Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Taking of Miss Janie is the story of a decade as experienced by its youth. It presents a group of college students who are struggling to find their place in society. Some of the characters face the problems of interpersonal relationships; others try to find a viable way of causing political and social change. All begin the decade with hope and energy, a sense of purpose, but these qualities are quickly dissipated as each confronts the personal responsibility for whatever change there is to be.

Bullins’s work is a powerful exploration of an important era. The 1960’s, suggests the play, presented the country with a missed opportunity to cure itself of racism and other political and social ills. The attitudes resulting from years of separation make it impossible for the people in the play to come together and attack the injustices they see with such clarity. They desire a better world but lack the commitment to fight for it. Coupled with this failure in commitment is confusion. Like Monty and Janie, America’s youthful revolutionaries are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the issues they attack. They begin the struggle filled with youthful optimism and end in complete disillusionment. Finding that she can never have Monty, Peggy refuses involvement with all men. Mort, pushed to the brink, can no longer maintain the mask of jovial partnership with blacks and betrays his true allegiance to things as they are and were. Janie, who for years was sustained by the belief that she and Monty could maintain a relationship that ignored the inherited ugliness of racism, must finally confront the fact that both she and he are its victims and, therefore, destined to destroy each other.

Rather than a conventional story, The Taking of Miss Janie is the exploration of an event. The event is the party, and the action is in the interplay of the various characters that triggers the monologues through which they reveal themselves. Structurally, the work owes more to music than to drama, as it moves from ensemble, with all the characters together, to solo and duet, as the various characters, separately or in pairs, share their thoughts with the audience in direct addresses.