Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
In White America is a historical play that provides a sweeping overview of how racism, directed against African Americans, affected both blacks and whites from colonial times to the immediate aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. The play is a skillful blending of narration, documents, dialogue, and song designed to raise the historical consciousness of the audience. It is the story of individual black Americans throughout American history, who, as the author states, “managed to endure as men while being defined as property.” In this, Martin Duberman achieves his stated objective of combining “the evocative power of the spoken word with the confirming power of the historical fact.”
Clearly the hypocrisy of white America is a dominant theme running throughout the play. Lofty ideals of “unalienable rights” proclaimed at the nation’s birth were in direct opposition to real conditions faced by African Americans first shackled by slavery and then lashed by Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in post-Civil War America. This hypocrisy is reflected not only by congressmen and senators but also by presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, and Woodrow Wilson.
However, the play’s major theme is the quest for freedom and equality. Historically, slaves’ aspirations for freedom expressed in spirituals were manifested by such “escape routes” as the Underground Railroad, Nat Turner’s Revolt, and fighting in the Civil War. Aiding in this effort were abolitionist Quakers, northern journalists and schoolteachers, and militant abolitionists such as John Brown.
After slavery, freedom meant a long struggle against institutionalized racism in order to achieve equality. Leading African American figures developed different solutions over time to achieve real freedom, and black citizens struggled against Jim Crow laws, the slavelike conditions of sharecropping, KKK terrorism, and lynching mania. In all, the play shows the progress toward freedom to be very gradual and incomplete by the mid-twentieth century.
As the audience is drawn into the emotional cataclysm of one black teenager’s experience in attempting to integrate a Little Rock high school, they are forced to confront the theme that gradual and token change in regard to civil rights, at least in the deep South, has not achieved a great deal. The entire cast reiterates the theme that change is long overdue and the time for action to bring about racial equality is now.