July 3, 2006 – Old time fun was the order of the day at the old fashioned Tea Meeting in Frederiksted. More than 150 people came out Sunday evening to be entertained in a style that was the norm before the advent of television.
Colorful characters bearing names such as Professor Rass, Lil' Joe and Professor Disaster Preparedness regaled the audience with amusing stories, antics and demonstrations. And the audience, who came ready to laugh and to be entertained, loved it.
"It's great," said Raymond Williams as watched the show. "I enjoy all the old time activities. It gives everyone a chance to learn more about our culture."
The Tea Meeting was part of the 158th Emancipation Day Celebration being organized by the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Committee. The weeklong celebration commemorates the emancipation revolt of 1848 when enslaved Africans on St. Croix staged a bloodless revolt that caused the Danish Gov. General Peter Von Scholten to declare all unfree in the Danish West Indies free.
It was a night of rough and ready, real homegrown sweetness, entertainment and melee, according to the Tea Meeting's chairman, Olaf "Bronco" Hendricks. The evening's co-chair was Asta Williams, and the pair kept the audience rolling with laughter with their witty quips and humorous put downs.
The first orator to the stage was Professor Disaster Preparedness, also known as Omar B. Henry. Dressed in a madras shirt, a wide-brim straw hat with madras trim, and knee-high rubber boots, the Professor had the audience in stitches with his antics as he described his unique way to prepare for a hurricane.
One by one he reached into his Red Cross issued emergency kit extracting items needed in a disaster.
He held up a flashlight. "If WAPA goes out, flashlight goes on," he said.
He removed a blanket. "If my roof blows away I can sleep at any shelter."
After removing several more items, including emergency food rations, extra batteries and a rain poncho, he held up what he thought was the most important item in his bag – a roll of toilet paper.
"I can keep fresh and clean with this," he said.
"I'm Professor Disaster Prevention and I never met a disaster I couldn't handle," Henry said as he left the stage.
Hendricks was quick to point out the danger of informing local people that an agency was distributing free items like the emergency preparedness kit.
"If Crucian people know it have free thing in there, that place dead!"
Another performer who called herself Princess Zianna told a tale of a dog who wrote her a letter. The animal seemed to be preoccupied with the feet of humans, commenting on the number of shoes they wear, the different colors and styles.
Zianna was perplexed as to why a dog would write her such a letter until she got to the last lines, where the dog began to comment on how many bones were in a human foot. Those comments sent Zianna scurrying off stage to protect her own feet.
Hendricks explained how the Tea Meeting evolved. He said it was a "carryover experience" of the days of slavery, and may have begun as a parody of the parties slave owners threw to entertain their guests.
Tea Meetings were run by a chairman and co-chairman, who introduced the orators. The chairmen heckled the orators and the audience, and kept the performance lively. Several actors dressed as royalty, depicting the queen of England, and the president and vice president of the United States, who sat on stage and were entertained by the performers.
Hendricks said orators customarily spoke on subjects relating to science, philosophy or biblical knowledge. He said it was also a good way to spread news among the slaves undetected by the plantation owners.
Performers had to ask permission of the master of ceremonies in order to address the crowd by loudly proclaiming, "Master Chairman, can I come onstage?" This request was usually met with more jabs and humorous comments from the chairman.
Lil' Joe asked and was granted permission to come onstage. When Lil' Joe, aka Wayne Bully Petersen, appeared on stage and the chairman saw that he was larger than the biggest football player, the jabs began in earnest.
Lil Joe countered the jokes by saying instead of making him climb the steps to the stage they should have brought a forklift.
Lil' Joe told the story about two friends who consulted jumbies to discover the outcome of a horse race they were going to attend the next day. After reciting the incantations, and one friend getting so frightened he ran out of the cemetery, the ghost of "Simon the jockey" appeared. Instead of providing the name of the winning horse, Simon mounted the back of his summoner and rode him at a breakneck pace through the town and down to the sea.
Before his performance Petersen remarked that Tea Meetings were rare entertainments afforded to the slaves. "We were not allowed to practice our own culture," Petersen said. "We had to imitate theirs."
Olric Carrington, in the guise of Professor Rass, had the crowd laughing loudly and asking for more of his slightly off-color jokes. Even the chairman doubled over in his seat with laughter when Rass recounted the story of a nun who tricked people to buy her a cup of gin from a local rum shop.
Emancipation activities continue on Monday in Buddhoe Park, Frederiksted, beginning at 11 a.m. with a fungi turning and fry fish sauce contest; the emancipation reenactment at 2 p.m.; and a quadrille dance from 6 to 9.
Events culminate Tuesday with performances by several dance ensembles beginning at 5 p.m. and a grand fireworks display at 9.
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