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

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

NINE
THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH

RUN LITTLE CHILLUN' is the spectacular story of the synthesis of the African and Western philosophic elements that comprise the Afro-American culture. No black American in the audience could fail to recognize in the play the elements of his African heritage, yet members of the white audience who were unaware of the significance of those elements could still appreciate the play's acknowledged dramatic excellence and the beauty and vitality of Hall Johnson's music. Run Little Chillun' was highly successful and widely acclaimed when it was produced by the Federal Theatre in Los Angeles, and the Hollywood Citizen News, perhaps the most discerning of its enthusiastic critics, commented on 15 August 1938:

If this had been done by the Moscow Art Theater or any group of foreign actors and actresses, it would be hailed nationally for its dramatic intensity and integrity, its brilliant direction and staging.1

Yet even this recognition of its dramatic quality says little about the experimental genius of its dramatist, and it is the experimental element that now interests us.

The story of Run Little Chillun' is set in a deep Southern black community where the Hope Baptist Church is strenuously engaged in a month-long revival. Church attendance has dropped, however, and the members are alarmed for they are convinced that this defection is caused by the recently arrived New Day Pilgrims, whose pantheistic worship is being held in the woods in a manner considered mysterious and pagan by the devout Baptists. The minister's son, Jim, who is also a preacher, is married to a good woman, Ella, but for the past year he has been having an affair with Sulamai, who comes from the tacky side of town known as Toomer's Bottom. Current gossip has it that Sulamai has bragged she will take Jim over to the Pilgrims, and the excited Baptist Council visits Reverend Jones, who has been unaware of his son's philandering, and calls on him to do something to rid the Christian community of the heathen Pilgrim menace. On learning of the latest gossip, Reverend Jones is horrified, particularly at the pros-

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