by Kia Corthron
CHARACTERS, in order of speaking appearance:
Cliff SANDERS, a white man
Chloe GRAHAM, a white woman
Aisha COX, a Black woman
JOHN HENRY, a Black man
The John Henry lyrics are varying but authentic. The music and rhythm differ which, for a production, can be unearthed through research.
Steel Hammer was a theatrical event, a collaboration between composer Julia Wolfe and Bang on a Can All-Stars, Anne Bogart/SITI Company, and four SITI-commissioned playwrights: Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor. The plays were adapted to create a collective piece. What follows is the original pre-adapted contribution by Corthron.
[Carnival music. JOHN HENRY, large man of inordinate strength, driving his large steel
hammer. As it is very heavy, every swing will require excessive effort, the clangs well-
spaced between each other, and loud. A few feet away, on either side and slightly
downstage of JOHN HENRY, are SANDERS and GRAHAM. On the other side of
SANDERS is COX. The illusion of a tent show audience observing them. Unless
otherwise indicated, SANDERS and GRAHAM are addressing the audience.]
SANDERS: [Grinning at JOHN HENRY, admiring] Steel driver!
GRAHAM: “John Henry,” 19th Century folksong. To give you an idea of the popularity, go to
iTunes: five hundred recordings.
SANDERS: Then they got tired and wrote “Less relevant items are not displayed.”
GRAHAM: Countless versions.
COX: Almost all referencing death off the bat: first stanza.
SANDERS: I had to do some convincing. Board of Directors: What the hell’s Cliff Sanders,
CEO of John Henry Sporting Goods doing at some damn tent show contest? My
subordinates weren’t so shocked. They know Boss likes to tell a story.
GRAHAM: In American folklore we have our fictional Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and the tall
tales surrounding real figures: Johnny Appleseed, Calamity Jane. All white. John
Henry stands alone as an African American legend. For us all.
SANDERS: John Henry Sporting Goods is a benevolent establishment, we win? Every
penny going as a grant to fund Ms. Chloe Graham from the folklore museum in her
research endeavors, Ms. Graham assisting me in the storytelling.
GRAHAM: Also assisting is Aisha Cox, an actress and university professor specializing in
African-American history, theatre, labor studies, music theory, contemporary African
SANDERS: We consider this a very important tribute to African American culture.
This old hammer
Killed John Henry
Killed my brother
Can’t kill me.
SANDERS: Another very important tribute is our annual Martin Luther King Day sale.
Doors open seven AM!
GRAHAM: Or, [Sings]
John Henry was a little bitty baby
Sittin on his mama’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
[JOHN HENRY joins in here without looking at GRAHAM or interrupting his work. She turns to
him, surprised by his participation, delighted.]
GRAHAM and JOHN HENRY:
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.
COX: Or [chants] This ole hammer, mos too heavy
COX and JOHN HENRY: Huh. [Should coincide with JOHN HENRY’s hammer coming down.]
COX: Killed John Henry, killed him dead.
COX and JOHN HENRY: Huh.
SANDERS: The way to start is to start at the start. John Henry put his mama to conniptions
bein born, he pop out lookin like a toddler, lookin ready to walk. John Henry, Black as
coal, born in the heat a the heart a Dixie.
Some say he’s from Georgia
Some say he’s from Alabam—
[Suddenly music out, lights out except for the light on JOHN HENRY, who has stopped
working, has turned to the audience.]
JOHN HENRY: Elizabeth City, New Jersey. But in Virginia I’m a prisoner. Convict, what I’m
guilty of? Stealin from Wiseman’s Grocery they claim, but they got a math problem: If
the law say twenty dollars the minimum for gran larceny, and everything in
Wiseman’s store ’cludin the two big ole hogs out back sum up to fifty dollars, how the
hell I carry out half the merchandise on my back, broad daylight with the proprietor
settin right there? So they make up some’un, rename it all “housebreakin,” now I’m a
But it’s wrote on the rock at the Big Ben Tunnel
That he’s an East Virginia Man,
JOHN HENRY: Ten years.
[Back to carnival music, general light, JOHN HENRY swinging his hammer.]
SANDERS: So big little John Henry grows up to be a giant of a man. And while he’s growin
so’s somethin else: the railroad.
GRAHAM: Track was being laid for the Chesapeake and Ohio, tie by tie, rail by rail.
SANDERS: Originating in Richmond with nothin between it and the Ohio River—cept a few
GRAHAM: Hilly land had to be flattened, mountains tunneled through.
SANDERS: The men hammered.
[JOHN HENRY’s hammer clangs.]
SANDERS: Drivin stakes into the rock, or the mountain, then fill in the holes they made:
GRAHAM: The extreme manual labor explains why versions of the folksong have been
adapted by construction crews. By prison crews.
COX: Not guilty.
[The carnival music suddenly goes out as GRAHAM and SANDERS turn to COX. JOHN
HENRY stops working, not looking at them, but listening.]
GRAHAM: Again? [Meaning: What did you say?]
COX: I don’t believe he committed any crime. The “Black codes,” suddenly vagrancy’s
against the law: a Black looking for work and can’t find it. Suddenly it’s illegal to tout
an [finger-quotes] “air of satisfaction” and you know damn well to which race that
Dixie mandate was directed right after the Civil War, right at the start of
GRAHAM: [To the audience] Reconstruction: a federal effort to level the racial playing field.
For a while. [To COX] Sure, there was a reaction, a rabid racist retaliation, but you’re
talking about the real John Henry. I appreciate that.
COX: Slavery just declared over, the Cotton-Rice-Tobacco Belt knew how to bring back
chattel labor: fill the prisons with Black. Enter New Jersey John Henry, to them some
Yankee uppity come South to take advantage of Reconstruction.
GRAHAM: Aisha, this is not about the real John Henry.
JOHN HENRY: Reconstruction put a few Black men in the Congress.
GRAHAM: This is about folklore, we’re here to tell the story of John Henry the legend.
JOHN HENRY: And Reconstruction backlash put a slew a Black men in the penitentiary.
[JOHN HENRY starts swinging his hammer again, cueing the return of the carnival music
and festive atmosphere.]
SANDERS: Big John Henry grows up to marry a sweet little lady named Polly Ann.
GRAHAM: Or Lucy, or Julie Ann, depending on the rendition.
SANDERS: John Henry loved him some Polly Ann and Polly Ann loved her some John
GRAHAM: In some versions. In others—
COX (as POLLY ANN): [Sings]
John Henry had a little woman
Just as pretty as she could be
They’s just one objection I’s got to her
She want every man she see
SANDERS: Now John Henry was a big man, powerful man, just what the railroad ordered.
Doggin track faster n any other trackliner, only one other ever had the nerve to
challenge him and ten minutes later that challenger draggin home to his woman, her
whuppin him with a broomstick cuz he say his paycheck gone, restin easy in John
Henry’s hip pocket.
[Sudden loud sound of a steam drill—carnival music stops. All, including JOHN HENRY, look
offstage in the direction of the sound. JOHN HENRY and COX/POLLY ANN in awe.]
GRAHAM: Then came along the steam engine.
SANDERS: [Distaste] “Progress,” they called it.
GRAHAM: Various mechanized drills came to be developed at this time.
SANDERS: Their primary motivation bein speed, mimickin the labor a many men in
minimal minutes. But the clunky machines could never match the precision a two
workers on their own, the hammer man swingin the sledgehammer down on the
[JOHN HENRY’s hammer clangs down hard.]
SANDERS (cont’d): the shaker turnin the drill.
[As GRAHAM starts speaking, JOHN HENRY takes interest, stops work to look up and listen
GRAHAM: In one version Captain Tommy, dubbed [finger-quotes] “the whitest man on
earth,” loved John Henry like a son and told him he’d bet the white man running the
steam drill that John Henry could drill faster.
COX: John Henry replied to Captain Tommy with “lightnin in his eye,”
JOHN HENRY: [Playing the part in the story, billowing with pride, sings] Cap’n, bet yo lass
red cent on me / Fo I’ll beat it to the bottom or I’ll die—
JOHN HENRY, COX, GRAHAM and SANDERS: [All grinning to the audience and singing]
JOHN HENRY: [Sings] I’ll beat it to the bottom or I’ll die.
SANDERS: They faced each other. John Henry on the ground, the White Man perched
high up on his whale of a drill, the only time a man had ever looked down to John
Henry. [JOHN HENRY looking up at the imaginary steam drill] Well John Henry kissed
his hammer [JOHN HENRY does], and the White Man turned on the steam [sound of
machine turning on].
GRAHAM: [Sings] Then the White Man tole John Henry,
SANDERS: [To GRAHAM, worry] Don’t sing that part.
GRAHAM: [Sings] “Niggah, damn yo soul”
SANDERS: I said stop singing!
GRAHAM: [To COX] I apologize. [To SANDERS] I’m not changing the words to sanitize it, I’m
not appeasing your white guilt.
COX: [Pumping herself up like the cocksure White Man, sings]
“You might beat this steamin drill a mine
When the rocks in the mountain turn to gold”
COX, GRAHAM and SANDERS: [Singing] Lawd, Lawd
[SANDERS had moved into JOHN HENRY’s space and stands on something (a block?) that
raises him above JOHN HENRY. Now SANDERS takes on the persona of The White
SANDERS: [Sings:] “When the rocks in the mountain turn to gold.”
[Now all sound goes out, and JOHN HENRY and SANDERS as The White Man stare at each
other, SANDERS still defiantly arrogant. JOHN HENRY’s countenance is more complex—
anger, fear, confusion: the consequences for humiliating a white man could be dire. The
silence goes on a long time. Then suddenly GRAHAM, her body language indicating she
is acting in some “official” capacity, whistles through her teeth, signaling the start of the
race. SANDERS will physicalize driving the steam drill while JOHN HENRY hammers
faster and harder than he ever has. COX and GRAHAM are hooting and hollering, and
sound returns: music (different than before), crowds, chaos. The steam drill pulls ahead,
then JOHN HENRY, then the steam drill, then JOHN HENRY, then JOHN HENRY, then
JOHN HENRY—and at some point the race is suddenly over, signaled by the screaming
and cheering of COX and GRAHAM (and the crowd sound), by SANDERS’s White Man’s
shock and fury, and by JOHN HENRY’s exhausted collapse: JOHN HENRY is the clear
victor. JOHN HENRY’s critical condition—crawling, clutching his chest—gradually dawns
upon the onlookers, and COX, who has morphed into Polly Ann, races screaming to
him, holds him. SANDERS from his perch, back to being the storyteller, turns to the
SANDERS: [Sings softly]
John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Ann
He hugged and kissed her just before he died
JOHN HENRY: [Very weak, speaks rather than sings] Polly, do the very best you can.
[JOHN HENRY dies. It should not be corny/cartoon, but not too real either.]
SANDERS: Well Polly Ann wept her little heart out. [COX mimes this (no sound).] But in
GRAHAM: [Grins] This is my favorite part.
SANDERS: [Sings, belts it out jauntily] She walked out to those tracks [COX as Polly Ann
does] Picked up John Henry’s hammer [COX as Polly Ann does]
GRAHAM and SANDERS: [Singing] Polly drove steel like a man [COX as Polly Ann does,
powerfully] Lawd, Lawd, Polly drove steel like a man.
[During the following verse COX will leave the hammer to walk downstage and join GRAHAM
and SANDERS. JOHN HENRY’s body is now hidden behind them.]
GRAHAM, SANDERS and COX: [Singing]
Well every, every Monday morning
When a bluebird he began to sing
You could hear John Henry from a mile or more
You could hear John Henry’s hammer ring
[On the second “Lawd” a thunderous hammer clang, sound-enhanced with reverberations.
GRAHAM, SANDERS, and COX, startled, jump out of the way and turn around, seeing
that JOHN HENRY has stood and brought the hammer down. JOHN HENRY turns to the
audience. Though he will speak of himself in third person, he should not be wholly
JOHN HENRY: After the war, nineteen-year-old John Williams Henry traveled down to the
Reconstruction South looking for work. Accused of petty theft, the charge trumped
up to housebreaking and larceny, he was sentenced to a decade in the Virginia
Penitentiary. At twenty-one years of age John Henry was farmed out to the
Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was five feet one and one-quarter inches tall.
[JOHN HENRY seems to shrink before the audience’s eyes. This may take a few seconds.
When he is finished:]
JOHN HENRY: The perfect height for tunnel work.
[Small John Henry starts swinging the hammer. He seems much weaker, exhausted.]
SANDERS: The legend of John Henry, the strongman, endured and revised itself into a
GRAHAM: American communist posters during the Depression adopted his muscled
COX: In the comics the Black steel-driving man transformed into the white man of steel:
GRAHAM: [Moved by the story] But the folklore John Henry, the bigger-than-life man born
to drive steel and to die by it, his heart giving out at the end of the greatest race: Man
Triumphs Over Machine.
COX: Gave his death a poetic quality.
GRAHAM: [Sensing light sarcasm from COX, GRAHAM turns to HER, defensively] Yes, it did.
COX: When in truth he did die on the job, but what probably killed him, like most all of the
other tunnel workers, overwhelmingly Black men in their early twenties, were the tiny
rock bits thick in the air of the caves they created, taking occupation of their lungs.
SANDERS: No. Air.
JOHN HENRY: I WAS BORN AND RAISED FREE! THEN COME TO THE EMANCIPATED
SOUTH, THE LAW MAKE ME A SLAVE!
[This outburst catapults JOHN HENRY into an uncontrollable coughing fit. COX, SANDERS,
and GRAHAM turn to him, and lights slowly fade on them while brightening on JOHN
HENRY. His coughing becomes unbearable, transforming into a horrible wheezing. As
he desperately struggles for oxygen, there is a blackout with the terrible wheezing
uninterrupted, going on, and on, and on till a sudden last big gasp. Silence.]
Kia Corthron is a playwright and novelist. Steel Hammer was written for the SITI Company/Bang on a Can project of the same name, which was performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and elsewhere nationally and internationally. Her many other plays have premiered in New York and across the U.S. as well as in London. For her body of work for the stage, she has received the Dramatists Guild’s Flora Roberts Award, the Windham Campbell Prize, the United States Artists Jane Addams Fellowship, the Simon Great Plains Playwright Award, the McKnight National Residency, and others. Her debut novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was the 2016 winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. Her second novel, Moon and the Mars, will be published Fall 2021.