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The Clear

 Previously published in Black Arts Quarterly

CHARACTERS

Cathay Williams

A Buffalo Soldier, AKA William Cathay

Track Star

Broke black female sprinter

Setting

Somewhere time travelers travel

(TRACK STAR attempts to undo her past by digging a large hole with a garden shovel. TRACK STAR stops digging, looks around for something to bury, and begins the process again by burying then digging and burying again.   CATHAY WILLIAMS enters and observes TRACK STAR.)

CATHAY WILLIAMS

That won’t help you.

 

TRACK STAR

Excuse me?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Moving your dirt all around.  I don’t think any good will come of it.

 

TRACK STAR

Whatever.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

What you’re trying to lose won’t fit in there.

 

TRACK STAR

(mockingly)

You figure?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I do.  You can’t un-dig your past.

 

TRACK STAR

I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?

CATHAY WILLIAMS

My Father was a freeman, but my mother a slave, belonging to William Johnson, a wealthy farmer who lived at the time I was born near Independence, Jackson County, Missouri.  While I was a small girl my master and family moved to Jefferson City.

 

TRACK STAR

Master?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

My master died there and when the war broke out and the United States soldiers came to Jefferson City, they took me and other colored folks with them to Little Rock.

TRACK STAR

Colored folks?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Colonel Benton of the 13th Army Corps was the officer that carried us off.  I did not want to go.  He wanted me to cook for the officers, but I had always been a house girl and did not know how to cook.

 

TRACK STAR

House girl?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Why do you look shocked?  Did your people work in the fields?

 

TRACK STAR

Who are you?!

CATHAY WILLIAMS

(to the audience)

One hundred & thur-tee years after making history, and she doesn’t know who I am.

 

TRACK STAR

Like you know who I—

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

MmmHmmm.  Who doesn’t know.

 

TRACK STAR

These damn cleats give me away every time.

 

(TRACK STAR begins again with her furious digging.)

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Actually, the five gold medals you keep digging for is what blew you.

 

TRACK STAR

I’m not digging for those ole things.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Can’t blame you if you were.  I’m expecting to get rich yet.

 

TRACK STAR

This is bullshit.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

No.  The truth goes like this.  On the 15th day of November 1866, I enlisted in the United States Army at St. Louis, in the Thirty-eighth United States Infantry Company A.  Captain Charles E. Clarke commanding.

 

TRACK STAR

1866?  Are you talking about the Civil War?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

The regiment I joined wore the Zouave uniform and only two persons, a cousin and a
particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never blowed on me.

TRACK STAR

This is ridicules.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Is it?

 

TRACK STAR

(Silence.)

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Let me tell mine, then you can tell me yours.

 

TRACK STAR

(Silence.)

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends. Soon after I joined the army, I was taken with the small-pox and was sick at a hospital across the river from St. Louis, but as soon as I got well I joined my company in New Mexico.  I was never put in the guard house, no bayonet was ever put to my back.  I carried my musket and did guard and other duties while in the army, but finally I got

tired and wanted to get off.  I played sick, complained of pains in my side, and rheumatism in my knees. The post surgeon found out I was a woman and I got my

discharge. The men all wanted to get rid of me after they found out I was a woman.  Some of them acted real bad to me.

 

TRACK STAR

So what, you’re a woman.  I can see that.  If I’m inclined to believe what you say (which I’m not), what was the freakin’ big deal?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

No wonder they sent me down here.  You don’t know history.

 

TRACK STAR

Lady, are you crazy?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Women could not officially serve in the United States Army until the United States Congress approved of WACC in the forties.  And that wasn’t even during war time for the regular army.  I enlisted in 1866!

 

TRACK STAR

You need to stop lying right about now.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

If I’m lying, I’m dying.  The name is Cathay Williams but my army papers say William Cathay.  (Pause.)  Don’t even try your digging routine to change the subject.  Besides Track Star, you’ll never dig yourself out of the mess you’re in.  From the looks on the TV, you just dug yourself deeper by saying you lied to Federal Agents three years ago when they launched an investigation about (Pause.)  What did they call it?  The clear?

 

TRACK STAR

(Silence.)

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

When I enlisted, I wasn’t the only one either.  So if you’re thinking that there is strength in numbers.  Forget about it.  I was just the first they found on account of my infirmities.

 

TRACK STAR

This isn’t possible.  Jesus.  Is this some fucked up side effect?  Two drops under the tongue.  You train hard.  You dream even harder.

 

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Someone said you had husband troubles.

 

TRACK STAR

WHAT?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

After leaving the army I went to Pueblo, Colorado, where I made money by cooking and washing. I got married while there, but my husband was no account. He stole my watch and chain, a hundred dollars in money and my team of horses and wagon.  I had him arrested and put in jail, and then I came here.  (Pause.)  So—

 

TRACK STAR

I can’t take this.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

You’re man’s in jail, right?

 

TRACK STAR

He’s not my man.  And even if he was at one time, son of a bitch.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I had big dreams too.  I didn’t get my land warrant.  I thought I would wait till the railroad came and then take my land near the depot.

 

TRACK STAR

I lost my house.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Least you got land.

 

TRACK STAR

I lost my mama’s house.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I lost my toes.

 

TRACK STAR

How?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Frostbite.

 

TRACK STAR

Why did you do it?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

It was a job.

 

TRACK STAR

That’s easy for you to say.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

You risked your life.

 

TRACK STAR

Carrying a musket fighting the Confederates doesn’t sound risky to you?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I was a cook.

 

TRACK STAR

I ran for a living.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Who said you couldn’t be blown?

 

TRACK STAR

You say you were on the down low for two years.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I’m not the one trying to dig her life upside and over again.

 

TRACK STAR

Yeah?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I didn’t lose my way.

 

TRACK STAR

Bullshit.  You did it for the money.  You lied for the money just like I did.  (Pause.)  This is crazy.  Why I am even trying to have this conversation.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Because you need to.

 

TRACK STAR

Says who?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Because you want to.

 

TRACK STAR

That’s what you think.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Because history says so.  They won’t forget you.

 

TRACK STAR

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Like I was supposed to get my pension after an honorable discharge.

 

TRACK STAR

So now what?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I worked as a laundress.

 

TRACK STAR

That’s what I freaking mean.  You see?  Do you see why I’m digging my past up?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

It won’t work.

 

TRACK STAR

What options do I have other than this?

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

(Silent glare.)

 

TRACK STAR

Arrogance is your best friend.  My coach told me that once.

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Okay.  This is the part where I’m—

 

TRACK STAR

What?

CATHAY WILLIAMS

Supposed to wake you up.

 

TRACK STAR

How did I fall for this bullshit?

 

(TRACK STAR turns her back on CATHAY WILLIAMS and digs.)

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I clearly am not up to this task.

 

TRACK STAR

I know that medal is down here somewhere.  I hid it.  Hid it real good!

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

They should have sent Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, or Shirley Chisolm and Oprah Winfrey over to talk some sense into this gal.

 

TRACK STAR

Conti said it was linseed oil.  That’s right.  LIN SEED!

 

CATHAY WILLIAMS

I’ve lost her.  And so has history.  (Pause.)  Truth is I never really had her.  Time’s up!

 

(CATHAY WILLIAMS and TRACK STAR tussle.   CATHAY WILLIAMS falls to the floor dead.  CATHAY WILLIAMS straightens TRACK STAR’s body as if preparing it for a the viewing at a wake.  CATHAY WILLIAMS takes the garden shovel, kisses it, and exits.)

 

END OF PLAY.

 

Author’s Note:

 

Found text was used for some of Cathay William’s dialogue.  The source of which is an interview in the St. Louis Daily Times dated January 2, 1876, cited several times in various stories on Cathay.  The United States Army profiles Cathay on their own website in “Heroes Among Us.” and claims her as the first African American woman to enlist in the army.  It is believed she is the first documented black female enlistee. http://www.goarmy.com/bhm/profiles_williams.jsp