Mule Bone: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston's Dream Deferred of an African-American Theatre of the Black Word

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There ought to be a Negro play written by a Negro that no white could ever have conceived or executed. (Eugene O'Neill, 1925)

Michael G. Cooke, in his study of Afro-American literature in the twentieth century, notes that, whereas modernism in Anglo-American literature adapted the form of an artificial detachment from the human, in Afro-American literature "it took the form of a centering upon the possibilities of the human and an emergent sense of intimacy predicated on the human." Consequently, black literature undertook "to reincarnate and reinvest with value the culture's lost sense of being and belonging" (5). This grappling with a sense of intimacy involved a reaching out of the self into an unguarded, uncircumscribed engagement with the world (9). For Harlem Renaissance leaders, one of the ways to accomplish this was with the retrieval of black culture within black drama. Yet their approaches differed substantially. Samuel A. Hay, in his revisionary reading of African American theatre, traces a separation of schools, periods, and classes of most of the plays written by African Americans between 1898 and 1992 to the criteria based on the theories espoused by W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. The Du Bois school of theatre was "strictly political," since he thought that drama should teach "colored people" the meanings of their history and, above all, should reveal the Negro to the white world as a "human, feeling thing." The sociologist called this new theatre, based on characters and situations that described the struggle of blacks against racism, "Outer Life." [1] On the other hand, Locke wanted "believable characters and situations that sprang from the real life of the people, from what Du Bois called 'Inner Life'" (2-3). Locke understood that Afro-American playwrights should concern themselves not so much with protest or propaganda plays--specifically those under the aegis of Du Bois--as with folk drama: "the uncurldled, almost naive reflection of the poetry and folk feeling of a people who have after all a different soul and temperament from that of the smug, unimaginative industrialist and the self-righteous and inhibited Pur itan" (Bigsby 241). Locke saw through the surface to discover resources in Afro-American folklore which could be transposed to the stage. As Errol Hill writes, Locke felt "the need for experimentation in form and urged on Black theatre artists the courage to be original, to break with established dramatic convention of all sorts and develop their own idiom" (5). Locke believed that drama was the most crucial form of all arts for the future of black artistic development and emphasized the idea that the literary beauty revealed to the black artist was contained in his oral folk tradition and in its vernacular manifestations with its vast universe of themes and images and its strategies of rendering them into the written medium. The black playwright's problem, then, was how to actualize the oral tradition--profoundly enmeshed in the notion that dialect was an inept imitation of the standard language--in written form and at the same time how to recreate that vital force on stage. Consequently, in their profound d esire to represent African American culture within dominant Western epistemologies, dramatists were urged to become what in Clifford Geertz's readings of culture as texts emerges as the anthropologist who "strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong" (452).

The tandem of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston would actually flesh out these inspiring sentiments in a play they titled Mule Bone, which was never staged during their lifetime because of a quarrel between the authors. [2] Of these two, Henry L. Gates writes that "a more natural combination for a collaboration among the writers of the Harlem Renaisance, one can scarcely imagine--especially in the theatre!" ("Tragedy" 9). David Levering Lewis also underscores the fact that Mule Bone was "an almost perfect union of the talents of Hughes and Hurston. …