Lonne Elder III

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In all Lonne Elder III’s writings, such as his screenplay Sounder, his depictions of family life have been outstanding for their realism, compassion, and penetration, while those works that do not describe family connections, such as his play Charades on East Fourth Street, have been notably lacking in inspiration.

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men

His major play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, deals with the survival of the black family under duress. For Elder, the family is not a collection of autonomous individuals but a dynamic set of relationships. In Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Elder focuses on how each family member’s decisions crucially hinge on the words and actions of each other member. The playwright indicates, moreover, that under stressful conditions, the equilibrium of such a black family is a fragile thing, because the family is a working unit in a larger society that is controlled by white people to the disadvantage of black persons. The drama records how, under increasing pressure, the family disintegrates in some ways while it grows in others. Thus, Elder combines social criticism with a subtle look at the inner workings of families.

In much of post-World War II American theater, including such works as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945), the family is portrayed as entrapping and destructive of individualism. The family may stifle a son by forcing him to support it, as in Williams’s play, or it may ruin his life by giving him false views, as happens to Biff in Miller’s work; in either case, however, the family is inimical to self-reliance. By contrast, in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, each family member has a role that is both constricting and sustaining, while each member either grows or diminishes as a result of the family’s overall adaptation to the outside world.

At first sight, the family in Elder’s play is organized in stereotypical “culture of poverty” fashion, with a female, the daughter Adele, being the de facto head of the house, since she supports the other, male family members. The two sons with the father, the nominal ruler of the house, are shiftless characters; the father, Russell, presides over a defunct barbershop, while his elder son, Theo, is a hapless loser, and the younger one, Bobby, a sneak thief. As the story develops, however, the audience learns that the three are not as parasitical as they first appeared. The father, for example, had been the mainstay of the family, earning a living as a professional dancer until his legs failed and he was unceremoniously dropped from his place. When viewers see the father returning from a day of job-hunting humiliation, they also learn that, as an over-the-hill black man, he has little hope of finding work.

The thrust of the play, however, is not to exonerate any individual but to show that the current operation of the family is, given the way the odds are stacked against prosperity for minority group members, probably the best possible. This view is shown by the simple, but fundamental, device of ending the first act with the beginning of a basic change in the household arrangements (as Theo sets up a viable, if illegal, business) and then jumping ahead a few months for the second act. In this way, in the second act, the audience can see how Theo’s changed status, as he takes on a more manly role in the family and supports the others by working long hours, affects the personalities and actions of each...

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of the others, often adversely. Adele, for example, no longer having to bear tremendous responsibility, lets herself go, running around with a notorious skirt chaser. Bobby, who never felt threatened by his brother, since Theo was as ambitionless as he was, now begins sullenly competing with him, becoming a big-time hoodlum.

This is not to say that, because there is more tension in the family after Theo begins working than previously, the old organization was better. Rather, Elder indicates—especially toward the end of the second act, when the family begins to calm down and Adele gives up her playboy boyfriend—that each set of family relationships is highly interdependent and serves as an essential means to help the members orient themselves to the outside world. Elder also indicates that each transition between different familial “steady states” will involve special periods of stress.

In his plays, it is clear that Elder is critical of the position that black persons are forced to occupy in the American economy, and it also may be evident that his anger is more latent than expressed. Rather than have his characters complain about the system, he makes the audience experience the constant feeling of failure that hovers over a family whose members are not fully employed, especially when, to a large degree, their unemployment is not their fault. In relation to one character, however, Elder’s social criticism is less oblique. This character, Blue Haven, is a self-styled black activist, who, curiously, is not interested in fighting injustice and oppression through protests and political action; rather, he prefers to steal the clients of white people’s liquor and gambling establishments by setting up bootleg and numbers operations of his own. In this portrayal, Elder reveals a satirical side to his talent and shows that he is as critical of black persons as he is of white ones, insofar as he shows that black residents of Harlem are more interested in supporting Blue Haven’s “enterprises” than the businesses run by more bona fide progressives.

Elder’s treatment of this character also reveals another point about his methods. Throughout most of the play, Blue Haven obtains little sympathy from the audience, being not only a sharper but also a hypocrite. Yet in a powerful monologue that he delivers in a confrontation with Theo, who accuses Blue Haven of exploiting him, Blue Haven presents his own tortured dreams, showing that he is capable of much deeper feeling than it would have been thought possible. This emotional monologue lifts him in the audience’s estimation and establishes Elder’s goal of giving every character his or her due.

The generosity in Elder’s treatment of his characters, seen not only in the way he allows each to develop a voice but also in his mutualistic conception of the family, does have certain drawbacks. As none of the characters is larger than the others, none, in this tale of wrecked hopes, gains the type of tragic stature obtained by the leading characters in the Williams and Miller plays mentioned above. That is to say, none has the broken splendor of a Willy Loman, because, as each family member’s choices are heavily dependent on others’ situations, no character ever has to face the anxiety of bearing total responsibility for his or her actions. Thus, a character can never rise to the grandeur associated with an acceptance of such responsibility. Furthermore, as a number of critics have noted, Elder’s evenhandedness sometimes hints at a distance between him and his creations, since his equal treatment of each problem reveals that he was not aroused by any of his characters’ tribulations. Such an attitude can lead to the pathos and power of a given dramatic situation not being fully asserted.

One compensation for these drawbacks is compassion. Elder refuses to make any of his characterizations, even of such comic figures as Blue Haven, into caricatures. He extends to each a measure of respect and understanding. Further, Elder’s undistorted, accepting view of his characters and their world matches their general realism. His characters are aware of their own and others’ limitations and are largely accustomed to, though hurt by, their social inferiority. The family members tend to treat each new vicissitude with relatively good humor. Thus, near the end of the first act, when everyone is momentarily glum about future prospects, the father, having leeringly accepted Theo’s proposal that he work with Blue Haven but being none too happy about it, engages in a little tap dancing. Although his steps are clumsy, the boys cheer him on, caught up in their infectious attempt to celebrate a dubious alliance. The frequent joking of the father and sons works to this same end, lightening the burdens they must bear.

Charades on East Fourth Street

Elder’s ability to create a multisided situation is found in his other published drama, Charades on East Fourth Street. This play belongs to a genre, delved into by black playwrights of the 1960’s, that might be called “ritual drama.” Ritual dramas were a component of the rebellious Black Arts movement that emphasized theater as a social ritual, such as the Catholic Mass, that worked to renew symbolically a society’s cohesion. These works provided a way of going back to the sources of theater, as is evident in such dramas as the medieval mystery plays. Ritual dramas retold the story of Christ’s passion, and, as the centerpiece of a worldview, its reenactment served to rededicate viewers to a common purpose as they reempathized with their binding social myth. Numerous modern authors, such as T. S. Eliot, have turned back to the roots of drama, but African American writers often gave this turn a perverse twist. Undoubtedly, one of the most brilliant of the black writers’ ritual dramas was Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964) by LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka ). In this play, a black college student flirts with an initially willing white woman on a subway, but the game turns ugly, and she stabs him. All the other white passengers join her in disposing of the corpse. The ritual, then, is the sacrifice of a young African American male, portrayed as the glue holding together white society. Thus, Dutchman, pretending to reveal white America’s ideological foundations, actually serves up an indictment of how, it claims, the United States can unite only by scapegoating its minorities.

It may be surmised from this plot recapitulation that such plays could easily become shrill. Although this is not the case with Dutchman, because of the author’s use of three-dimensional characters, with the woman becoming a fury only in the last minutes, the same cannot be said for Elder’s Charades on East Fourth Street. At points, his characters grow strident when they lecture one another about police brutality. This short play revolves around the actions of a band of black youths who have kidnapped a white policeman who they believe is guilty of raping a teenage girl. Then, in keeping with the title, Charades on East Fourth Street, the youths force the officer to act out a series of degrading scenes. For example, they strip him and put him in bed with a teenage girl, saying that they will send photographs to his wife. It can be seen that in this sexual charade, he is acting out the same part that he supposedly plays in his oppression of the African American community.

As the play progresses, it grows more complex. It turns out, for example, that the gang has grabbed the wrong police officer. Furthermore, the audience learns that the majority of these black teenagers are not convinced of the utility of this kidnapping and are involved in it only because they have been pressured into acting by their leader. In a short (one-act) play such as this one, however, there is no room for excessive ambiguity. The fact that Elder does not give his black revolutionaries much conviction—the kind of fanaticism that Baraka’s characters often display—takes the wind out of the story’s sails. Without the time to develop the gang’s interplay or the anger to make the play an indictment, Elder heroically fails at a genre for which he has no aptitude.

It could be said that Elder’s lack of success at agitational drama indicates that, for him, to write well he must follow his bent, which comes from depicting the complexity of characters and the networks they form. His defense of the African American family in his most important play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, does not rest on any encomiums of individual family members’ virtues but on an insistence on the value of the family as a mechanism offering support and solidarity in the face of a hostile society. The worth of Elder’s works lies in the evocative power of his affirmation, which itself rests on a sophisticated analysis of how a family functions as one, composed of the relationships of people rather than of people standing alone.

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Elder, Lonne III