Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

FIVE
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE STEREOTYPES

IN CONTEXTS governed by "The Man," the name of the game was subversion, and there were black playwrights, besides Hughes Allison, who excelled at it. The black dramatists rejected, subverted, and replaced the stereotypes that the white culture had established, and the white playwrights had accepted, with legitimate black images, and the dual communication system was an indispensable asset in this process of transformation. One of the most interesting examples of such a transformation by the black dramatists was that of the "brute negro." Although this stereotype was used by both white and black playwrights, a comparison of white-authored and black-authored plays reveals the entirely different images that resulted and the process by which change was achieved.

Paul Green and Eugene O'Neill were white playwrights of considerable stature and both were attracted by the dramatic possibilities of the black experience; they both also made positive efforts to dramatize the black as honestly as they could. Green Hymn to the Rising Sun and O'Neill The Emperor Jones were produced by the Federal Theatre in 19371 and they were hailed as breakthroughs in the development of black characterization.

Hymn to the Rising Sun is a hair-raising glimpse of a Southern chain gang, at daybreak on the fourth of July. During the assembly, Runt, a white prisoner who has kept the camp awake most of the night with his screams for help, dies in the sweatbox while the white camp boss is sadistically enjoying his own lecture to the men on the subject of freedom and good citizenship. His speech is an ironic expose of conditions on the chain gang, including a reminder that they are strictly within the law, enacted in accordance with the democratic will of the people: the judge said hard labor, and that is exactly what he meant, and the Captain agrees that hard labor is what it will take to acculturate these prisoners.

The veteran and Hercules of the gang is a black, Pearly Gates, and it is clear that Pearly, unlike Runt, will survive. At first glance, it would seem that this will be so primarily because of Pearly's superior strength, but it soon becomes apparent that it is primarily because he

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