marks his return to an integrationist ideology and to the black activist fold. The production employs black icons, heroes and heroines from African American history, to challenge American democracy.
If Hughes considered the democratic tradition to be both "eternally embattled" and "eternally inspiring," his plays of the 1930s show that he was a literary soldier who confronted the democratic ideal with the weapon of radical ideology. 46 However, in the 1940s, his reliance on black icons signals a transition, reflecting the cultural approach and influence of Carter G. Woodson as well as other proponents of black history. Hughes's focus on positive images of black life foreshadows the development of a black aesthetic in the 1960s. 47
As playwright, Hughes has been the subject of both positive and negative critical commentary presented in theatre reviews and scholarly studies. Reactions have come from such observers as Darwin Turner, Doris Abramson, Loften Mitchell, James Emanuel, Amiri Baraka, Webster Smalley, James Hatch, Richard Barksdale, and Leslie Catherine Sanders. Darwin Turner was one of Hughes's harshest critics; Smalley, who edited Five Plays by Langston Hughes ( 1963), one of Hughes's strongest supporters. Leslie Catherine Sanders in The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves ( 1988) provides substantial interpretation of Hughes's plays and ultimately argues that Hughes furthers black drama through his use of "every aspect of black folk expression," though Hughes's characters were "ultimately benign." However, certain Hughes characters resist oppressive conditions, especially in such plays as Don't You Want to Be Free?48
Hughes's assertive attack on Jim Crow during the '30s shows that he challenged not only the presentation of stereotypical folk images but also those institutional structures that restricted mobility and employment for African Americans. Though masked in strategies of the left, certain plays defy doctrinaire proscriptions and evoke folk characters through the use of cultural elements. Taken as a whole, Hughes's plays of the 1930s show a broad vision of black life, including African roots, the slave experience, rural and urban folk situations, family conflict, and the consequences of economic inequities. Underlying both tragic and comic presentations is a consistent emphasis on social rectification.