Hey there! I’m finally working on my blog. That’s because I finally read a play. I’m in San Francisco working on Uncle Vanya and I have a fair amount of time with not a lot to do. So I’m reading and I just read a doozie of a play by Langston Hughes called Mulatto. Whoa.
The play is intense. It borders on melodrama but it has a verisimilitude that lifts it above that. The writing is visceral and immediate. A rough outline of the events is simple. A white plantation, owner, Thomas Norwood, has fathered 5 mulatto children with his housekeeper, Cora. One died in childbirth; one, William, the darkest, has become a field hand and behaves like the other blacks on the plantation; two daughters, Sallie and Bertha, both who are light skinned, although Sallie is the only one who appears in the play; and finally Robert or Bert, who resembles his father both in looks and temperament. Sallie is being sent off to school where Bert has recently returned from. She leave early in the first act. After she leaves, Norwood is visited by another white man, Fred Higgins, who does yeoman’s work giving a hefty amount of exposition.
From him, we learn that Bert was involved in a altercation in town where he spoke back to a white woman. Bert is “uppity” and does not know his place. The problem though, is that Bert knows that Norwood is his father and wishes to be acknowledged as his son and heir. He wishes to be treated like and recognized for his white parentage. Nothing doing in this world. He and Norwood argue and it ends with Norwood dying at Bert’s hand. He is then pursued by a lynch mob. Cora has some moving monologues about her plight and Bert returns home to find some measure of redemption by taking his own life in his ancestral home, coming in the front door like a man.
The play really worked on me. The relentlessness of the story, the harshness of the language, the inevitability of the plot, and the resoluteness of the characters, all worked together to drive the tragedy forward. The language used is positively brutal. Every imaginable racial slur is used by nearly everyone throughout the course of the play. My modern ears were burning. Also the black characters are all written in “dialect” as was common in the 30’s, with the exception of the educated Bert. Although the play takes place after the Civil War and slavery's “end”, the social structure on this plantation retains most of the features of the antebellum south.
This play has a standout role for an African-american woman in her 40’s in Cora, not something you can say about many plays. She seems a weak character at first but in act two has some demanding and potent monologues. Like The Crucible, the audience wishes desperately that there was some way for the characters to see each other’s point of view, but time and custom have forged their paths so completely and thoroughly that there are no options for these characters to behave other than they do. Were they to, the audience would suffer a betrayal that would render the play trivial and stupid. By sticking to the truth of the events, time, and characters, the play moves out of melodrama and into something approaching a forceful tragedy. I would very much like to see this play produced.