Lonne Elder III Elder, Lonne III - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Lonne Elder III 1931-1996

An American dramatist and screenwriter, Elder was the author of works designed to raise audience consciousness of racial tensions in modern America. He accomplished this goal by documenting the hardships that generations of prejudice have imposed on the African American community. His works explore the question of black identity by focusing on the theme of the resilience of the black family. In his 1969 play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Elder depicted a traumatized ghetto family as a microcosm of African American experience. This dynamic is also at the heart of his 1972 screenplay for the motion picture Sounder, an adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel about the bigotry and prejudice faced by a black family in the Depression-era South. As Elder himself claimed, his career shift from dramatist to screenwriter reflected his search for a wider audience for his message of social awareness.


Born in Americus, Georgia, in 1931, Elder moved with his family to a farm in New Jersey while still an infant. His father died when Elder was ten, and his mother was killed in a car accident in 1943. Orphaned, Elder went to live with his aunt and uncle in Jersey City, where he helped his uncle, a numbers runner, by following behind him with the betting slips. After high school Elder briefly attended New Jersey State Teachers College, withdrawing before the end of his first year. He moved to Harlem at nineteen and enrolled in courses at the Jefferson School and the New School for Social Research. Drafted into the U.S. army in 1952, he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. At nearby Fisk University he was introduced to poet and teacher Robert Hayden, who encouraged Elder's early literary efforts by helping him structure his short stories and poems. After his discharge from the military Elder returned to Harlem, where he held a succession of odd jobs—waiter, dock worker, poker dealer in an after-hours club—while beginning his career as a writer. Joining the Harlem Writers Guild, he came into contact with such playwrights as Lorraine Hansberry and Douglas Turner Ward. Elder shared an apartment with Ward between 1953 and 1956, an experience that encouraged him to write for the theater. He also studied acting during this period and worked with a summer stock company directed by Alice Childress, another member of the Harlem Writers Guild. Hansberry then asked Elder to audition for the role of Bobo in her play A Raisin in the Sun; he got the role and held it for two years, on Broadway and on tour, and the steady income allowed him to concentrate on his writing In 1963 Elder obtained a job as a staff writer on the CBS television series Camera Three. He married Betty Gross that same year; the couple had a son, David Dubois, before divorcing in 1967.

Between 1963 and 1969 Elder produced his greatest volume of work for the theater. An early version of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men received its first public reading at the New Dramatists Committee in 1965 and was performed at Wagner College, Staten Island, in July of the same year. Subsequently Elder received a series of grants and fellowships that enabled him to study drama and filmmaking at Yale University from 1965 to 1967. Around this time, the New York Mobilization for Youth commissioned him to write a play. The result, Charades on East Fourth Street, is a drama about a gang of black youths that holds a white policeman captive; it was first performed at Expo '67 in Montreal, Canada. Elder next obtained a job as a staff writer for the television series N.Y.P.D., which allowed him to remain in New York and strengthen his ties to the theater. From 1967 to 1969 he served as coordinator of the playwrights and directors unit of the Negro Ensemble Company (N.E.C.). His reworked version of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, performed by the N.E.C. in 1969, marked Elder's professional debut as a playwright. The drama opened to critical acclaim and received several awards, including the Outer Drama Critics Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award. The play also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination; it finished second in the voting. Elder married Judith Ann Johnson, a member of the N.E.C, cast of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, in 1969; shortly thereafter he moved to the West Coast to concentrate on writing feature films.

In 1972 Sounder, Elder's adaptation of William H. Armstrong's Newberry Prize-winning novel, was released to critical acclaim. His screenplay was nominated for an Academy award for best screenplay based on material from another medium. Elder next revised Ceremonies in Dark Old Men for a 1975 television production, which won a Christopher Award. Later he completed work on the 1976 release Sounder, Part 2. Other film work includes Bustin' Loose, a 1981 adaptation of a screen story by Richard Pryor. Elder returned to the stage with Splendid Mummer, the story of Ira Aldridge, a black Shakespearean actor who left America in the 1820s to pursue his career in Europe. In 1990 he produced the musical King, with music by Richard Blackford and lyrics by Maya Angelou and Alistair Beaton. Elder died in 1996.


Critics hold that despite his many contributions to film and television, Elder's reputation is based chiefly on one dramatic work, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. The "ceremonies" in the title refer to "rituals of survival," the mechanisms by which blacks try to reconcile their own personal values in a world dominated by whites. The two-act comedy-drama explores the various options facing a black ghetto family struggling for economic viability and self-fulfillment. The poverty and despair of the ghetto are evident in the setting: the virtually empty Harlem barbershop of Russell B. Parker. An ex-vaudeville dancer, Parker passes his time playing checkers with his friend Jenkins, maintaining the charade that he is a barber because he cannot face a menial job in the white business world. The humiliation of working for "the man" also keeps Parker's two sons unemployed. Theopolis, an aspiring painter, dreams of becoming an artist, while Bobby concentrates his efforts on becoming "the best shoplifter in Harlem." The family is supported by Parker's daughter, Adele, who works as a secretary. Adele precipitates the play's action by threatening to withdraw her financial support if the men in the family do not find jobs. Theo and Bobby convince their father to form an alliance with a racketeer, Blue Haven, and they turn the barbershop into a front for Haven's illegal operations. Over the objections of Adele, the men proceed to become involved in numbers running, shoplifting, and the illegal manufacture and sale of corn whiskey. The family enjoys a brief period of prosperity, but the endeavor ends in tragedy. Bobby is killed while attempting a robbery, and the shattered family must somehow find a way to carry on.


Critical response to Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was overwhelmingly positive. Richard Watts of the New York Post called it the "best play of the new season," and Edith Oliver of the New Yorker suggested that it was perhaps the finest first effort by an American playwright. Much of the credit for the enthusiastic response may be attributed to the performances of the 1969 N.E.C, cast, directed by Edmund Cambridge. The acting, which featured Douglas Turner Ward as Russell, was widely praised. Several critics noted that the N.E.C, seemed particularly attuned to Elder's work, a sense heightened by the proximity of the Harlem setting. While some commentators labeled the play "overlong," "repetitious," and "predictable," these were but minor reservations about a work the same reviewers hailed as "powerful," "moving," and "important." Reviewers praised Elder's realistic characters, observing that because they contained both personal weaknesses and strengths, they defied stereotypes. What some critics decried as naturalism, Elder labeled "more akin to exalted realism"; and most critics would agree with Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, who extolled Elder's "trueness of observation" and his "complete avoidance of self-pity." The greatness of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, according to critics, is that it embodies the themes of love and social injustice not in symbols or vague abstractions, but in characters that exist as vivid representations of real people.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


A Hysterical Turtle in a Rabbit Race 1961

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men 1965; revised, 1969

Kissing Rattlesnakes Can Be Fun 1966

Charades on East Fourth Street 1967

Seven Comes Up, Seven Comes Down 1977-78

Splendid Mummer 1988

King [with Richard Blackford, Maya Angelou, and Alistair Beaton] 1990


Melinda (screenplay) 1972

Sounder [adaptor; from the novel of the same name by William H. Armstrong] (screenplay) 1972

Cermonies in Dark Old Men (teleplay) 1975

Sounder, Part 2 (screenplay) 1976

A Woman Called Moses [adaptor; from a book by Marcy Heidish] (teleplay) 1978

Bustin' Loose (screenplay) 1981

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Interview with Elder (1969)

SOURCE: An interview with Lonne Elder III, in The Black American Writer, Volume II: Poetry and Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Everett/Edwards, 1969, pp. 219-26.

[The following interview was conducted on 8 May 1969, a few months after the opening of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. Elder discusses the play, critical responses to his work, and his views on black theater.]

[C. W. E. Bigsby]: How did you begin your writing career?

[Lonne Elder]: I first started writing short stories and poetry in about 1953-4 when I went to live in Harlem. Before that I had lived in Jersey City. It was in...

(The entire section is 2951 words.)

Ceremonies In Dark Old Men

(Drama Criticism)


Clive Barnes (review date 6 February 1969)

SOURCE: "Troubles of the Oppressed," in The New York Times, 6 February 1969, p. 33.

[Ceremonies in Dark Old Men was first performed as a workshop reading in 1965. It received its initial staging on 4 February 1969 in a production by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York. In the following, Barnes applauds nearly every aspect of the play. "It is moving, and realistic, " he declares; "And it is no less moving because the honesty has an ironic, bitter aftertaste. "]

We have known for decades that Negroes were natural actors; we are now busy discovering that they...

(The entire section is 9398 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)

Bosworth, Patricia. "Life Is Dngerous but Beautiful, Too." The New York Times (16 February 1969): D3.

Includes a biographical profile of Elder and an interview with the playwright in which he comments on the success of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.

Disch, Thomas M. Review of Splendid Mummer. The Nation (14 May 1988): 689-90.

Assessment of Elder's one-man play about the nineteenth-century actor Ira Aldridge. Disch considers Adridge "a bit of a bore" but concedes that "Elder does bring the man. to life, and gives him a plausible style, fustian but honest withal."

Erlanger, Steven. "A Playwright Honors His Past and His People."...

(The entire section is 330 words.)