The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men is set in Harlem, in a run-down barbershop on 126th Street. The play is divided into two acts of about equal length. The staging is very simple and naturalistic. The barbershop owned by Russell Parker is dominated by a barber’s throne, which Parker appropriates whenever he is in the room. Elsewhere around the shop are a wall mirror, several projecting shelves, a clothes rack, a card table, and six chairs. Off to the right is a back room with an old refrigerator, a desk, and a bed. A short flight of stairs on the far right leads up to living quarters, and a door signals a set of stairs coming up from a small basement. There are no symbolic or expressionistic effects and no dramatic physical activity, except the checkers games that Parker and Jenkins play and a mildly suggestive sexual scene between Parker and his girlfriend. The language is frequently obscene.

The play opens with Jenkins entering for a game of checkers with Parker, a ritual that they engage in frequently. Parker has yet to win a game. Their dialogue is easy and natural, the companionable chatting of two men who are perfectly at ease with themselves and with each other in the barbershop setting. A comic note is struck when Parker sees his daughter, Adele, coming home from work. He makes Jenkins hide under the bed in the back room. This subterfuge is necessary because Adele is constantly after Parker and his two sons to stir themselves and find jobs. Parker knows that if he is caught playing checkers, he will get a scolding.

Since the death of Parker’s wife, Doris, Adele has been the breadwinner, supporting her idle father and the two layabout boys, Theo and Bobby. Supporting three able-bodied men—assuming her mother’s role—has begun to grate on Adele’s nerves. At one point she angrily bursts out, “But then I found myself doing the same things she had done, taking care of three men, trying to shield them from the danger beyond that door, but who the hell ever told every black woman she was some kind of goddamn savior!

Adele walks in and immediately begins grilling Parker about his attempts to find a job that morning, attempts that he has not made. While they bicker, Theo and Bobby come in. Adele promptly begins to taunt them about their idleness. Finally, Adele tells the three of them that they have six days to find work. If they have not, she is going to change the locks on the door so that they can enter only with her permission. Adele is adamant about her proposed new rule: “I am not going to let the three of you drive me into the grave the way you did Mama.”

After a heated confrontation with the three men, Adele storms upstairs. As soon as she leaves, Jenkins comes out from under the bed. Parker had completely forgotten him, and Jenkins is angry. Not knowing that he was in the room, Adele had snapped to Parker that “most of your time is spent playing checkers with that damn Mr. Jenkins.” The man’s feelings are hurt enough that he will not stay for any more checkers games. Jenkins comes across as a decent enough man, and Adele’s contempt for him appears to be based on nothing more substantial than the opportunity for wasting time that he offers to Parker. That is certainly a minor fault, since Parker would not be doing anything but loafing in his shop anyway.

Theo has never displayed any perseverance. His father grumbles at him for having gone from one thing...

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Ceremonies in Dark Old Men Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cherry, Wilsonia E. D. “Lonne Elder III.” In Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Vol. 38 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. One of the longest sketches of Elder’s life and his career as a dramatist. The commentary on Ceremonies in Dark Old Men stresses the play’s depiction of the resilience of the American black family.

Fontenot, Chester. “Mythic Patterns in River Niger and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.” MELUS 7 (Spring, 1980): 41-49. An excellent piece of formal analysis that does much to reveal the structure of the play.

Gant, Liz. “An Interview with Lon Elder.” Black World 22 (April, 1973): 38-48. One of the most extensive of the interviews Elder has given. Very informative.

Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Comprehensive overview of African American dramatic production; places Elder both within the context of the 1960’s and within the broader context of American and African American theater as a whole.

Jeffers, Lance. “Bullins, Baraka, and Elder: The Dawn of Grandeur in Black Drama.” CLA Journal 16 (September, 1972): 32-48. Fine appreciation of three African American writers who rose to prominence in the 1960’s.

King, Woodie, Jr. The Impact of Race: Theatre and Culture. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003. Takes a cultural-studies approach to African American theater studies, tracing the functioning of race within African American drama and the function of that drama within American and global culture.

Turner, Darwin T. “Lonne Elder III.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by James Vinson. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. This early recognition of Elder contains one of the most sensitive readings of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.