:  Of course, when it is most advantageous to do so.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Advantageous to whom?
     
      CHARLES:  Sophia.
     
      CONSTANCE:  How can keeping her in bondage a second longer be of any
      advantage to her?
     
      CHARLES:  Sophia, would you excuse us?
     
      SOPHIA:  Yes, Massa Charles. I very tired. Won’t be botherin’ you
      and Miss Constance again. I know you gots lots to catch up on.
     
      CHARLES:  Thank you, Sophia.
     
      CONSTANCE:  Have you had something to eat?
     
      SOPHIA:  I fine, Miss. I jist retire for the evening now. Good night.     
     
      CONSTANCE:  Good night.
     
      (SOPHIA EXITS. Charles crosses to Constance and takes her in his
      arms. She breaks away.)
     
      CONSTANCE:  I am in no mood for that now.
     
      CHARLES:  Constance, you are not going to let a—Sophia come between
      us.
     
      CONSTANCE: A slave? Were you going to say, “a slave?” (He
      doesn’t answer.) I think Charles that perhaps I do not know you as
      well as I thought.
     
      CHARLES:  Constance, I did not return to Charleston after my
      education because I chose not to participate in that way of life.
     
      CONSTANCE:  And yet you still find yourself a slave owner.
     
      CHARLES:  Through no fault of mine! And is this household not run
      with indentured servants? Tell me, Constance; is there such a great
      difference?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Let me enlighten you about the practice of slavery in
      Rhode Island. A child can no longer be born into bondage in this
      state, nor is it legal for the slave trade to be carried on by ships
      from any of Rhode Island’s ports.
     
      CHARLES:  But is it not illegal to own slaves. And while these laws
      address the institution of slavery, they do little to limit the
      practice of it. Even the post-nati manumission acts require the
      children of slaves to remain in servitude until they reach majority.
     
      CONSTANCE:  The laws are not yet perfect, but they are a beginning.
      This matter is greatly complicated by the fact that slaves are
      considered property, and if—
     
      CHARLES:  Constance, can you not put this issue aside for a few
      hours? I beg you.
     
      CONSTANCE:  It will not go away of its own accord, Charles.
     
      CHARLES (takes her hand):  I know that, Darling, so why can we not
      address it just as well in a few hours or on another day? Do you not
      long for me as much as I long for you?
     
      CONSTANCE (weakening):  Charles, I have missed you desperately. You
      must know that from my letters.
     
      CHARLES (kisses her tenderly):  I do know that, Love. Will you not
      allow me to take away some of your longing without any further delay?     
     
      CONSTANCE: Charles, it very important that you understand where I
      stand . . .
     
      CHARLES (kisses her more passionately):  Tomorrow you can tell me
      where you stand. Tonight I only desire that we lie down together side
      by side. Ageed?
     
      CONSTANCE:  Yes, my love. Agreed.
     
      (They kiss passionately as the LIGHTS COME DOWN TO END THE SCENE.)

[end of extract]

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