Mule Bone was written in 1930. It was a joint collaboration between noted African-American authors Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes who joined forces to write a play based on a folktale, ‘‘The Bone of Contention,’’ that Hurston had discovered in her anthropological studies. Both writers conceived the play as representative of authentic black comedy. Shortly after the play’s creation, however, Hurston copyrighted the play in her name only. The two authors had a falling out and did not speak to one another again. A legal battle ensued and, because of those legal issues, the play could not be produced during either writer’s lifetime.
Mule Bone remained locked away. Few people read the play and it was largely forgotten until critic and historian Henry Louis Gates discovered the play in the early-1980s. Mule Bone was not performed on stage until 1991.
In many ways, Mule Bone has the ability to evoke both discussion and controversy. Hurston and Hughes felt that by incorporating a black folktale and southern black vernacular English into their play, they could refute a racist tradition of black characters as ignorant. However, when the play was finally developed for the stage more than sixty years later, there were concerns that this comedy might, instead, recall stereotypes and bring back the very issues that the authors had hoped to refute. It was thought that the play, as viewed by an audience in the 1990s, might appear to cast blacks as backward or ignorant. The director sought to mitigate that problem by including a section of Hurston’s writings that explained her views on black vernacular English. Each writer brought separate talents to the writing of Mule Bone. Hughes was primarily a poet; Hurston was an essayist and novelist. Their quarrel ended what might have been a successful collaboration. As it stands today, Mule Bone is still considered a significant work of drama and is notable as an early work of African-American theatre.
Act I takes place in the area immediately in front of Joe Clarke’s store. On this Saturday afternoon, a number of men are gathered on the porch talking, chewing sugar cane, whittling, or playing cards. There are children playing in the dirt in front of the store and women, who are shopping, are entering and leaving. The opening of this act introduces a number of minor characters who enter the stage for a few moments and then exit. Mrs. Roberts is the first to interrupt the group of men gossiping in front of the store. She is a huge woman whose role is to badger and whine her way into convincing Clarke to extend her more credit and more meat. After she leaves with her meat, the conversation turns to a mule bone that is brought into the store.
The audience learns that the bone is from a legendary mule. The mule is remembered as especially strong, stubborn, and even evil. Then the men began to speak of Daisy. This young woman is especially beautiful, but the discussion changes when two other young women enter the stage. Both of these women, Teets and Bootsie, used to date Jim and Dave. But both men are now enamored of Daisy instead.
In this manner, the audience learns that two young men, the best of friends since childhood, are now courting the same young woman. The audience also learns that Jim and Dave are not as close as they once were and that Daisy has come between them. Daisy enters briefly and is asked which man she prefers, but she declines to pick one. The men gathered on Clarke’s porch continue gossiping, and a brief discussion about religion ensues. This establishes that there is some conflict in town between the Methodists and the Baptists. The audience also learns that there is no jail, and that the town marshal is really an errand boy for Clarke, who controls most elements of the town.
Eventually Jim and Dave enter. They have made some money playing and singing, and when Daisy appears and asks them to entertain, they do so. There is some jealous banter between the two men, but it is controlled until Jim notices Dave dancing in a corner with Daisy. Jim quits playing, and the two men begin to argue over the Daisy. Dave and Daisy enter the store to buy soda, and as they exit, Dave accidentally steps on Jim’s foot. The two men begin to fight and Jim strikes Dave on the head with the mule bone, knocking him out. Clarke orders the marshal to arrest Jim and to lock him up in the barn.
Act II, scene 1
The action in this scene occurs on the street. Notice of the pending trial is being nailed to a tree. A number of women are gathered and begin talking. The audience learns from this conversation that Clarke is very antagonistic toward the Methodists, especially their minister, Elder Simms. The women state that this is because Simms is the only one who will stand up to Clarke, who has had control over the town since he bought land and built the basis of the town.
When Clarke enters, the women question him about trying Jim. Clarke defends his actions as maintaining order. The entry of other town women results in a confrontation that is largely accusations about religious differences. Even the town children enter into the fray and begin quarreling. At the end of the scene, both Methodists and Baptists exit the stage to begin preparing for the trial.
Act II, scene 2
The trial is set in the Baptist church. This scene opens with a great deal of arguing that threatens to become violent. Two of the women need to be restrained. Clarke attempts to maintain order but has only minimal success. When he asks that all testifying witnesses move to the front of the church, almost everyone present rises to do so. When questioned, their response is that although they were not present when the incident occurred, they have a biblical right to testify. An additional problem presents itself when Daisy’s mother refuses to allow her daughter’s name to be spoken in court.
Finally the testimony begins with Marshal Lum, who admits he did not see anything. In fact, no one who is called upon wishes to testify against Jim. Finally, Dave is forced to tell what happened. When it begins to look like Jim might be found guilty, Elder Simms, the Methodist minister, begins a defense that centers on the bible, which fails to identify a mule bone as a weapon. Simms reasons that Jim cannot be guilty of assault, since he had no weapon (or at least none that is recognized in the Bible). Elder Childers, the Baptist minister, argues that an ass bone killed thousands according to the bible and that a mule is descended from an ass; therefore, since offspring are always more dangerous than their parents, the mule bone is a dangerous weapon. Clarke seizes on this latter argument, declaring Jim guilty and ordering that he be banished from town.
This act opens just outside town where Jim is preparing to leave. Daisy enters on her way into town to learn of the trial. She is clearly upset at the turn of events, since she claims to never have desired any animosity between Jim and Dave. Dave enters, and the two men begin bickering about Daisy. Daisy is asked to choose, and after Jim offers the most romantic pledge, she chooses him. But upon her insistence that he get a real job and quit playing his guitar, Jim hands her over to Dave. Daisy appears to accept this change easily enough, but then Dave insists that he—like Jim—does not want to work as a yardman or handyman, as Daisy wishes.
In the end, Dave would rather sing and dance than labor as Daisy’s husband. Rejected, Daisy leaves the stage, Dave and Jim decide to continue their entertaining together, and both decide to return to town. Although Jim has been banished, it is clear that neither man fears Clarke or his authority.
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