The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A two-act play, In White America is divided into the century prior to the American Civil War and the century that followed the war’s end. In epic style, it depicts the struggles of pre-Civil War abolitionist movements, the era of Reconstruction, early twentieth century racism and segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. As the curtain opens a white man reads the date from a newspaper (January 12, 1964) as the pros and cons of racial integration are debated among three black and three white characters. The opening scene concludes with the white man predicting violence and a black woman singing “Oh Freedom.”

The play then begins its chronological story, drawing its text and characters from historical documents that the playwright notes are paraphrased only “where a word or two was absolutely necessary for clarity or transition.” The action starts with African American slaves aboard a slave vessel in the mid-eighteenth century as the ship’s doctor describes the horrid conditions faced by slaves during the Middle Passage. The horrific conditions described prompt a late seventeenth century Quaker woman to call for the abolition of the trade, while two congressmen debate the pros and cons of the petition. Although the petition is tabled by Congress, the audience watches Thomas Jefferson reflect on the issues involved and the place of African Americans in American life. He predicts that the hour of emancipation is approaching but concludes that the inferiority of blacks makes it impossible to govern them in the same manner as whites.

The living conditions of African American slaves, along with their worldview and their aspirations, are revealed in a number of slave interviews and letter exchanges between escaped slaves and their former masters. A white minister from Canterbury, Connecticut, Samuel May, describes one racist treatment of free blacks in the North: They are denied any form of organized schooling. Court statements by Nat Turner and John Brown, two eighteenth century men who used violence to fight slavery, are included in act 1, as are the statements of Sojourner Truth, an illiterate former slave who, in 1851, tied the antislavery...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play is a carefully crafted synthesis of document excerpts, dialogue, background narration, and powerful spirituals designed to sensitize the audience to the two-hundred-year struggle of African Americans. Words spoken in the play are powerful because they draw from historical truth.

Dividing the cast along color lines is effective in showing, at the beginning of the play, differences in opinion, and at the play’s conclusion, uniformity in the belief that racial equality is long overdue. The use of the cast in portraying longer scenes drawn from social history (for example, slave life, common soldier and sharecropper interviews, the integration of Central High School) reinforces the humanistic element. Historical documents provide the material for constructing more numerous but much shorter scenes.

While real historical figures fade rapidly into the background as the play zooms across the period of two centuries, the one figure who remains in the audience’s mind is that brave and overwhelmed teenager caught in the midst of the school integration crisis. The innocence of youth, the law, and the impartial rationality of justice must be protected from the forces of irrational hatred, fear, and injustice. The audience is brought to the realization that they are at a historical turning point. There is no longer time to rationalize about gradual progress. They can either assist the hate-crazed mob or take action to change white America into an equally blended America.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cain, Paul D. Leading the Parade: Conversations with America’s Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Dawson, Gary Fisher. Documentary Theatre in the United States: An Historical Survey and Analysis of Its Content, Form, and Stagecraft. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Duberman, Martin, ed. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Duberman, Martin. The Uncompleted Past. New York: Random House, 1969.

Finkbine, Roy E., ed. Sources of the African American Past. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1996.

Franklin, John H., and Alfred Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Robinson, Paul A. Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.