Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

Although written in 1931, Mule Bone was not performed on stage until 1991. In those intervening sixty years the world changed a great deal. Where Hurston and Hughes had envisioned a need for authentic black theatre in 1931, playwrights like August Wilson (The Piano Lesson), Amiri Baraka, (Dutchman), and Alice...

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Although written in 1931, Mule Bone was not performed on stage until 1991. In those intervening sixty years the world changed a great deal. Where Hurston and Hughes had envisioned a need for authentic black theatre in 1931, playwrights like August Wilson (The Piano Lesson), Amiri Baraka, (Dutchman), and Alice Childress (The Wedding Band) had stepped in to fill the void. Black theatre had moved from minstrel shows to dramas that reflect the black experience, and Mule Bone, which sixty years earlier might have been the start of black theatre, now seems more like a dated epilogue. This is the problem most often noted in the mixed reviews that greeted the play’s debut at the Barrymore Theatre in February of 1991. In his review for the New York Times, Frank Rich found the play ‘‘innocuous.’’ Rich stated that the play was ‘‘so watered down and bloated by various emendations that one can never be entirely sure if Lincoln Center Theatre is conscientiously trying to complete and resuscitate a lost, unfinished work or is merely picking its carcass to confer a classy literary pedigree on a broad, often bland quasi-musical seemingly pitched to a contemporary Broadway audience.’’

While acknowledging that the play occasionally makes clear what Hurston and Hughes intended, Rich argued that the play appears dated. However, Rich did find that the trial scene in Act II and the final scene between Jim, Dave, and Daisy were especially good. As his review concluded, Rich summed up the problems with Mule Bone: ‘‘the production design is mostly hokey, the performances often aspire to be cute, and even the fisticuffs are not played for keeps. While the authors intended Mule Bone to be funny, this production confuses corny affability with folk humor.’’

The Daily News’s Howard Kissel found the play more likeable than Rich, but he also noted the ‘‘aimless first act.’’ In praising the play, Kissel pointed out that the work’s strongest features are its ‘‘earthy dialogue and the irresistible humor.’’ Noting the especially large and strong cast, Kissel observed that there was ‘‘an abounding affection for the material and for this irretrievable, innocent past.’’

Another positive review was offered by Clive Barnes of the New York Post. Barnes stated that ‘‘‘Mule Bone’ positively sparkles with its rich dialect and vivid language, and it shines with the unaffected simplicity of a folk tale.’’ Barnes also enjoyed the music (something many other reviews were divided on) and the dancing, which he felt added ‘‘savor to the play.’’ But the strongest elements of the play, said Barnes, are ‘‘the sheer vigor of its life, the hyperbole of its language, the crosscut of its genial insults, the sharp-etched caricatures of its characters. And, of course, the acting.’’

Offering a contrasting view, Linda Winer of the New York Newsday suggested that Mule Bone ‘‘missed its real time and now feels more like a vivid work of archeology than a universal work of theatre.’’ She pointed out that the play had ‘‘no tension, not much shape, just a 30-member cast of experts dipping deep into their history to reclaim a tradition.’’ Among the problems, stated Winer, are ‘‘the weak plot and a lack of dramatic momentum.’’ An additional problem is that ‘‘much of the first act’s nonstop chatter was hard to understand from the fifth row.’’ Winer stated that the play’s success may depend on the audience’s patience ‘‘for caricature farce and one’s willingness to hang around townfolk for a couple of hours and watch them amuse themselves.’’

John Beaufort, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, had few reservations about recommending Mule Bone. Citing the play’s ‘‘exuberance,’’ Beaufort singled out the ‘‘animated dialogue scenes’’ and the play’s music for special note and referred to the play’s debut as a ‘‘theatrical event.’’ Proving that no two reviewers see or hear a play in quite the same way, Edwin Wilson’s review in the Wall Street Journal referred to Mule Bone as ‘‘a pleasant but uneventful depiction of life in the small town of Eatonville, Fla., in the 1920s.’’ Wilson stated that the ‘‘songs are mildly appealing but largely incongruous’’ but that the production lacks fire. Citing the last act as ‘‘sustained drama,’’ Wilson stated that the play should have ‘‘gotten on track well before its final 15 minutes.’’

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