Monday, October 24, 2011

Langston Hughes' "Mulatto" Hits Broadway!

On October 24 in Black History...

In 1935, "Mulatto", the first Black-authored (Langston Hughes) play to become a long-run Broadway hit, opens.

Written during the summer of 1930, Mulatto is Langston Hughes's first full-length play. It appears to have come to him quickly; its painful and melodramatic depictions of father-son conflict, the power of class and whiteness, the legacy of slavery, and the vicious oppression of African Americans in the South were all preoccupations taken up in his earlier work. Many commentators have noted Hughes's personal investment in his narratives of father-son conflict, and the metaphorical relation of miscegenated family and nation.

The play also seeks to correct the dramatic representation of lynching in such plays as the 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning In Abraham's Bosom, by Paul Green, in which lynching is the inevitable and unchallenged-although not thereby justified-fate of Abe McCranie, the impetuous and irascible central character. The plots of the two works are similar in many ways, but in Hughes's play the black characters are articulate, rational, and courageous. Not usually understood as an antilynching play, Mulatto is set in Georgia and was written in a year when that state led the nation in lynchings. Cora's accusations that the Colonel is in themob seeking the son who murdered him speak eloquently to the horrifying internecine dimensions of Southern brutality. (In 1961, Hughes wrote regarding some revisions his editor, Webster Smalley, had proposed: "Mulatto might be left timeless, since they still behave like that in the backwoods of Georgia. In the big towns, of course, individual sitins like Bert's have grown to mass-sit-ins. Otherwise, no difference.")

Opening on October 24, 1935, at the Vanderbilt Theatre, Mulatto ran on Broadway for more than a year and toured for two seasons. The Broadway Mulatto was, however, greatly altered by the producer, Martin Jones, who sensationalized an already shocking story. Among other changes, in his version Sallie misses the train and is raped by Talbot in the final scene. No text for the Broadway Mulatto has surfaced.

The version of Mulatto printed here is dated by Hughes's covering remarks as 1942, although the copyright is given as 1932. The cover sheet reads: "from the short story 'Father and Son' in The Ways of White Folks. Original first version of 'Mulatto,' written at Hedgerow Theatre, Maryland Rose Valley, in which no girl is raped. That was added by Mr. Martin Jones for the Broadway production. Langston Hughes, Dec. 28, 1942." On the title page he adds, "This play might also be called 'The Colonel's Son.'" The comment about the short story is puzzling because "Father and Son" was most certainly written later than the play; however, Hughes did, at one point, recommend the short story to Martin Jones, to give him a better sense of the play. The manuscript is actually a photocopy of a typescript on which Hughes pasted minor revisions. The photocopy on which the changes are made is dated 1945 by the Beinecke Library. Internal evidence places the original as having been written between 1934 and 1938. This version differs from the version published in Five Plays by Langston Hughes in several ways, most notably in the last lines of the final scene. It is this version, probably minus the changes on this photocopy, that was the basis for several of the play's translations.

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.

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