IDENTITY IS THE SOUL OF DRAMA
RETURN TO DEATH, a play on black life which was produced by the Federal Theatre in 1938,1 was written by white author P. Washington Porter and revised by white playwright John Wexley. Copies of Porter's original script and of Wexley's revisions are in the Federal Theatre Collection and they record the white on black orientation of that era. The play is about black sharecroppers in the lower Carolinas, and all three acts take place at the two room shack where Irma and Alex Herman live with their small son, Dewey, and Irma's father, Old Jim.
As the original play begins, Irma is deeply worried: Alec, her worthy and hard-working bridegroom of a few years back, has become a drunkard, for no apparent reason; he idles away most of his time in the village, and Old Jim, who is long past his prime, is forced to work the cotton fields alone. Dewey is very ill and has to take expensive medicine, but the doctors at the county hospital have been unable to diagnose his disease and the child's condition is deteriorating rapidly; he now sleeps most of the time and even has to be roused to be fed. Evelyn Berl, the paternalistic and humanitarian daughter of the white land-owner, is concerned about Dewey and comes to the cabin to tell Irma that she is bringing her fiancé, Dr. Bert Brockman, to see him later that evening. But Evelyn is also concerned because Dr. Brockman, who now has a brand new medical certificate to his credit and is en route to New York to specialize in some branch of surgery, is suffering an attack of humility and is not sure he will ever become the great doctor he would like to be; Evelyn is anxious that his confidence be restored in himself. Irma remembers "Mr. Bert," who used to hunt with Old Jim when he was a boy, and is eager for any help he can give her sick child. Since it is dusk and Evelyn is afraid to walk home alone, Irma leaves Dewey in the care of Old Jim and escorts Miss Evelyn, and while she is away Alec arrives at the cabin.
Alec has been drinking, as usual; he is broke and in search of money, and is little concerned over his son's condition. He almost dismantles the house in search of money, which he eventually finds in one of Irma's hiding places. Old Jim tries to stop him from taking