“Let the People Sing!”: Zora Neale Hurston
and the Dream of a Negro Theater
Zora Neale Hurston has recently emerged as a major figure in the American literary canon after years of obscurity. One sees her image on the murals at Barnes and Noble bookstores, alongside James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Her stature thus far, however, has stemmed from her success as a novelist, especially as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), now one of the most-taught books in American literary history. Most readers know little about her other work, except perhaps her oft-criticized autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and two often anthologized short stories.
Throughout her life, like Henry James before her, Hurston had a burning ambition to be a successful playwright. None of her plays were produced, however, during her lifetime, and only in 1991, when the play she co-authored with Langston Hughes, Mule Bone, had its Broadway debut, did most fans even know that she had written for the theater. One of her first publications, in fact, was a play, and she never gave up trying to mount dramatic productions that would form the opening wedge of “authentic Negro theatre.”1
As a preacher's daughter, Hurston came by her dramatic gifts naturally. John Hurston, born a slave, overcame his humble origins by marrying Lucy Potts, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, and by heeding a “call” from God. A strapping man, he cast a compelling figure in the pulpit and made the most of his booming voice and musical gifts. Zora Neale was born either on January 7th or January 15, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, not far from Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. She was the sixth of John and Lucy's brood; subsequently three more sons were born after the family relocated to Eatonville, an all-black town in central Florida, in the early 1890s. Throughout her life, Hurston boasted of having the map of Dixie on her tongue and always insisted that she was a Southerner through and through. It is hardly surprising that the plays she wrote exude many characteristics of Southern expression, in particular, and culture, in general.