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Henry Louis Gates Jr. (review date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Why the Mule Bone Debate Goes On,” in Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Gloria L. Cronin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 225-28.

[In the following review, originally published in the New York Times on February 10, 1991, Gates considers Hurston's desire to portray authentic black culture in Mule Bone.]

Controversy over the play Mule Bone has existed ever since it was written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in 1930. Not only did an authors' quarrel prevent the play from being produced, but its exclusive use of black folk vernacular has also provoked debate. In 1984, when the play became part of the publishing project of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the editor of Hurston's complete works, he sent a copy of it to Gregory Mosher, then the artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago. When Mr. Mosher moved to the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, he brought the play with him, and eventually the theater decided to mount it. Dr. Gates and George Houston Bass, the literary executor of the Hughes estate, edited the play and served as consultants to the production. Mule Bone is being published this month to coincide with its world premiere Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. Dr. Gates, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of English at Duke University, was elected to the board of Lincoln Center Theater last spring.

For a people who seem to care so much about their public image, you would think blacks would spend more energy creating the conditions for the sort of theater and art they want, rather than worrying about how they are perceived by the larger society. But many black people still seem to believe that the images of themselves projected on television, film and stage must be policed and monitored from within. Such convictions are difficult—even painful—to change. And never more so than in the case of Mule Bone, the controversial 1930 Langston Hughes-Zora Neale Hurston play that is only now being produced for the first time, almost 60 years to the day after it was originally scheduled to open.

Why should a folk comedy about the residents of a small Florida town in the 1920's cause such anxiety? Because of its exclusive use of black vernacular as the language of drama.

In analyzing the discomfort Mule Bone has aroused over the decades, the playwright Ntozake Shange has said that Hurston's language “always made black people nervous because it reflects rural diction and syntax—the creation of a different kind of English.”

“Are we still trying to figure out what is real about ourselves that we know about that makes it too dangerous to say it in public?” she asked.

Ms. Shange was speaking at a 1988 forum at Lincoln Center at which the play was read and the merits of staging it debated—“in a post-Tawana Brawley decade,” as the theater's artistic director, Gregory Mosher, put it. Few occasions have brought together more prominent black actors, directors, writers and critics than that November reading: the actors Ruby Dee, Paul Winfield, Giancarlo Esposito and Joe Morton, and the playwrights Ed Bullins and Ron Milner were among the nearly 100 people present, along with Hughes's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, the literary executor of the Hughes estate, George Houston Bass, who died last September, and myself.

As each speaker commented, often passionately, it seemed incredible that the debate was occurring in the first place. Why would anyone believe there are still aspects of black culture that should be hidden because they are somehow “embarrassing”?

Mule Bone

(This entire section contains 1905 words.)

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Mule Bone is a revelation of life “behind the veil,” in the words of W. E. B. DuBois. It portrays what black people say and think and feel—when no white people are around—in a highly metaphorical and densely lyrical language that is as far removed from minstrelsy as a Margaux is from Ripple. It was startling to hear the play read aloud and enjoyed by actors who weren't even alive when it was written. The experience called to mind sitting in a black barbershop, or a church meeting—any one of a number of ritualized or communal settings. A sign of the boldness of Hughes (1902-1967) and Hurston (1891-1960) was that they dared to unveil one of these ritual settings and hoped to base a new idea of theater on it. Would the actors and writers in the late 1980's find poetry and music in this language, or would it call to mind minstrelsy, vaudeville and Amos ’n’ Andy? Was it Sambo and Aunt Jemima, or was it art?

Sixty years after Mule Bone was written, many black Americans still feel that their precarious political and social condition within American society warrants a guarded attitude toward the way images of their culture are projected. Even a work by two of the greatest writers in the tradition cannot escape these concerns, concerns that would lead some to censorship, presumably because of “what white people might think,” as if white racists attend black plays or read black literature to justify their prejudices. While the causes of racism are legion, literature hardly looms large among them.

Yet much of the motivation for the creation of what is now called the Harlem Renaissance—that remarkable flowering of black literature and the visual arts that occurred during the 20's, when Mule Bone was conceived—was implicitly political. Through the demonstration of sublime artistic capacity, black Americans—merely 60 years “up from slavery,” as Booker T. Washington described it—could dispel forever the nagging doubts that white Americans might have about their innate intellectual potential. Then, the argument went, blacks could easily traverse the long and bumpy road toward civil rights and social equality.

Given this burdensome role of black art, it was inevitable that debates about the nature of that art—about what today we call its “political correctness”—would be heated in black artistic circles.

These debates have proved to be rancorous, from that 20's renaissance through the battles between social realism and symbolism in the 30's to the militant black arts movement in the 60's. More recently, there have been bitter arguments about sexism, misogyny and the depiction of black women and men in the works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Michele Wallace and Ms. Shange, as well as controversies about the writings of such social critics as Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch. “The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?”—the subject of a forum published by DuBois in The Crisis magazine in the mid-20's—can be identified as the dominant concern of black artists and their critics for the last 70 years.

Black art in the 20th century, then, is a pivotal arena in which to chart worries about “political correctness.” The burden of representing “the race” in accordance with explicitly political programs can have a devastating impact on black creativity. Perhaps only black musicians and their music, until rap arose, have escaped this problem, because so much of what they composed was in nonverbal forms and because historically black music existed primarily for a black market. Categorized that way, it escaped the gaze of white Americans who, paradoxically, are the principal concern of those who would police the political effects of black art.

But such fears were not for the likes of Zora Neale Hurston. In April 1928 she wrote Hughes about her interest in a culturally authentic African-American theater, one constructed on a foundation of black vernacular: “Did I tell you about the new, the real Negro theater I plan? Well, I shall, or rather we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive 'bama Nigger.” It would be, she assured him, “a really new departure in the drama.”

Hurston and Hughes did more than share the dream of a vernacular theater. They also established themselves as creative writers and critics by underscoring the value of black folk culture, both in itself and as the basis for formal artistic traditions. But the enormous potential of this collaborative effort was never realized, because, as Hughes wrote on his manuscript copy of the play's text, “the authors fell out.”

Exactly why they “fell out” has never been clear, but the story of this abortive collaboration is one of the most curious in American literary history. For whatever reason, Hurston would copyright Mule Bone in her own name and deny Hughes's role in its writing.

The action of their play turns on a triangle of desire between a guitarist, Jim Weston (played by Kenny Neal), and an unnamed dancer (Dave Carter Eric Ware), who are best friends as well as a musical duo, and their growing rivalry for the affections of Daisy Taylor (Akosua Busia). Directed by Michael Schultz, Mule Bone has a score by Taj Mahal, who has set five Langston Hughes poems to music and composed four songs for the Lincoln Center production.

Eventually, the two friends quarrel and Weston strikes Carter with the hock bone of an “ole yaller mule.” He is arrested and his trial forms the heart of the play. The trial, and most of the second act, takes place in the Macedonia Baptist Church, converted into a courthouse for the occasion, with Mayor Joe Clark (Samuel E. Wright) presiding. The resolution of the case turns upon an amusing biblical exegesis: Can a mule bone be a criminal weapon? If so, then Weston is guilty; if not, he is innocent.

Using Judges 18:18, Carter's “attorney” (his minister, played by Arthur French) proves that since a donkey is the father of a mule, and since Samson slew 3,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and since “de further back you gits on uh mule de more dangerous he gits, an' if de jawbone slewed 3,000 people, by de time you gits back tuh his hocks it's pizen enough tuh kill 10,000.” Therefore, “I ask y'all, whut kin be mo' dangerous dan uh mule bone?” Weston is banished from the town, which was based on Hurston's own Eatonville, Fla. The final scene depicts the two friends' reconciliation after both reject Daisy's demand that her husband get a proper job.

What is so controversial about all this? Hughes and Hurston develop their drama by imitating and repeating historical black folk rituals. Black folklore and Southern rural black vernacular English served as the foundation for what they hoped would be a truly new art form. It would refute the long racist tradition, in minstresly and vaudeville, of black characters as ignorant buffoons and black vernacular English as the language of idiots, of those “darkies” who had peopled the American stage for a full century before Mule Bone.

This explains why they subtitled their play A Comedy of Negro Life and why they claimed that it was “the first real Negro folk comedy.” By using the vernacular tradition as the basis of their play—indeed, as the basis of a new theory of black drama—Hurston and Hughes sought to create a work that would undo a century of racist representations of black people.

It is clear that Hurston and Hughes believed the time had come to lift the veil that separates black culture from white, allowing black art to speak in its own voice, without prior restraint. Had they not fallen out, one can only wonder at the effect that a successful Broadway production of Mule Bone in the early 1930's might have had on the development of black theater.

Patrick Pacheco (review date 1991)

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SOURCE: “A Discovery Worth the Wait,” in Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Gloria L. Cronin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 232-36.

[In the following review, originally published in the Los Angeles Times on February 24, 1991, Pacheco acknowledges the dramatic limitations of Mule Bone but favorably assesses its first production in 1991.]

In the Broadway production of Mule Bone, the characters gathered on the teeming porch of Joe Clark's general store in Eatonville, Fla., tease and cajole each other, laughing at the small-town follies at the heart of this 1930 comedy written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Given the familiarity with which the all-black cast of 30 inhabit their roles, it seems as though these folks have been sitting on that porch forever. But Mule Bone is coming to the stage 60 years after writer Hurston and poet Hughes, the royal couple of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's, collaborated on the project. Featuring a half-dozen songs added by blues composer Taj Mahal, Mule Bone, subtitled A Comedy of Negro Life, opened earlier this month for a limited run. While some critics found the material thin, others acknowledged its place in America's cultural history.

Indeed, Mule Bone is one of the curiosities of this Broadway season—a Rip Van Winkle awakened to entertain audiences in a Spike Lee era. Based on a Hurston short story, the play was intended to liberate the stage of its time of the black stereotypes which were then popular—the cavorting “darkies” of minstrel shows, vaudeville and musical revues. In April of 1928, Hurston described her concept to Hughes as “real Negro theater … we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive “bama Nigger.”’

After sketching a couple of drafts of the three-act play, the collaborators had what has been called a “mysterious falling-out” and the production was canceled. The play lay neglected in a drawer until 1983, when Henry Louis Gates Jr., the noted Duke University English professor, brought the unfinished manuscript to Gregory Mosher, then the artistic director at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, who, intrigued, brought the script with him when he moved to Lincoln Center in 1985.

However, in the decades since the play was written, playwrights from Lorraine Hansberry (Raisin in the Sun) to August Wilson (Fences) had liberated the “stage darkie” far beyond the scope of the Mule Bone creators' intent—so much so that Hurston's “primitive” figure might now appear offensive to blacks and whites alike. In a “post-Tawana Brawley decade,” as Mosher describes it, what could be gained from a play in which blacks insulted each other in a rural dialect? Was Mule Bone simply a socially regressive museum piece better left dormant? The caricatures of Deacon Hambo, Old Man Brazzle, Lum Boger, Teets and Bootsie, among others, appeared, verbally at least, akin to characters in white-written works such as “Song of the South,” which had raised questions of their own.

Lincoln Center Theater undertook the current production only after the play was hotly debated at a 1988 reading, a discussion that revealed the sensitivity heightened by racial tensions. Some argued that hewing to “political correctness” could be devastating to black creativity, whether one was talking about Mule Bone or the portrayal of male characters in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

Prof. Gates later stated in a New York Times essay that “60 years after Mule Bone, many black Americans still feel that their precarious political and social condition within American society warrants a guarded attitude toward the way images of their culture are projected. Even a work by two of the greatest writers in the tradition cannot escape these concerns, concerns that would lead some to censorship, presumably because of ‘what white people might think.’ …”

The producers felt confident enough that the authenticity of the material would override these concerns. Michael Schultz, who after a distinguished tenure with the Negro Ensemble Company, had worked in television and film (Cooley High, Car Wash), was enlisted as director; writer George Houston Bass provided a new prologue and epilogue; and Taj Mahal set Langston Hughes' poems to music to fill in the slots where the creators had indicated there should be traditional folk songs.

Still, there were concessions to “what white people might think” in the editing of the play. The word “nigger” was deleted from the dialogue, as were all sexist allusions to women as chattel.

Other more troubling issues of “political correctness” remained. Was the play worthy of a production simply because the title page featured the names, as Gates noted, of “two of the greatest writers” of the black tradition, despite its limitations as theater? Might it not be historically important but theatrically feeble?

After all, these townfolk were in service to a leisurely driven plot, the rivalry between Jim and Dave, a song-and-dance team, for the affection of the coquettish Daisy. When guitar-twanging Jim whacks his best friend over the head with “de hock bone of an old yaller mule,” his trial divides the town's Baptists and Methodists who argue whether a mule bone can be considered, a weapon, according to the Bible. In the play's vernacular, the minister's argument clinches Jim's conviction: “Since de further back on a mule you goes, do mo' dangerous he gits, by de time you gits clear back tuh his hocks he's rankpizen (poison).” This was hardly compelling material for a Broadway audience familiar with playwrights like Wilson whose emotionally rich Piano Lesson is set in the same decade as Mule Bone.

Mosher says that he was not bothered by the skimpiness of the script Gates sent to him. Apart from the importance of producing a “lost work” of the Harlem Renaissance, he says that he was captivated by the “richness of detail and uniqueness of spirit” of the story-telling—the first instance of African-Americans themselves turning a light on a world which was merely a shadow in most dramas written up to that time.

Though the play is about a people “60 years up from slavery,” racial conflicts happen beyond the railroad tracks of Eatonville. Because Hurston's hometown was the first incorporated black municipality in the United States, the play's comic spirit could emerge untained by the victimization occurring in other communities. The central social structure of Mule Bone is determined not by color but by divisions between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, Baptists and Methodists.

“But the point of the play is not social work,” Mosher adds. “What Hughes and Hurston did was to come along and tap into an entire people's dream life. It addresses the subconscious of an entire community. It brings us no nearer to an understanding of problems of racism, but its effect on the imagination can be joyous.”

At 39, Hurston had by then mastered in her numerous short stories the colorful dialogue of a small-town existence and embroidered it with humor. A decade younger, Hughes is credited with giving the play dramatic structure, most specifically in changing the plot so that the boys come to blows over a pretty girl rather than over a turkey, as happened in the original story. This was merely a vehicle which the authors then used to elaborate their cultural legacy. In this regard, Mule Bone might be considered as representative of a community's “dream life” as Thornton Wilder's Our Town—which captured the archetypes and vernacular of New England, even as it transcended them.

“And nothing happened in the first act of Our Town either!” says Mosher, who directed a revival of it on Broadway a few years ago. “It used to drive me crazy. Why would anybody want to come back for the second act? I wondered. And yet, like in Mule Bone, they're saying these things for the first time, unraveling this tapestry of life which, at least for me, is thrilling to behold and absorb.”

While Mule Bone might strike some whites as an entertaining dip into African-Americana, the play appears to viscerally engage the blacks in the audience, attesting to its familiarity and authenticity. The enjoyment stems at least in part from the simplicity of a show in which the biggest crisis is whether or not to build a municipal jail—this before a multi-racial audience that has seen a frightening crime wave in their hometown.

“There are more burning issues out there,” says director Michael Schultz, “but this wasn't meant to address those. I've always thought of this as ‘a black valentine’ to revel in. To say to both whites and to blacks, but blacks especially, ‘this is part of your heritage, too.”’

Rousing the dream life concocted by Hughes and Hurston was no easy task, he adds. “And those guys were dead, they couldn't help.” The burden fell mostly to the cast to flesh out the broadly comic, sketchily written characters and to add whatever resonance the play might have for a 1991 audience. The difficulty of casting was exacerbated by the fact that many actors simply couldn't handle the rural dialect. Says Schultz, “It had to do with how much in touch with their roots they were.”

Theresa Merritt had no problem filling out the ample Katie Pitts, who sassily sings “Shake That Thing” in the show. “My people were from Emory, Ala., and there were Katie Pittses around there,” she says. “You know, those women who [are a] little more worldly because they've been up to the sinful North and come back home.”

Meritt herself journeyed up to the “sinful North” in the early '40's to pursue a singing career birthed in the Alabama Baptist camp meetings where, as a child, she learned to express herself singing before the congregation. The arc of the actress's career—from her Broadway debut in Carmen Jones (1943), to her featured role in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1985—reflects the transformation black theater has undergone as it has explored and refined the process begun by Hurston and Hughes.

For Merritt, as well as for other veterans, Mule Bone signifies a “comin' around again,” as the actress puts it. “My early life was a lot like in Mule Bone, people sittin' around telling tall tales about ghosts in graveyards and who's sleeping around with whom. During the day, we'd sing hymns and then on Saturday night, the grown-ups listened to the jazz records they'd put on the Victrola. Jazz was sin music, not fit for children, so we'd have to sneak down. Years later, when I was asked to play Ma Rainey, I knew she'd sung ‘Shake That Thing.’ I didn't get to sing it then so I was delighted when they asked me to sing it in this show.”

Unlike Merritt, 25-year-old Eric Ware had no memories of his own to draw upon in creating suave Dave Carter, who seduces Daisy with his hip-rolling shuffle. But he used certain historical references his grandmother from Greene, Ala., gave him—“She said they used to call a guy like Dave ‘a jelly.”’ But Ware says he drew inspiration from rides on the uptown IRT subway as well.

“Dave is fast-paced, nonchalant and cocky,” he says, “and you can see that on the subway. There's that same physicality in a group of boys together and one of them is talking about what he did last night, and it's ‘Hey!’ or ‘Ya-cha-cha!’ It's that same enjoyment of telling the stories and the effect the words have on people.” What anchors the show for a contemporary audience is the score played by an off-stage combo complementing the work of Kenny Neal, who plays the guitar-picking Jim.

Once Taj Mahal started reading the poems, he says, the music leaped from the page to his guitar. “I was shocked at how well versed Langston was in the blues,” says Mahal. “My parents were always saying Langston this and Langston that, but I thought he was bourgeois, all that search for connectedness. The blues didn't care whether you were listening to it or not. It just had to sing its song.”

His songs for Mule Bone, says Mahal, were intended to take the audience back to a certain period but also to give them the feeling that they were moving forward. “If you listen carefully,” he says, “you can hear cultural relatives of the blues: r&b, soul, gospel, even a little bit of jazz and calypso. There's a certain crying blues you could put out there, but once I started reading through the poems, I started rocking.”

Mahal says he saw the fusion between African-American storytelling and the blues in both Hughes' poetry and the play. The art of laughter was one of the black folk's gift to American culture. But, “it's the art of laughing to keep from crying. That's what the blues is about too.”

Frank Rich (review date 1991)

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SOURCE: “A Difficult Birth for Mule Bone,” in Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Gloria L. Cronin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 229-31.

[In the following review, originally published in the New York Times on February 15, 1991, Rich enumerates several flaws in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Mule Bone, and observes that the play “feels like a rough draft in which two competing voices are trying to reach a compromise.”]

If ever there was a promising idea for a play, it is the enigmatic story of what went on when two giants of the Harlem Renaissance briefly collided in 1930 to collaborate on “a comedy of Negro life” they titled Mule Bone.

The writers were the poet Langston Hughes and the anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Both were in their late 20's, and both had the same dream of a new truly African-American theater. Their goal was Broadway, which they hoped to liberate from the stereotypical minstrel musicals (the many progeny of Shuffle Along) and sentimental problem dramas (Green Pastures, Porgy) that then distorted the black experience on the mainstream stage. Yet Mule Bone was never finished and never produced because, as Hughes put it, “the authors fell out.”

What went wrong? No one knows for sure, despite the fascinating and painstaking efforts of both writers' authoritative biographers, Arnold Rampersad (Hughes) and Robert E. Hemenway (Hurston), to piece the events together. Everyone agrees, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, that the fight was “an extremely ugly affair” that at the very least involved a battle over authorial credit and the neurotic machinations of a wealthy white patron. Hurston's present-day publisher, Harper Perennial, has just brought out a first edition of the uncompleted text of Mule Bone in which all the relevant biographical accounts and documentary evidence have been assembled, and the volume leaves no doubt that whatever the provocation, the Hughes-Hurston conflict was the stuff of high drama.

The same, sad to say, cannot be said of Mule Bone itself, at least as mounted by Lincoln Center Theater at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway, six full decades after Hurston and Hughes set their sights on the Great White Way. This is an evening that can most kindly be described as innocuous—not an adjective usually attached to either of its authors—and it is not even a scrupulously authentic representation of what Hughes and Hurston wrote, fragmented and problematic as their aborted collaboration was. Indeed, there's something disturbingly disingenuous about the entire production. This Mule Bone is at once so watered down and bloated by various emendations that one can never be entirely sure if Lincoln Center Theater 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.

On occasion—rare occasion—this rendition does make clear what Hurston and Hughes had in mind, which was to bring to the stage, unfiltered by white sensibilities, the genuine language, culture and lives of black people who had been shaped by both a rich African heritage and the oppression of American racism. The play was adapted from an unpublished Hurston story recounting one of the many folk tales she had collected during her anthropological exploration of Eatonville, Fla., the black town where she was born. In the story, two male friends come to blows over a turkey, with one knocking out the other with a mule bone and ending up in a trial that turns on an issue of biblical interpretation. In the play, the object of dispute is a woman named Daisy, not a turkey—the change is believed to have been Hughes's—but the anecdote remains in any case an excuse for an explosion of vernacular speech, blues poetry and extravagantly ritualized storytelling.

Perhaps if the writers had had the chance to finish Mule Bone and to see it with an audience, they would have tightened or rethought what was a work in progress. Perhaps even if they had completed their mission, Mule Bone would still seem as dated today as other ambitious American plays of its exact vintage, such as Eugene O'Neill's “Mourning Becomes Electra.” We'll never know. As the text stands, it often feels like a rough draft in which two competing voices were trying to reach a compromise. Among the more arresting sections are a boisterous trial scene featuring dueling Baptist and Methodist congregations and a late-evening confrontation in which the antagonists compete for their woman's hand with hyperbolic metaphors. When the men try to court Daisy by bragging about how long a chain-gang sentence they would serve to win her over, Mule Bone surely succeeds in creating startling, linguistically lush folk comedy that nonetheless reflects the tragic legacy of slavery.

Those scattered passages, as well as sporadic well-turned lines, make the Barrymore vibrate, but they are surrounded by slack sequences and contemporary interpolations. Mule Bone opens with an embarrassing prologue by George Houston Bass, the literary executor of the Hughes estate until his death last year, in which Hurston herself awkwardly appears as a character on stage and gives the audience a primer on her career. At other isolated junctures five Hughes poems have been set to music by Taj Mahal, and sweet as the music and words are, the songs are not particularly well sung and always bring a flaccidly constructed show to a self-defeating halt. Dianne McIntyre's rudimentary, thigh-and-knee-slapping choreography lends only perfunctory animation.

As staged by Michael Schultz, who is certainly capable of tougher work, the whole enterprise has a candied Disneyesque tone, more folksy than folk. Mule Bone entirely lacks the striking visual style and gut-deep acting with which George C. Wolfe and his collaborators so precisely distilled the toughminded voice of Hurston and the passions of her characters in “Spunk” last year. (“Spunk” also dramatized three Hurston stories in less time than Mule Bone takes to dramatize one.) Here 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.

No wonder, then, that a number of precocious children roam the stage. The company is also profusely stocked with distinguished actors who have a lot of time on their hands while waiting for an occasional cue: Reggie Montgomery, Frances Foster, Robert Earl Jones, Arthur French. Though the three principal performers—Eric Ware, Kenny Neal, Akosua Busia—are at best likeably amateurish, their efforts are balanced by the assured center-stage turns of such old pros as Leonard Jackson, as a fuming man of the cloth, and Theresa Merritt, who gets to shimmy to a traditional blues recalling her Broadway performance as August Wilson's Ma Rainey. But it is all too typical of the evening that Ms. Merritt's song, the sole rousing musical interlude, is abruptly truncated before it can reach a soaring conclusion. It's almost as if this maiden production were determined to make Mule Bone prove on stage what it has always been in literary legend—a false start that remains one of the American theater's more tantalizing might-have-beens.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “A Tragedy of Negro Life,” in Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Perennial, 1991, pp. 5-24.

[In the following essay, Gates details the collaboration of Langston Hughes and Hurston on the play Mule Bone, and describes the plot and historical influence of the drama.]

This play was never done because the authors fell out.

—Langston Hughes, 1931

And fall out, unfortunately, they did, thereby creating the most notorious literary quarrel in African-American cultural history, and one of the most thoroughly documented collaborations in black American literature. Langston Hughes published an account entitled “Literary Quarrel” as the penultimate chapter—indeed, almost as a coda or an afterthought—in his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940). Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston's biographer, published a chapter in his biography entitled “Mule Bone,” and Arnold Rampersad, Hughes's biographer, presents an equally detailed account in volume one of his The Life of Langston Hughes. Only Zora Neale Hurston, of the two principals, did not make public her views of the episode. But she did leave several letters (as did Hughes) in which she explains some of her behavior and feelings. In addition, Hurston left the manuscript of the short story, “The Bone of Contention,” upon which the play was based. These documents—letters, the short story, Hughes's account, and two accounts from careful and judicious scholars—as well as a draft of the text of the play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, comprise the full record of the curious history of this brilliant collaboration between two extraordinarily talented African-American writers. We have assembled this archival and published data here to provide contemporary readers with the fullest possible account of a complex and bizarre incident that will forever remain impossible to understand completely, beclouded in inexplicable motivation.

In a sense, this is a casebook of a crucial—and ugly—chapter in the history of the Harlem Renaissance, that extraordinarily rich period in American cultural history that witnessed the birth of jazz, the coming to fruition of the classic blues, and the first systematic attempt to generate an entire literary and cultural movement by black Americans. The Harlem Renaissance, also called “The New Negro Renaissance,” is generally thought to have begun in the early 1920s and ended early on in the Great Depression, about the time when Hughes and Hurston had their dispute. The origins of the Renaissance are, of course, complex and have been written about extensively. It is clear, however, that the production of a rich and various black art, especially the written arts and the theatre, could very well help to reshape the public image of black people within American society and facilitate thereby their long struggle for civil rights, a struggle that commenced almost as soon as the last battle of the Civil War ended. As James Weldon Johnson put it in the “Preface” to his Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

A people may be great through many means, but there is one by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.

If, then, African-Americans created a recognizable and valued canon of literature, its effect would have enormous political ramifications: “The status of the Negro in the United States,” Johnson concluded, “is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.”

Johnson, by 1922 one of the venerable figures of the black literary and theatrical traditions, effectively issued a call to arms for the creation of a literary movement. Soon, political organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, through their magazines, The Crisis and Opportunity, began to sponsor literary competitions, judged by prominent members of the American literati, with the winners receiving cash prizes, publication in the journals, and often book contracts. At the prompting of Charles Johnson, the editor of Opportunity, Hurston submitted two short stories—“Spunk” and “Black Death”—and two plays—Color Struck and Spears—for consideration in Opportunity's annual literary contests in 1925 and 1926. While “Spunk” and Color Struck won second-place prizes, Spears and “Black Death” won honorable mention. Two other short stories, “Drenched in Light” and “Muttsy” would be published in Opportunity, along with “Spunk.” It was at the 1925 annual awards dinner that she met another award winner, Langston Hughes, who took third prize jointly with Countee Cullen and first prize for his great poem, “The Weary Blues.” It was a momentous occasion, attended by “the greatest gathering of black and white literati ever assembled in one room,” as Arnold Rampersad notes, and included among its judges Eugene O'Neill, John Farrar, Witter Bynner, Alexander Woolcott, and Robert Benchley. Hughes was quite taken with Hurston, Rampersad tells us: She “‘is a clever girl, isn't she?’ he soon wrote to a friend; ‘I would like to know her.’” Eventually, he would know her all too well.


Between 1925 and their collaboration on the writing of Mule Bone between March and June 1930, Hughes and Hurston came to know each other well. As Rampersad reports, by mid-summer of 1926, the two were planning a black jazz and blues opera. Hemenway calls it “an opera that would be the first authentic rendering of black folklife, presenting folk songs, dances, and tales that Hurston would collect.” By the end of that summer, the two (along with Wallace Thurman, John P. Davis, Gwen Bennett, Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglass, all members of what was jokingly called “The Niggerati”) decided to found a magazine, called Fire!!, the title taken from a Hughes poem. The following year, in July 1927, Hughes and Hurston met quite by accident in Mobile, Alabama, and decided to drive together to Manhattan in her car, “Sassy Susie.” “I knew it would be fun travelling with her,” Rampersad reports Hughes writing. “It was.” The trip lasted about a month, with the two sharing notes on hoodoo, folktales, and the blues along the way, and even meeting Bessie Smith, the great classic blues singer. Shortly after this trip, Hughes introduced Hurston to his patron, Charlotte van der Veer Quick Mason, who would contribute about $75,000 to Harlem Renaissance writers, including $15,000 to Hurston. While Hughes received $150 per month, Hurston received $200. Ironically, their subsidies would end just about the time of their feud over Mule Bone; although Hurston's contract ended March 30, 1931, she received “irregular” payments until September 1932; Hughes and she fell out late in 1930, just before his confrontation with Hurston in Cleveland.

A more natural combination for a collaboration among the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, one can scarcely imagine—especially in the theatre! Hurston wrote to Hughes often during the early period of her research in the South, collecting black folklore as part of her doctoral research in anthropology at Columbia under Franz Boas; Hemenway describes her correspondence as “frequent and conspiratorial,” providing “an unintentional documentary of the expedition.” In April 1928, she shared with Hughes her plans for a culturally authentic African-American theatre, one constructed upon a foundation of the black vernacular: “Did I tell you before I left about the new, the real Negro theatre I plan? Well, I shall, or rather we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive 'bama Nigger. Quote that with native settings. What do you think?” They would share the burdens and the glory: “Of course, you know I didn't dream of that theatre as a one man stunt. I had you helping 50-50 from the start. In fact, I am perfectly willing to be 40 to your 60 since you are always so much more practical than I. But I know it is going to be glorious! A really new departure in the drama.” Despite their enthusiasm for this idea, however, Mrs. Mason (“Godmother”) disapproved; as Hurston wrote to Alain Locke, the veritable dean of the Harlem Renaissance and another beneficiary of Mrs. Mason's patronage: “Godmother was very anxious that I should say to you that the plans—rather the hazy dreams of the theatre I talked to you about should never be mentioned again. She trusts her three children [Hurston, Hughes, and Locke] to never let those words pass their lips again until the gods decree that they shall materialize.”

Not only did the two share the dream of a vernacular theatre and opera, but both had established themselves as creative writers and critics by underscoring the value of black folk culture, both of itself and as the basis for formal artistic traditions. By 1930, when, at last, the two would write Mule Bone, Hughes had published two brilliant, widely acclaimed, experimental books of poetry that utilized the blues and jazz as both form and content. And Hurston, though yet to publish a novel, had published sixteen short stories, plays, and essays, in prestigious journals such as Opportunity, Messenger, and the Journal of Negro History, and was pursuing a Ph.D. thesis in anthropology which was to be built around her extensive collection of Afro-American myths. With Hurston's mastery of the vernacular and compelling sense of story, and Hughes's impressive sense of poetic and theatrical structure, it would have been difficult to imagine a more ideal team to construct “a real Negro theatre.” For, at ages twenty-eight and twenty-nine respectively, [Hurston, the scholar Cheryl Wall discovered, shaved ten years from her age. Actually, in 1930, she would have been thirty-nine, not twenty-nine, as she claimed.] Hughes and Hurston bore every promise of reshaping completely the direction of the development of African-American literature away from the blind imitation of American literature and toward a bold and vibrant synthesis of formal American literature and African-American vernacular.


The enormous potential of this collaborative effort was never realized, we know, because, as Hughes wrote on his manuscript copy of the text, “the authors fell out.” Exactly why they “fell out” is not completely clear, despite the valiant attempts of Hemenway and Rampersad to reconstruct the curious series of events that led to such disastrous consequences. While we do know that Hughes and Hurston wrote acts one and three together, and, as Hemenway reports, “at least one scene of the second act,” it is impossible to ascertain who wrote what. Hurston had conceived the plot, based as it was on her short story, “The Bone of Contention” (published here for the first time). Hughes would write that he “plotted out and typed the play based on her story,” and that Hurston “authenticated and flavored the dialogue and added highly humorous details.” Rampersad's estimate is probably the most accurate: “Hurston's contribution was almost certainly the greater to a play set in an all-black town in the backwoods South (she drew here on her childhood memories), with an abundance of tall tales, wicked quips, and farcical styles of which she was absolute master and Langston not much more than a sometimes student. … Whatever dramatic distinction the play would have, Hurston certainly brought to it.” But, just as surely, it was Hughes who shaped the material into a play, into comic drama, with a plot, a dramatic structure, and a beginning, middle, and end. While Hurston had published a play, and Hughes had not yet completed his first play, Hughes was the superior dramatist. Neither, however, would ever achieve the results that they did, in close collaboration, with Mule Bone.

While we cannot explain Hurston's motivation for denying Hughes's collaboration, which caused the dispute and the ending of their friendship, we can re-create the strange series of events through the following chronology, which is based on the accounts of Hemenway and Rampersad, printed in this book:

Late February-early March 1930: Hughes meets Theresa Helburn of the Dramatists Guild at a party; Helburn complains about the lack of real comedies about blacks.

April-May 1930: Hughes and Hurston write the first draft of “Mule Bone” in Westfield, New Jersey. Complete acts one and three and at least scene one of act two, dictating to Louise Thompson.

May 1930: Hughes's relation with patron, Mrs. Mason, begins to collapse.

June 1930: Hurston returns to the South, ostensibly to complete the trial scene of act two.

September 1930: Hurston returns, apparently without the scene completed.

October 1930: Hurston files for copyright of Mule Bone as sole author.

December 1930-January 1931: Hughes ends relationship with “Godmother,” Mrs. Mason.

January 1931: Hughes returns to his mother's home in Cleveland, has tonsillectomy.

Winter 1930-31: Hurston gives Carl Van Vechten copy of play. Van Vechten sends it to Barrett Clark, reader for the Theatre Guild. Clark, an employee of Samuel French, the theatrical producer, contacts Rowena Jelliffe and sends script.

January 15, 1931: Hughes visits Rowena and Alexander Jelliffe, directors of the settlement playhouse “Karamu House,” home of the black theatre troupe the Gilpin Players. Rowena Jelliffe explains that she has obtained the rights to a play entitled Mule Bone by Zora Neale Hurston.

January 16, 1931: Hughes phones Hurston to protest her action. Hurston denies knowledge of play being sent to French or to Jelliffe. Hughes incredulous.

January 16, 1931: Hughes writes to Carl Van Vechten asking for his advice.

January 17, 1931: Louise Thompson arrives in Cleveland, in her capacity as official of the American Interracial Seminar.

January 18, 1931: Hurston visits Van Vechten, and “cried and carried on no end.”

January 19, 1931: Hughes mails copy of play to U.S. copyright office, in name of Hurston and himself. Received January 22.

January 20, 1931: Hughes receives Hurston's letter denying joint authorship and complaining about Louise Thompson's compensation.

January 20, 1931: French's company wires Jelliffe refusing Hurston's permission to authorize production. Demands return of script.

January 20-21, 1931: Hurston sends three telegrams reversing her decision; authorizes the production and agrees to collaborate with Hughes.

January 21, 1931: Hughes receives Hurston letter of January 18, denying Hughes's collaboration and revealing resentment over Hughes's friendship with Louise Thompson.

January 21-26, 1931: Hurston agrees to come to Cleveland to collaborate with Hughes on rewrites; first performance scheduled for February 15.

February 1, 1931: Hughes's twenty-ninth birthday. Hurston arrives in Cleveland, meets with Hughes, resolves differences, misses scheduled meeting with Gilpin Players. That evening, the Gilpin Players meet and vote to cancel play, but reconsider. All seems set for a Cleveland opening and a Broadway run.

February 2, 1931: Hurston learns that Louise Thompson has visited Cleveland and seen Hughes. Hurston berates Mrs. Jelliffe.

February 3, 1931: Hurston visits Hughes at his home and rudely cancels production.

August 1931: Wallace Thurman (estranged husband of Louise Thompson) hired to revise Mule Bone. Hughes writes to Dramatists Guild declaring joint authorship.

1940: Hughes publishes account in The Big Sea.

1964: Hughes publishes act three in Drama Critique.

This, in barest outline, is an account of the bizarre events of an extremely ugly affair. As Hemenway and Rampersad make clear, Hurston justified her denial of Hughes's collaboration by claiming anger over Hughes's apparent proposal that Louise Thompson be given a share of all royalties, and that she be made the business manager of any Broadway production that might evolve. In Hurston's words:

In the beginning, Langston, I was very eager to do the play with you. ANYthing you said would go over big with me. But scarcely had we gotten underway before you made three propositions that shook me to the foundation of myself. First: that three way split with Louise. Now Langston, nobody has in the history of the world given a typist an interest in a work for typing it. Nobody would think of it unless they were prejudiced in favor of the typist.

If this seems scant reason, sixty years later, for Hurston's protest over Thompson's financial role to assume such an extreme form, her behavior was no doubt also motivated, as Hemenway and Rampersad argue, by Hughes's deteriorating relationship with Mrs. Mason and Hurston's desire to continue hers, even if at Hughes's expense. Hurston kept Mrs. Mason abreast of these developments over the play, and even sent her copies of Hughes's letters to her, all the while denying his claims to Mason. What seems clear, however, is that Hurston's behavior was not justified by her anger over Hughes's friendship with Thompson, and that her claim of sole authorship should not have been made. As Hughes concluded, “our art was broken,” as was both their friendship and the promise of a new and bold direction in black theatre.


Certainly one tragic aspect of the failure of Hughes and Hurston to produce and publish Mule Bone was the interruption of the impact that it might have had on the shape and direction of Afro-American theatre. Among all of the black arts, greater expectations were held for none more than for black theatre. As early as 1918, W. E. B. Du Bois, writing in The Crisis, argued that “the value of [a sustained Afro-American theatre] for Negro art can scarcely be overestimated.” In 1925, Du Bois would help to found Krigwa, a black theatre group in Harlem, dedicated to drama that is “by,” “for,” “about,” and “near us,” a self-contained and self-sustaining Afro-American theatre. Du Bois was just one of many critics who felt that the drama was the most crucial form of all of the arts for the future of black artistic development, and that it was precisely in this area that blacks had most signally failed. As Alain Locke put it, “Despite the fact that Negro life is somehow felt to be particularly rich in dramatic values, both as folk experience and as a folk temperament, its actual yield, so far as worthwhile drama goes, has been very inconsiderable.” And, in another essay published in 1927, Locke wrote:

In the appraisal of the possible contribution of the Negro to the American theatre, there are those who find the greatest promise in the rising drama of Negro life. Others see possibilities of a deeper, though subtler influence upon what is after all more vital, the technical aspects of the arts of the theatre. Until very recently the Negro influence upon American drama has been negligible, whereas even under the handicaps of second-hand exploitation and restriction to the popular amusement stage, the Negro actor has already considerably influenced our stage and its arts. One would do well to imagine what might happen if the art of the Negro actor should really become artistically lifted and liberated. Transpose the possible resources of Negro song and dance and pantomime to the serious stage, envisage an American drama under the galvanizing stimulus of a rich transfusion of essential folk-arts and you may anticipate what I mean. (“The Negro and the American Theatre”)

There can be little doubt that Locke here voices the theory of black drama that Hurston and Hughes sought to embody in their unwritten black opera and in Mule Bone. (Hurston had, by the way, once described the relationship among the three as that of a triangle, with Hughes and her forming the base, and Locke the apex.)

There are many reasons for the supposed primacy of the theatre among the arts of the Harlem Renaissance. Many scholars date the commencement of the Renaissance itself to the phenomenal and unprecedented success of Eubie Blake's and Noble Sissle's all-black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, which opened in 1921. (Blake and Sissle did the score, and Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller did the book.) As Bruce Kellner informs us, “Often the week's first run business was so heavy that the street on which it was playing had to be designated for one-way traffic only.” Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson were just a few of the performers who played in this musical.

Predictably, the success of Shuffle Along spawned a whole host of imitators, including Alabama Bound, Bandana Land, Black Bottom Revue, Black Scandals, Blackbirds, Chocolate Blondes, Chocolate Browns, Chocolate Dandies, Darktown Scandals, Darktown Strutters, Goin' White, Lucky Sambo, North Ain't South, Raisin' Cane, Strut Miss Lizzie, Seven-Eleven, Dixie to Broadway, and Runnin' Wild (which introduced “The Charleston”), to list just a few. Jazz, the dance, acting, and an extraordinarily large white and sympathetic audience made the theatre an enormously promising venue for a black art that would transform the public image of the Negro. Its effect was both broad and immediate; there was not the sort of mediation necessary between artist and audience as is the case with a printed book. What's more, theatre as a combination of several arts—poetry, narrative, music, the dance, acting, the visual arts—allowed blacks to bring together the full range of their traditions, vernacular and formal, rather than just one. The great potential of the theatre was hard to resist.

Resistance, however, arose from tradition itself. The roots of black theatre in the twenties were buried in the soil of minstrelsy and vaudeville. Musicals such as Shuffle Along did indeed reach tens of thousands more Americans than would any book before Native Son (1940). But what image did they represent, and at what cost? Reviews of Shuffle Along often turned on phrases such as “extreme energy,” “the sun of their good humor.” Especially notable were the dancers' “jiggling,” “prancing,” “wiggling,” and “cavorting.” In other words, what this sort of black theatre did was to reinforce the stereotype of black people as happy-go-lucky, overly sensual bodies. And while it was (and remains) difficult to disrupt the integrity of jazz and Afro-American dance, even in association with quasi-minstrel forms, it is difficult to imagine how the intelligence of these artistic traditions could shine through the raucous humor of this kind of theatre. Broadway, in other words, stood as the counterpoint to the sort of written art that Hughes and Hurston were determined to create, even if they envied Broadway's potential and actual market. Accordingly, they decided to intervene, to do for the drama what Hughes had done for poetry and what Hurston would do (in Jonah's Gourd Vine [1934] and Their Eyes Were Watching God [1937]) for the novel, which was to shape a formal written art out of the vast and untapped black vernacular tradition.

Mule Bone was based on a Hurston short story, “The Bone of Contention,” which Hurston never published. For the Hurston scholar, it is particularly fascinating as a glimpse into Hurston's manner of revising or transforming the oral tradition (she had collected the story in her folklore research) and because of its representation of various characters (such as Eatonville, an all-black town where Hurston was born, Joe Clarke and his store, the yellow mule and his mock burial) who would recur in subsequent works, such as Mule Bone and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The story's plot unfolds as follows: Dave Carter and Jim Weston are hunting turkeys one evening. Carter claims to have shot a turkey, while Weston is loading his gun. Weston claims that it is his shot that killed the turkey. They struggle. Jim Weston strikes Dave Carter on the head with “de hockbone” of a mule, Carter alleges, and steals his turkey.

The remainder of the plot depicts the trial, held at the Baptist Church and presided over by Mayor Joe Clarke. Weston is a Methodist while Clarke is a Baptist, and the townspeople are equally divided between the two denominations. They are also fiercely competitive, bringing a religious significance to the quarrel. In fact, Carter and Weston would be represented in court by their ministers, Rev. Simms (Methodist) and Elder Long (Baptist). “The respective congregations were lined up behind their leaders,” the text tells us.

The resolution of the dilemma turns on traditional African-American biblical exegesis: can a mule-bone be a weapon? If it can, then it follows that its use could constitute a criminal act. Using Judges 15:16, Elder Long proves that since a donkey is the father of a mule, and since Samson slew one thousand Philistines with the jaw-bone of an ass, and since “de further back on a mule you goes, do mo' dangerous he gits,” then “by de time you gits clear back tuh his hocks hes rank pizen.” Jim Weston is banished from town.

The plot of Mule Bone is very similar. The play consists of three acts, and includes Jim Weston and Dave Carter (best friends), Joe Clarke, but now Daisy Taylor, over whom Weston and Clarke will, inevitably, quarrel. Weston will strike Carter with the hock-bone of “Brazzle's ole yaller mule,” during an argument over Daisy on the front porch of Clarke's store. Weston is arrested, Carter is rushed off to be treated, leaving Daisy alone wondering who's going to walk her home.

Act Two consists of two scenes. The first reveals the subtext of the trial—the struggle between Joe Clarke and Elder Simms for mayor, and the class tension between the Baptists and the Methodists. Scene Two occurs mostly in the Macedonia Baptist Church, newly transformed into a courthouse, with Joe Clarke presiding. As in the short story, the Methodists and Baptists seat themselves on opposite sides, even singing competing hymns (Baptists, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the Methodists, “All Hail the Power of Jesus's Name”) when the mayor asks that the proceedings commence with a hymn. Act Two proceeds as does the short story, with Judges 18:18 coming to bear in exactly the same manner as had Judges 15:16. Jim Weston, found guilty, is banished from town for two years.

Act Three depicts the reconciliation of Jim and Dave, and Jim's return to Eatonville, following their joint rejection of Daisy, who as it turns out, wants her husband to “work for her white folks.” What is most interesting about this scene is that the tension between Dave and Jim is resolved in a witty and sustained verbal dual, in which the two trade cleverly improvised hyperbolic claims of their love for Daisy, in an elaborate ritual of courtship. As Hemenway puts it:

When Dave asks Jim how much time he would do for Daisy on the chain gang, Jim answers, “Twenty years and like it.” Dave exults, “See dat, Daisy, Dat nigger ain't willin to do no time for you. I'd beg de judge to gimme life.”

Again a significant stage direction interrupts the dialogue. By telling us that “both Jim and Dave laugh,” Hurston and Hughes were trying to show the sense of verbal play and rhetorical improvisation characteristic of Eatonville generally, and Joe Clark's store-front porch specifically. … The contest is a ritual, designed to defuse the violence implicit in the conflict, to channel the aggression into mental rather than physical terms. The manner in which the courting contest ends suggests its ritualistic nature: Dave says to Daisy, “Don't you be skeered, baby. Papa kin take keer o you [To Jim: suiting the action to the word] Countin from de finger back to de thumb. … Start anything, I got you some.” Jim is taken aback: “Aw, I don't want no more fight wid you, Dave.” Dave replies, “Who said anything about fighting? We just provin who love Daisy de best.”

This courtship ritual, like so much of the verbal “signifying” rituals in which the characters engage throughout the play, are both reflections of historical folk rituals practiced by African Americans as well as their extensions or elaborations. As Hemenway shows so carefully in his essay appended to this volume, often the characters' dialogues are taken directly from the black vernacular tradition. As often, however, Hughes and Hurston are imitating that tradition, improvising upon a historical foundation of ritualized oral discourse, which Hurston had been collecting as part of her graduate research in anthropology with Franz Boas. Hughes and Hurston, in other words, were drawing upon the black vernacular tradition both to “ground” their drama in that discourse but also to “extend” the vernacular itself.

Mule Bone, then, was not a mere vehicle for black folklore, rather, black folklore, served as the basis, the foundation, for what they hoped would be a truly new art form: an art form that would stand in relation to traditional American drama in the way that Hughes's “blues poetry” stood to American poetry and Hurston's vernacular fictions stood to the American novel. Mule Bone, in other words, was meant to be the dramatic embodiment of James Weldon Johnson's demand that “the colored poet in the United States needs to do … something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.” Dialect, Johnson continued, was doomed by its racist textual heritage:

Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America, and much less is it capable of giving the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology. This is no indictment against the dialect as dialect, but against the mould of convention in which Negro dialect in the United States has been set.

Mule Bone was also a refutation of Johnson's claim that “Negro dialect” “is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos,” because of the racist minstrel and vaudeville representations of black characters and their language. This is what they meant when they subtitled their play “A Comedy of Negro Life” and when they claimed that Mule Bone was “the first real Negro folk comedy.”

By using the vernacular tradition as the foundation for their drama—indeed, as the basis for a new theory of black drama—Hughes and Hurston succeeded quite impressively in creating a play that implicitly critiqued and explicitly reversed the racist stereotypes of the ignorant dialect-speaking darky that had populated the stages of the minstrel and vaudeville traditions. Indeed, we can only wonder at the effect that a successful Broadway production of Mule Bone might have had on the subsequent development of black theatre, given the play's sheer novelty and freshness of language.

With their turn to the vernacular, however, Hurston and Hughes also seem at times to reinscribe the explicit sexism of that tradition, through the discussions of physical abuse and wife-beatings as agents of control, which the male characters on Joe Clarke's store-front porch seem to take for granted as a “natural” part of sexual relations. These exchanges are quite disturbing for our generation of readers, demanding as they do a forceful critique by the reader. Daisy's representation in a triangle of desire as the object of her lovers' verbal dueling rather than as one who duels herself, a mode of dueling that demands great intelligence, is also a concern, even if this concern is tempered somewhat by the fact that it is she who controls their complex relationship all along, as demonstrated when she dismisses them both when they will not accede to her demands that they get jobs and provide support for her own efforts at self-sufficiency: “Both of you niggers can git yo' hat on yo' heads and git on down de road. Neither one of y'all don't have to have me. I got a good job and plenty men beggin' for yo' change.” Despite this, however, the depiction of female characters and sexual relations in Mule Bone almost never escapes the limitation of the social realities that the vernacular tradition reflects.

Mule Bone was never completed. Hurston, in a frantic attempt to demonstrate to Hughes's lawyer, Arthur Spingarn, that she had indeed been the play's sole author, sent him more handwritten revisions of large sections of the play, creating still another version. We have reprinted here, however, the last version on which Hughes and Hurston collaborated. Despite its limitations as a work-in-progress, it stands as a daring attempt to resurrect black poetic language from the burial grounds of racist stereotypes. Had it been performed, the power of its poetic language could very well have altered forever the evolution of African-American drama enabling the theatre to fulfill its great—and still unfulfilled—potential among the African-American arts.

Selected Bibliography

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Can the Negro Save the Drama?” Theatre Magazine XXXVIII (July 1923): 12, 68.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Krigwa Players Little Negro Theatre.” Amsterdam News (October 5, 1927) and Crisis XXXII, No. 3 (July 1926): 134-36.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Negro and the American Stage.” Crisis XXVIII, No. 2 (June 1924): 55-60.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Negro Theatre.” Crisis XV (February 1918): 165.

Fabre, Geneviève. Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphors: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinios, 1977.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Preface.” In The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1931.

Kellner, Bruce. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary of the Era. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Locke, Alain. “The Drama of Negro Life.” Theatre Arts Monthly 10 (October 1926): 701-06.

Locke, Alain. “The Negro and the American Stage.” Theatre Arts Monthly 10 (February 1926): 112-20.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vol. 1: 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Lisa Boyd (essay date 1994-1995)

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SOURCE: “The Folk, the Blues, and the Problems of Mule Bone,” in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall-Spring, 1994-1995, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Boyd offers an initial evaluation of Mule Bone, a plays she suggests requires further critical study. She examines the famous literary quarrel of its authors, Hurston and Langston Hughes, and maintains that although the play presents stereotyped characters and a weak plot, it features a tragic sensibility beneath its comic surface.]

Loud laughters in the hands of Fate—My people

Langston Hughes, “My People”

“big picture talkers were using
a side of the world for a canvas”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Who have nothing to lose
Must laugh and dance
Lest our laugher
Goes from

Langston Hughes, “Black Dancers”

Greatly anticipated as one of the most important recoveries in Black American literature, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in 1930, was finally published and produced in 1991. Yet, despite the talent of the authors and hopes for the success of a black vernacular theater which Hurston and Hughes envisioned, Mule Bone was received as little more than an interesting Black American literary artifact. Three years after its publication and production, this work has yet to stimulate serious critical discussion.

Instead of critically analyzing the play itself, scholars have focused on Hurston and Hughes's quarrel which resulted in the burying of Mule Bone in 1931 and in the end of the authors' friendship the same year. Critics continue to search through the letters and autobiographical writings of Hurston and Hughes while hoping to find explanations for their falling out over Mule Bone, but none of the explanations found there has proved satisfactory. I propose that critics have been looking at the wrong texts for answers, for Hurston and Hughes, themselves, were most likely unaware of the real reasons for their dispute over Mule Bone. The answers lie in the text of Mule Bone itself; there we can find evidence of the conflicting aesthetics of Hurston and Hughes that explain the controversy over Mule Bone and its poor critical reception.

The complicated nature of the dispute surrounding Mule Bone demands a complex critical approach to the study of the play. Therefore, my critical method to Mule Bone will combine literary history, formalism, and intertextuality. I will examine the play by placing the authors and the text in their historical context, by examining the critical reception of the production of the play, by formally analyzing the text, and by observing the play in relation to other works by the authors.

Left unfinished by the authors after their well-documented quarrel over the play, Mule Bone was edited for the 1991 Harper Collins publication, yet despite careful editing, the play remains unpolished1 The three acts of the play are not balanced and are not well integrated.2 Act one introduces us to the major characters and the major themes of the play. Action begins on the porch on Saturday afternoon in the midst of community activities. Men are playing checkers and cards, telling tales, and commenting on all that occurs around them. Gendered relationships and the political and religious dynamics of the town are central to act one and to the rest of the play. The love triangle of Daisy, Jim, and Dave takes center stage two-thirds of the way through the act, and act one ends with the arrest of Jim for hitting Dave in the head with a mule bone.

Act two is divided into two scenes, and the first one focuses almost solely on the women and children of the town discussing the imminent trial of Jim—which has quickly become a political platform from which Elder Simms attacks Joe Clarke's position as mayor. Scene two takes place inside the Baptist church where the Methodists and Baptists have chosen sides, with the Baptists championing Dave and the Methodists defending Jim. The discussion of law is important as is the religious reasoning used to defend each side of the dispute. It is clear that Jim and Dave's fight is simply a catalyst for the community split foreshadowed in act one. The Baptist Rev. Childers's eloquent argument based on the interpretation of Samson's slaying of the Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass leads to a sentence of banishment for Jim.

The community that dominated act two is absent from act three, which takes place on the railroad tracks just outside of town. Jim, having been banished, is contemplating his future when Daisy enters. She quickly reels him in again just before Dave enters. Both confess their love for Daisy, and a lying contest ensues. Jim wins the contest, and Daisy asks him to marry her. She rethinks, however, when she learns that he won't work for “her white folks” in order to support her, and she turns to Dave who also refuses to work. At the end of the play, Daisy leaves them both, and Dave and Jim return to town together in tempting anyone to try to enforce the banishment.

When Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life was finally produced in 1991 at the Lincoln Center Theater, sixty years after it was written, it received reviews which were more negative than positive. To these reviewers, the modern audience was so far removed from the experience of the play itself that it was little more than an interesting page from the history books of Black American literature. The producers seem to have been aware from the beginning that Mule Bone would be problematic for modern audiences. When the play was first discussed by leading Black American literary critics, actors, playwrights, and scholars in 1988, even these experts in the field of Black literature, theater, and culture were uncomfortable with many aspects of the play. The drama was, therefore, revamped, toned down, and made more innocuous for the 1991 production. George Houston Bass, writer and executor of the Hughes estate, provided a new prologue and epilogue; Taj Mahal set Hughes' poems to blues music as a substitute for the traditional folk songs indicated by the authors; “the word ‘nigger’ was deleted from the dialogue as were all sexist allusions to women as chattel” (Pacheco 78); and Zora Neale Hurston appears as a character in the prologue assuring the audience that “the town is being observed through the ‘spyglass of anthropology.’ The play is folklore, not fact. So be it” (David Richards, 29).

In his New York Times review of the production, Frank Rich calls it “not even a scrupulously authentic representation of what Hughes and Hurston wrote, fragmented and problematic as their aborted collaboration was” (C1). Using images that call to mind the descriptions of “Brazzle's old yaller mule” itself (Mule Bone 53), Rich goes on to question the very intentions of the producers:

This “Mule Bone” is at once so watered down and bloated by various emendations that one can never be entirely sure if Lincoln Center Theater 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. (C1)

For this reason, Rich questions the relevance of Mule Bone for a modern audience. He says that “Perhaps even if [Hughes and Hurston] had completed their mission, Mule Bone would still seem as dated today as other ambitious American plays of its exact vintage” (C24.) David Richards, following the same lines, says, “Although it has been fitted with a new prologue and epilogue by George Houston Bass and music by Taj Mahal and given an energetic staging by Michael Schultz, it remains very much a dramatic artifact-more viable today as sociology than as entertainment” (29). If, then, Mule Bone is simply a “dramatic artifact,” why resurrect it for the Broadway audience of 1991?

The answer may lie not in the field of theater, but in the field of literary scholarship itself. The resurrection of Mule Bone has been the project of scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,3 who got help from writer George Houston Bass—the aim being not merely to make a lost text available for modern audiences (both literary and dramatic), but to help redefine the literary movement out of which this play comes. We can easily see this redefinition materializing as Patrick Pacheco, in his review “A Discovery Worth the Wait?”, calls Hurston and Hughes the “royal couple of the Harlem Renaissance” (4). During the historical period of the Harlem Renaissance—roughly the 1920s and 1930s—Hurston and Hughes were certainly not the “royal couple.” They were most often misunderstood and rebuked for their fascination with the “low” elements of Black American culture. Both received acclaim early in their careers but were pushed to the edge of the Harlem Renaissance inner circle during its height as they delved deeper into the folk. Hurston's “minstrelsy” use of folklore and Hughes's blues poetry made them outsiders in a movement which at the time was defined by Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, and others of the “Talented Tenth.”

Current literary scholarship, however, has redefined the Harlem Renaissance—privileging the folk of Hurston and Hughes over the “racial uplift” of the Talented Tenth. Yet, despite this reprivileging, it is the folk of Mule Bone which continues to make it a problematic work for critics and audiences.

It seems that the perplexing nature of Mule Bone has caused literary critics conveniently to avoid the play itself and its folk elements by focusing on the quarrel between Hurston and Hughes over the authorship and production of the play. This dispute is well-documented in the 1991 edition of Mule Bone edited by Bass and Gates, and therefore I will not discuss the specifics of it here. But the conflict is important for my discussion not in itself but in what it has become. In her brief review of the resurrected text and the various material published with it, Janet Ingraham points out that the “bitter authorship dispute which kept this important collaboration unpublished and unproduced for 60 years provides a sobering context for this spirited black Southern folk story” (emphasis mine).

For most critics, however, the dispute between Hurston and Hughes has not been merely a context for the play; it has become the dominant text, overshadowing that of Mule Bone. It seems that students and critics of Black American literature know much more about the controversy that surrounds the play than they do about the play itself. This point may be partially explained in that a text of the play was not available for the general public until very recently though a few historical accounts of the dispute were. The text was available to certain scholars, however, and while many of these scholars read manuscripts of the play, they still chose to focus their discussions on the quarrel instead of the play.4 Hurston's biographer Robert Hemenway devotes a whole chapter of Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography to “Mule Bone,” beginning his discussion with and spending over half the chapter on the Hurston-Hughes collaboration and dispute. When he finally turns to the play itself, it is with the sigh, “The play is the thing, however” (176). But by paying at least partial attention to the play itself, Hemenway does what few other critics have done.5

From existing letters and accounts of various aspects of the quarrel, literary critics have pieced together the events and have hypothesized as to the reasons for the falling out of Hurston and Hughes over Mule Bone. The motivations behind the controversy are intertwined and complicated (Hemenway calls them “tangled, filled with bad behavior, shrill voices, and feigned innocence” [162]), but among the explanations given for the dispute are various mutual misunderstandings about the events that occurred, petty jealousy on the part of Hurston over typist Louise Thompson, and loyalty or lack thereof to shared patron, Mrs. Osgood Mason, better known as “Godmother”—none of which are very compelling or satisfying reasons6 What is most interesting is that none of these conjectures places any reponsibility for the dispute in the play itself. It is important, then, to move from the Mule Bone controversy to the dreams and plans which Hughes and Hurston had for the work.

Literary and theater critics alike assign a shared motive to Hughes and Hurston in the creation and production of Mule Bone. They had wishfully discussed the ideal of a new Black theater for a while, and the complaint by Theresa Halburn of the Dramatists Guild to Hughes in early 1930 that all the plays about black people which the guild received were serious problem dramas—“Why didn't someone write a comedy—not a minstrel show, but a real comedy?” (Hemenway 162)—was the catalyst for their collaboration that became Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. In a blurb on the Lincoln Center production, U.S. News & World Reports says that Mule Bone is “a play that [Hughes and Hurston] hoped would hit Broadway and radically alter theatrical depictions of the ways black Americans lived and spoke”; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his discussion of the play in The New York Times, says that “Black folklore and Southern rural black vernacular English served as the foundation for what they hoped would be a truly new art form” (8).

Yet despite their shared general intentions for the play and for Black American theater itself, there is a fundamental difference in the way Hughes and Hurston conceptualize the folk, and this difference is evident in an examination of Mule Bone itself and its relation to other works by the authors. Because of the nature in which Hurston and Hughes worked on Mule Bone together, mostly by dictating to typist Louise Thompson, it is impossible to assign credit for specific elements of the play to one or the other of them. There do appear to be two conflicting strains running through Mule Bone, however, and this more fundamental conflict may offer yet another explanation for the Mule Bone controversy and for the problematic nature of the play.7

In his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes and makes clear what he believes the path of Black American literature and art should be. Lamenting what he sees as a desire for whiteness in Black American art, Hughes praises the masses:

But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let's dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethen were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. (259)

In his romantic description of the folk here, it is apparent that Hughes sees himself as an outsider in the world of the folk. Folk culture, then, is material to be used in art; it is a medium for artistic production.

In contrast, Zora Neale Hurston comes from the “common people,” and per Hughes's definition, she may be the “truly great Negro artist.” Hurston's experience of and her relationship with the folk are, therefore, very different from Hughes's. For Hurston, then, the folk is not merely a medium for art; it is art itself especially drama. In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” written for Nancy Cunard's Negro: An Anthology, Hurston makes this clear. She begins the piece by declaring that the “Negro's universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as an evidence of something that permeates his entire self. And that thing is drama” (24). Drama is not simply an element of folk life it is folk life. To Hurston, “Every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized. No matter how joyful or how sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama. Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned” (24). Her new Black American theater, therefore, would not utilize folk culture; it would be folk culture.8

It is the distinction between Hurston and Hughes's visions of how to use folk culture that becomes evident when we examine the critical reception of the 1991 Lincoln Center production of Mule Bone—particularly in the discussion of plot and stereotyping. Addressing what he sees as a lack of plot and an excessive amount of storytelling, David Richards says that the play “checks in at more than two hours, when 30 minutes would do just fine” (5).9 He believes that “it's just not a very good play” and seems to base his argument on what he sees as the problematics of the plot.10 Richards concludes by saying that

Simple as it is, the plot is left unattended for great stretches at a time, while the townsfolk devote themselves to gossip and neighborly insult. Any 15 minutes of this rural slice of life tells you as much as the whole. Fussing and feuding is, after all, fussing and feuding. The characters—henpecked husband, domineering spouse, sanctimonious preacher, dim-witted sheriff—are overly familiar types by now. (29)

Richards's remarks are founded on a traditional definition of theater, as one might expect, and he, therefore, defines the plot very specifically as the love triangle of Daisy, Jim, and Dave. For him, then, the community activities of storytelling, lying, and feuding are simply reduced to a rural slice of life” of which a small taste will do just as well as a whole piece. He fails to see the subtlety of what is occurring on the porch and in the church as a plot in itself.

Long before Daisy, Jim, and Dave appear in Act one, the major themes of Mule Bone have been introduced. The people sitting on and around the porch—men, women, and children—discuss the relationships of men and women, the religious dispute of the Methodists and the Baptists, and the political rivalry of Mayor Clarke and Elder Simms. Simms criticizes the way in which Clarke has been running the town and makes his ambitions clear by saying, “Well, there ain't no sense in no one man stayin' Mayor all the time.” Clarke replies, “Well it's my town and I can be mayor jus' as long as I want to. It was me that put this town on the map” (77). Later during the trial, Jim realizes that the dispute is no longer about his hitting Dave; it has become a religious and political war, and they are simply pawns. Exasperated, he laments, “You niggers just tryin to get us messed up on some kind o' mess” (119). Clarke, a Methodist like Simms, establishes the Baptist chuch as the court site and sides with the Baptists in the community fight in order to protect his position. Similarly, in “The Bone of Contention,” the short story on which Mule Bone is based, the narrator explains that Jim and Dave and their dispute were unimportant: “It was evident to the simplest person in the village long before three o'clock that this was to be a religious and political fight” (33).

Turning again to the original story on which the play was based, we see that Daisy, the “plump, dark and sexy, … fickle” (Mule Bone 45) woman of Mule Bone, does not exist. The dispute between Jim and Dave in “The Bone of Contention” is over a turkey, which each man claims to have shot. We learn from various sources that the addition of Daisy as “the bone of contention” was the invention of Hughes and was not a welcome addition in the eyes of Hurston.11 Ruthe Sheffey emphasizes the importance of this aspect of the play by pointing out that when Hurston submitted the play for copyright in her own name, “she had reinserted the turkey as an object of contention instead of the girl, a matter of great moment to her” (219).

The precarious place of Daisy in Mule Bone is central to Sheffey's argument, and she makes much more of Hurston's resistance to Daisy than other critics have. To Sheffey, Daisy and what she represents is a viable explanation for the dispute between Hughes and Hurston over the play. She champions Hurston's cause, declaring that

by insisting on dropping the fight for Daisy's favor as the mainspring of the play, Hurston attempted heroically to resist the subtle mythology which placed Black women in the mold of Madonna or whore and which cast her in a position of powerlessness. The debates about the play show Hurston's insistence on female personhood, only later to be strongly affirmed in Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (222-23)

Although her argument is interesting, it perhaps and too easily uses Hughes as a scapegoat for the play's failure.12

Sheffey's argument based on Hurston's strong dislike for Daisy and the stereotypes she perpetuates is undercut when we realize that Hurston returned to Daisy later in her writing career. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Daisy Blunt13 is a central figure in the courtship ritual which is performed on the porch of Jody Stark's store. Her entrance onto the scene is remarkably similar in kind to her entrance in Mule Bone both emphasizing her sexuality. In Mule Bone she enters assertively, knowing she will be the center of attention and putting Mayor Clarke “in de mind of … a great big mango … a sweet smell, you know, with a strong flavor, but not something you could mash up like a strawberry. Something with a body to it” (60). Similarly, in Their Eyes Were Watching God,

Daisy is walking a drum tune. You can almost hear it by looking at the way she walks. She is black and she knows that white clothes look good on her, so she wears them for dress up. She's got those big black eyes with plenty shiny white in them that makes them shine like brand new money and she knows what God gave women eyelashes for, too. Her hair is not what you might call straight. It's negro hair, but it's got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It's not ham at all, but it's been around ham and got the flavor. It was spread down thick and heavy over her shoulders and looked just right under a big white hat. (63-4)

I agree with Sheffey that Hurston's resistance to making Daisy the center of Jim and Dave's dispute is vitally important, although I disagree with her about the grounds on which Hurston so vehemently objected to Daisy. Hurston may well have objected to the stereotypical image of black womanhood manifested in Daisy, but that concern was secondary to her concern about the folk. The introduction of a love plot with Daisy at the center forces the folk community into the background14—an addition which alters the entire nature of the play and of the new Black American theater envisioned by Hurston. For Hughes the creation of Daisy and the love triangle is not problematic; it is a way of utilizing the folk in producing Black American drama. Hurston's conceptualization of plot, as I have described it, is much freer; Hughes's more conventional.15

When Hurston and Hughes fell out and Mule Bone was not produced, Hurston rewrote the courship scene from the play into her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. As it appears she would have rather done in the play, she subordinates the courtship ritual to the interaction of the community on the porch. Just as in the play the argument is “over Daisy … over somethin' or nother o' no importance …” (127), in the short story, “the assault and the gobbler were unimportant” (33). Like the turkey, the love plot is only a device through which the community can play. She makes it clear in Their Eyes that “They know it's not courtship. It's acting-out courtship and everybody is in the play” (63). The community as a whole is central. Daisy, Jim, and Dave are at the same time center and not-center; they are the means to the plot but not the plot itself.16

Running through Mule Bone, then, there are two plots or levels of action. This can be easily seen in the alternating nature of scenes and actors. Act one begins on the porch in the midst of the Saturday afternoon lying sessions. Although Daisy appears relatively early in the act so that the men on the porch can discuss her and prepare for the entry of Jim and David, these rivals for her affection do not appear until two-thirds of the way through the first act. Daisy does not play a role in act two at all—except to be an object of discussion. Jim and Dave actually appear as little more than props during the trial—what began as their quarrel has become the battle of the community, and as a result, Jim and Dave are ignored for the most part. Act three, reversing what has occurred in act two, focuses solely on the love triangle, although the community has a role as a strong and silent (actually not so silent at the very beginning of the act as they chase Jim out of town) force. It is this alternating and intertwined plot—Hughes's love plot and Hurston's community plot—which causes confusion and becomes problematic for audiences and critics. Because the authors could not reconcile this important issue in the play, readers and viewers are left to struggle through it.

As attention in the play is directed away from the interaction of the members of the Eatonville community toward Daisy and the love plot, subversive and challenging elements of Mule Bone are dismissed, without a second glance, as stereotypes. It is interesting that a work which was originally planned in an attempt to “liberate the stage of its time of the black stereotypes which were then popular—the cavorting ‘darkies’ of minstrel shows, vaudeville and musical reviews (Pacheco 4) would be labeled as a play that perpetuates stereotypes of Black Americans. In his review, David Richards says that “Because of the unabashed country dialect and the broad characterizations, Mule Bone has long been viewed in some quarters as perpetuating noxious stereotypes” (29). The changes which were made in the play for its 1991 production—deletion of certain words and references, the disclaimer of the Zora character, etc.—speak to this very issue. There was a real fear on the part of the producers that some aspects of the play “might now appear offensive to blacks and whites alike” (Pacheco 4).17

In a New York Times article, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., asks, “Why would anyone believe there are still aspects of black culture that should be hidden because they are somehow ‘embarrassing’?” He says that “sixty years after Mule Bone was written, many black Americans still feel that their precarious political and social condition within American society warrants a guarded attitude toward the way images of their culture are projected” (5). Instead of a stereotype, Gates believes that “Mule Bone is a revelation of life ‘behind the veil’ … It portays what black people say and think and feel—when no white people are around—in a highly metaphorical and densely lyrical language” (5).

If Hurston and Hughes were in conflict over certain aspects of Mule Bone, it was certainly not in what I shall call the blues elements of the play. It is in these blues moments that Mule Bone invokes stereotypical images deliberately in order to subvert them. In a deviation from the original folk music planned for the play, Taj Mahal was asked to write the score for the 1991 production of Mule Bone, and he chose to set Hughes' poetry to the blues. Patrick Pacheco reports that Mahal “saw the fusion between African-American storytelling and the blues in both Hughes' poetry and the play.” For Mahal, “the art of laughter was one of the black folk's gifts to American culture. But, it's the art of laughing to keep from crying. That's what the blues is about too” (79).

It is the art of the blues that gets lost in the confusion over plot in Mule Bone. In his poem “Minstrel Man,” Langston Hughes juxtaposes the image of the happy minstrel with the subversion of the blues in a manner that is reminiscent of Paul Laurence Dunbar's “We Wear the Mask”:

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
You do not hear
My inner cry.
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing
You do not know
I die.

If we care to listen, we are made painfully aware throughout Mule Bone of the tragedy and despair that the laughter and comedy of the store front wards off.18

In establishing the setting for Act one, Hughes and Hurston take pains to describe the mood of the Saturday afternoon around the store. Although Saturday is a special day of relaxation in American society generally, the relaxation takes on added dimensions for the rural Black American community. Saturday afternoon is a day away from work, away from white bosses; it is, as Gates suggests, a time to reveal what is “behind the veil.” Despite the comfortable nature of the porch, however, reminders of “reality” intrude.19 One of the first images we are confronted with is a scene which reappears almost identically in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Mrs. Jake Roberts comes into the store with “her professional whine” and begs mayor and store owner Joe Clarke for food for herself and her children. While she could be dismissed as a source of laughter for the porch with her ritualistic begging, she needs to be seen as a reminder of a pressing problem in the rural community—hunger. While she is a source of entertainment, she also suggests the reality which looms just off the porch steps.

While whites are notably absent from the cast of Mule Bone, their oppressive presence in the lives of Eatonville's all-black community is apparent throughout the play. Jim and Dave play for the white folks in Maitland, and Daisy is a domestic servant for a white family that has taken her to the North for a period of time. For Jim and Dave Saturday away from the white folks is especially important. Their song and dance is particularly exuberant because, as Jim tells Daisy, we'se been playin' for the white folks all week. We'se playin' for the colored now” (85).20

Most sobering of all of the images of white folks in the play is the brief mention of the lynching of Jim's father. Hambo interrupts the interesting and amusing discussion of “law” with the statement, “We never drove off his pappy. De white folks took an' hung him for killin' dat man in Kissimmee for nothin'” (133). This interjection serves not only as a shocking reality check, but as commentary on the whole debate over the white folks' law. Just as the argument between Mayor Clarke and Rev. Simms over building a jail forces us to question the nature of crime and punishment, the mention of the lynching awakens us to the lawlessness of the law. Yet the controlling image of subversion in Mule Bone is work itself—connecting “Brazzle's old yaller mule,” the Saturday afteroon lying sessions, the women's household responsibilities, and the hard labor of slavery. These images of work are tied most closely to the characters Jim and Dave.21

Although critics have consistently defined Daisy as a stereotypical figure, few have said the same about dancer Dave Carter and Guitarist Jim Weston, the two-man song and dance team vying for Daisy's affections. Dave is described in the list of characters as a “soft, happy-go-lucky character, slightly dumb and unable to talk rapidly and wittily,” Jim as “slightly arrogant, aggressive, somewhat self-important, ready with his tongue” (45). From these descriptions it would appear that they would be just as open to the criticism of stereotypes, but possibly because they appear in more of the play than she does, and because Daisy is the object of their gaze, they have avoided such criticism.

Jim and Dave refuse to work jobs of traditional menial labor, not because they are “shiftless and lazy,” but because of the implications of that work. Shortly after they begin playing for the folks on the store porch and are castigated for never working, Jim declares, “Some folks think you ain't workin' lessen you smellin' a mule. Think you gotta be beatin' a man to his barn every mornin'” (85). As we know the mule, especially for Hurston, is a complicated image, but in this case, we can certainly relate it to the manual labor and abuse of slavery. Taking the white folks' money for playing and dancing for them is a way for Dave and Jim to resist the existing power structures. Daisy's demand that the man who marries her must come to work for “her white folks” as a yard man is completely unacceptable to Jim and Dave. She unwittingly brings the rivals back together and returns them to the community as she returns to “her white folks” alone.22

Despite—and maybe because of—these blues elements of the play, Mule Bone is a divided work confusing and complicated for audiences, readers, and scholars. In describing the tragicomic elements of Hughes' work, R. Baxter Miller has said that “the veneer of humor … has deceived the reader again and again, for comedy almost invariably coexists with the deeper pathos that threatens and ennobles it” (100). This certainly applies to Mule Bone, for in subtitling their play A Comedy of Negro Life, Hurston and Hughes deceived their audience and left them unprepared for what they would face in the play. The tragedy which waits just off the front steps of the general store and which constantly threatens to invade the comic world transforms Mule Bone into “A Tragicomedy of Negro Life.”

The misnaming of Mule Bone by Hurston and Hughes is important for it speaks directly to the inability of audiences to connect with what is happening on stage, to which reviews of the 1991 production have drawn attention. In “Black Drama and Its Audience,” Helene Keyssar points out that “the critic's goal must be to reveal not only the dramatic situation described but also the dramatic situation that occurs between the play and the audience. At the core of what a play means is not simply what it is about or what it says, but also what it does” (14). For it Keyssar, what a play can do is dependent upon the personal investment of the audience in what is happening on the stage-a play “demands a recognition in public of the worlds it presents” (2) The choice of the Lincoln Center Theatre producers of Mule Bone to create a Zora character and have her declare that the play is simply an anthropological study of folkflore does exactly what Keyssar warns against; it distances the audience from what occurs on stage, destroying “the dramatic situation that occurs between the play and the audience.” The play becomes simply the recovery of an historical moment which will not and can not have any real influence on the audience; the members of the audience are allowed to be observers who can remain comfortably detached. They are not made to feel the tragedy just under the surface of the comedy of Mule Bone.

From collaboration to production, then, Mule Bone continues to be a problematic play. The separate visions of Hughes and Hurston do not cease to wage war on each other, forcing the play to operate on different levels, causing confusion and misunderstanding. The folk and the blues cannot save it. Mule Bone will remain as Hurston and Hughes left it, an interesting work to study for all its possibilities but a difficult work to stage in all its realities.


  1. The unpolished nature of the play is most clearly evident in the inconsistent naming of characters throughout Mule Bone. Daisy Taylor is called Daisy Blunt at certain points, and her mother is Mrs. Blunt throughout the play. She is apparently unrelated to Mrs. Taylor. When Hurston reused some of the elements from Mule Bone for Their Eyes Were Watching God, she renamed Daisy Taylor as Daisy Blunt, thus clearing up the inconsistency.

  2. This may be explained by the way in which Hurston and Hughes worked on the play together. It is clear that they wrote most of acts one and three together but that Hurston may have written the majority of act two by herself.

  3. In one of the only positive reviews of the Lincoln Center production of Mule Bone, which begins “Exuberance is busting out all over the stage,” John Beaufort says that “Mr. Gates has performed a signal service to the cause of African-American theater and, more immediately, for the delight of Broadway audiences.” Seeing the play as a quaint artifact, it seems, Beaufort praises Mule Bone not for its dramatic merits but because it “occupies a unique place in the history of African-American theater.”

  4. In his discussion of Hurston as a dramatist, Warren Carson makes it clear that the play is simply not as interesting as the dispute which surrounds it: “The account of Mule Bone is certainly an interesting one, not so much from the standpoint of the play itself as from the controversy that it sparked between Hurston and Hughes” (122).

  5. Hemenway's colleague, Arnold Rampersad, the Hughes biographer, undertakes no such project. He discusses only the Mule Bone dispute as it relates to Hughes's life.

  6. Maybe it is the unsatisfactory nature of these explanations for the dispute which cause critics to return again and again to the quarrel instead of the play.

  7. Ruthe T. Sheffey is one of the only other scholars to discuss the different visions of the authors. She polarizes the perspectives of Hughes and Hurston along the lines of gender representation, and as we would expect from the founder of the Zora Neale Hurston Society and the editior of the Zora Neale Hurston Forum,she champions Hurston's cause, basically denouncing Hughes as a sexist. I will return to Sheffey and the issue of gender stereotyping later.

  8. In his introduction to Mule Bone, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., states that “[i]n April 1928, [Hurston] shared with Hughes her plans for a culturally authentic African-American theatre, one constructed upon a foundation of the black vernacular: ‘Did I tell you before I left about the new, the real Negro theatre I plan? Well, I shall, or rather we shall act out the folk tales, however short, with the abrupt angularity and naivete of the primitive ‘bama Nigger. Quote that with native settings. What do you think? … I know it is going to be glorious! A really new departure in the drama” ’ (9).

  9. Similarly, Edith Oliver, who is pleased with the folk elements of the play but confused about the plot, complains that “much as I enjoyed the talk and the goings on, I couldn't track any play at all” (82).

  10. Richards prefaces his synopsis of the play with the comment. “The plot—when ‘Mule Bone’ gets around to it—…” (29)

  11. Hemenway tells us that “the turkey was dropped (over Hurston's objections) and a girl made the root of the argument” (163).

  12. Sheffey polarizes Hurston and Hughes as writers and as woman and man, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of Hughes. She says, “The separate revisions of ‘Mule Bone’ done by Zora reveal her stubbornly resisting putting yet another black sensuous woman on stage as a vaudeville curiosity whose sexual favors are easily dispensed. On the contrary, Hughes' revisions in the character of Daisy Blunt and in the addition of Bootsie Putts reinforce the erotic/exotic fantasies about Black women, the lust and sensuality added as obvious thrill-seeking dramatic devices” (220).

  13. She is Daisy Taylor in Mule Bone.

  14. This point is made quite evident when we consider the reviews of the 1991 production I have previously mentioned which subordinate the community to the love triange of Daisy, Jim, and Dave and thus are upset when the “plot” is not attended to as it should be.

  15. In “Crayon Enlargements of Life,” Robert Hemenway makes clear the centrality of community life in Hurston's work. He says, “When Hurston writes of Eatonville, the store porch is all-important. It is the center of the community, the totem representing black cultural tradition; it is where the values of the group are manifested in verbal behavior. The store porch, in Zora's language, is ‘the center of the world.’ To describe the porch's activities she often uses the phrase ‘crayon enlargments of life’—When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to’” (78).

  16. The place of the love plot as center and not center is most clearly seen in Daisy's role in the play. As the central cause of Jim and Dave's fight, Daisy is the center of the love plot, and her place (and the place of the love plot) is obvious in the stage directions at the end of act one: “DAISY stands alone, unnoticed in the center of the stage” (99).

  17. This is interesting in that Ruthe Sheffey sees the inclusion of Daisy and the primitive sexualism which surrounds her as a deliberate move on Hughes's part to include “enough white fantasies about Afro-Americans to make the play a commercial success” (224). Commenting on Hurston's “The Guilded Six-Bits,” Gayl Jones makes an observation which is particularly important to the discussion of the audience. In this story, “we are inside rather than outside the black community and there is not the same double-conscious concern with an exclusive white audience” (147). By extension, we could say the same thing about “The Bone of Contention” and could hypothesize about the possibilities of a more unified Mule Bone.

  18. Eleanor Traylor defines this as “the double blade of humor which in Afro-American tradition carves the smile as it spears the tear” (57).

  19. As Darwin Turner described another of Hughes's plays, “shadows of a troubled world appear at the edge of the gay and the comic” (142)

  20. Oceola Jones, the main character in Hughes' “The Blues I'm Playing,” experiences a similar relief when she returns to playing jazz for Harlem house parties after studying classical piano and playing for her white patron, Mrs. Ellsworth.

  21. Eleanor Traylor would define Jim and Dave as blues heroes—“We know that the blues hero puts on a particular vestment. While the tragic hero dresses in the blood-stained cloak of nobility, destined for certain defeat, and while the comic hero wears the mantle of ordinary humanity, muddling in pedestrian concerns, the blues hero puts on the cloak of irony which shields him not from the wound of nobility nor from the foibles of the ordinary, but prepares him for the task of endurance which is his ordeal” (60).

  22. Ruthe Sheffey takes issue with this problematic ending, describing the final scene as one of “joyous male bonding and female exclusion, the two men starting their music up, singing together as friends, and starting happily back to town” (227). Yet, Daisy seems to be excluded not because she is a woman but because she aligns herself with “her white folks”—choosing stability over resistance.

Works Cited

Beaufort, John. “‘Mule Bone’ Debuts After 60 Years.” The Christian Science Monitor 26 Feb. 1991: 13.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., Introduction. “A Tragedy of Negro Life.” Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. Eds. George Houston Bass and Hentry Louis Gates, Jr., New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 5-24.

———. “Why the ‘Mule Bone’ Debate Goes On.” The New York Times 10 Feb. 1991, sec. 2: 5,8.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. 1977.

Hughes, Langston. “Black Dancers.” The Crisis 40.5 (Sept 1930): 110.

———. “The Blues I'm Playing.” The Ways of White Folks. New York: Knopf, 1933. 96-120.

———. “Minstrel Man.” The Crisis 31.2 (Dec. 1925): 66-67.

———. “My People.” The Crisis 24.2 (June 1922): 72.

———. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Black Expression: Essays by and About Black Americans in the Creative Arts. Eds. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1989. 258-63.

Hughes, Langston and Zora Neale Hurston. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. 1931. Eds. George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 161-84; 189-209.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Bone of Contention.” Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. Eds. George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 25-39.

———. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Negro: An Anthology. Ed. and coll. Nancy Cunard. 1934. Ed. and abr. Hugh Ford. New York: Frederick Ungar. 1970. 24-37.

———. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Ingraham, Janet. Rev. of Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, by Langston Hughes and Zora Hurston. Library Journal 116.2 (Feb. 1, 1991): 78.

Jones, Gayl. “Breaking Out of the Conventions of Dialect.” Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 141-53.

Keyssar, Helene. “Black Drama and Its Audience: Evolutions and Revolutions.” The Curtain and the Veil: Strategies in Black Drama. New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1981. 1-18.

Miller, R. Baxter. “‘I Heard Ma Rainey’: The Tragicomic Imagination.” The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. 99-118.

Oliver, Edith. Rev. of Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The New Yorker 67.1 (Feb. 25, 1991): 82.

Pacheco, Patrick. “A Discovery Worth the Wait?” Los Angeles Times 24 Feb. 1991, Calendar: 4, 78-9.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vol 1. 1986.

Rich, Frank. “A Difficult Birth for ‘Mule Bone.’” The New York Times 15 Feb. 1991: C1, 24.

Richards, David. “An English Tea and a Folk Tale.” The New York Times 24 Feb. 1991, sec. 2: 5, 29.

Sheffey, Ruthe T. “Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes's ‘Mule Bone’: An Authentic Folk Comedy and the Compromised Tradition.” Trajectory: Fueling the Future and Preserving the African-American Literary Past. Baltimore: Morgan State University Press, 1989. 211-31.

Traylor, Eleanor W. “Two Afro-American Contributions to Dramatic Form.” The Theater of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Errol Hill. Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980. 45-60.

Turner, Darwin T. “Langston Hughes as Playwright.” The Theater of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Errol Hill. Vol. 1 Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980. 136-47.


Criticism: Author Commentary


Criticism: Color Struck