I continue my casual tromp through plays of the past, alternating reading from an anthology of early Pulitzer Prize-winners and an anthology of postwar African-American plays.
The two most recent plays I’ve encountered, by coincidence, are about flawed Black authority figures. The Amen Corner (published in 1954, premiered in 1965) by James Baldwin is about a pastor named Margaret facing a mutiny in her Harlem church. The Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham’s Bosom by Paul Green (premiered in 1926 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, a company founded by playwright Susan Glaspell where Eugene O’Neill did early work) is about a Black fieldworker named Abe in the south whose drive to start a school triggers violence by local whites.
As I say, both leading characters are drawn as flawed. Margaret’s religious rigidity not only leads to her being overthrown but losing her family. Abe’s obsession, which includes his propensity to strike out physically at family and foe alike when frustrated, leads to destruction of his family and his own death. One can admire both characters’ commitment to their goals while being dismayed at the collateral damage they cause. I am reminded of the title character in Ibsen’s Brand, another uncompromising obsessive whose purity of purpose proves self-destructive.
A key difference between The Amen Corner and In Abraham’s Bosom is that Baldwin was a Black writer and Paul Green was white. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher with whom he was frequently in conflict, so it’s reasonable to suppose there are autobiographic elements in his play. The son in The Amen Corner wants to be a musician and his mother tries to block him, much as Baldwin’s stepfather tried to put obstacles in the way of Baldwin’s interest in exploring the theater. Paul Green was raised in North Carolina and found himself sympathetic to Black communities (not something calculated to make him popular with many of his neighbors) and this led to his trying to write honestly about the South, alternating between writing plays about white and Black communities. Before Black writers began to find a place on Broadway in the Fifties, Green was among those progressive whites attempting to write dimensional Black characters and raise awareness of American racism in the American commercial theater. (He co-wrote with Richard Wright the first stage dramatization of Wright’s Native Son, which has recently been supplanted by a warmly-received new version by Nambi E. Kelley.)
I was also struck by the resemblance between In Abraham’s Bosom and Deep are the Roots, a 1946 play by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow (a pair of white writers). In Deep, a Black WWII veteran returns as a hero to his Southern hometown. When, as in Abraham, his plans for the future turn out to be different than those the white hierarchy of the town have in mind for him (they want him to run the local poorly-funded school for Black students), he becomes a target of their resentment and barely escapes with his life. (Deep was a substantial hit on Broadway. It was directed by Elia Kazan and ran more than 500 performances. Usually a success of that consequence would have triggered a pickup for a film version. But, surprise, Hollywood refused to touch the subject matter.)
I don’t claim that any of these are particularly strong plays. And reading In Abraham’s Bosom induces cringes, with all of the dialogue for Black characters rendered in labored dialect. But thematically, I found them fascinating.
I just looked at my Pulitzer anthology to see what the next play I’m to read is. Skipping over the plays I’ve already read or seen (including O’Neill’s long and torturous Strange Interlude, which I saw in revival on Broadway with Glenda Jackson), and the next one will be … Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures. Uh, OK.