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Steel Hammer

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

literature, Swahili—

SANDERS: We consider this a very important tribute to African American culture.

GRAHAM: [Sings]

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.]


Hammer’s gonna be the death of me

Lawd Lawd

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.


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.

GRAHAM: [Sings]

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


GRAHAM: [Sings]

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

Henry. Loyal.

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

to her.]

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

another version,

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

Lawd, Lawd

[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

emotionally distant.]

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

thousand incarnations.

GRAHAM: American communist posters during the Depression adopted his muscled

workingman image.

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.

GRAHAM: Silicosis.




[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.


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