White Dresses, Sweet Chariots, in Abraham's Bosom, the No 'Count Boy and A Hymn: Paul Green's Vehicles for the Black Actor

By Gill, Glenda E. | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1990 | Go to article overview

White Dresses, Sweet Chariots, in Abraham's Bosom, the No 'Count Boy and A Hymn: Paul Green's Vehicles for the Black Actor


Gill, Glenda E., The Southern Literary Journal


Paul Green, more than any other white American dramatist, celebrated the black man. In so doing, he created serious vehicles for the black actor. A number of other white playwrights also wrote for the actor of color, but not with the same understanding as Green. In the 1920s musicals like Shuffle Along, vaudeville sketches, and night club acts prevailed. A few serious dramas such as Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones also appeared on the stage; O'Neill portrayed the black man as a caricature, power-drunk and without any depth or feeling. In 1927 Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's Porgy was produced on Broadway; however touted, the play deals with low-life characters from Catfish Row who shoot crap, fight, and live lasciviously. In 1935 the Rose McClendon Players produced Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty, a powerful play about striking taxi drivers; if black actors played these parts, a theatre-goer could interpret that blacks were litigious and frightening. While Marc Connelly's Green Pastures brought Richard B. Harrison to fame, it also created the deep impression that blacks were carefree, morally loose ne'er-do-wells who delight in fishfries and the drinking of firmament while looking for God to "ra'ar bak and pass a miracle."

Among black American playwrights, Langston Hughes created the "yard child" in his Mulatto of 1935; Garland Anderson told of the black bell boy in his 1923 Appearances; Randolph Edmonds drew for the stage his Bad Man in 1934; Theodore Ward gave the theatre Big White Fog with the Marcus Garvey figure in 1938; and Owen Dodson sketched Father Divine, in 1938, in his Divine Comedy at Yale. Abram Hill wrote about the black middle-class striver in Striver's Row, mocking those blacks who imitate white society by giving debutante balls and having maids, and Hill showed the hardships of the black prizefighter in Walk Hard. Both of Hill's plays come at the end of the thirties and the very early forties. The arduous struggle of the black playwright to be produced created a condition that caused most producers to be cautious in casting black actors, especially in the WPA Federal Theater of 1935-39. Several of the sixteen segregated Negro units of this government project performed classics by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Marlowe. They also showcased the plays of black playwrights Rudolph Fisher, Theodore Browne, and Langston Hughes. But Paul Green alone among white American playwrights in the twenties and thirties carved out a niche for the black actor. Green portrayed the black American with sensitivity, understanding, and compassion.

Born March 17, 1894, in eastern North Carolina, Green grew up working in the fields with blacks and came to know them intimately. One of the first students in the playwriting class of Frederick H. Koch at the University of North Carolina, Green wrote a pioneering play, White Dresses (1923), which focused on love and miscegenation. The title refers to an interracial relationship in which the white male lover, Hugh Morgan, presents a gift of a white dress to the mulatto female, Mary McLean, with whom he is in love. Hugh's father, Henry Morgan, tells the young black woman that she must either marry the black Jim Matthews, a farm hand, or, in Green's words, "take your duds and grandmuh and get from here." Threatened with eviction, Mary acquiesces, to the delight of Jim. As the grandmother, in the powerful denouement, shows a second white dress to Mary, this one yellow with age, it is clear that Henry Morgan is Mary's white father. As the curtain closes and Mary prepares psychologically to marry Jim, Granny comforts her: "I knows your feelings, child, but you's got to smother 'em in." Within a year of Green's play, Eugene O'Neill wrote All God's Chillun Got Wings, also concerning miscegenation and love. Audiences threatened to tear down MacDougal Street on which the Provincetown Playhouse, in which the play was being produced, stood. The Klan issued death threats. The Hearst newspaper waged a vicious campaign. …

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