Racial Violence and Representation: Performance Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s.
As a form of racial violence, lynching was fostered by an ideology of white supremacy which developed and flourished in the United States after the abolition of slavery.  In the context of institutionalized white supremacy, black men and women, no longer valuable property as slaves, increasingly became the victims of lynchings, and lynching clearly became a manifestation of black-white race relations in the United States.
While racial theorists generally agree that no scientific proof exists as a basis for racial determination, contemporary critical thought has challenged the very concept of "race" as a useful category, arguing that "race," similar to categories such as gender, is a social construct.  According to Omi and Winant, for example, "race is indeed a pre-eminently sociohistorical concept. Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded" (60). Lynching dramas, then, provide insight into an understanding of "race" as a social construct in the United States since they reflect a distinctly American phenomenon shaped by the African American struggle for survival in a white-dominated culture, as well as the simultaneous existence of interracial conflict and cooperation that has characterized black-white race relations throughout American history. For nearly a century, lynching was a highly visible and concrete exp ression of institutionalized white supremacy and a symbol of the existing power relations between the black and white "races" in the United States; its legacy lives on in the numerous incidents of racial violence and hate crimes that continue to occur in American society today. 
Although the brutal public ritual which these plays address for the most part no longer occurs, the history of lynching, as well as the cultural legacy of lynching drama, continues to shape our understanding of race in America. In a 1996 article, Jaquelin Goldsby refers to lynching as "the image that compresses the horrific brutality of America's racial history with regard to African Americans into a single act" (246), and Nellie McKay has described lynching as "one of the most heinous atrocities that white America has ever perpetuated against black America. ... Perhaps no other outrage against blacks, except slavery, has ever elicited as uniform a consensus in its condemnation by black people from all walks of life ..." (141). As a growing body of work, lynching dramas function as a dynamic cultural text by both conserving the memory of this particular form of racial violence and continuing to evolve as an theatrical genre on the American stage. Thus, an examination of lynching drama provides a focus on a c ultural legacy based on a specific and uniquely American form of racial violence that continues to play a fundamental role in constructing an understanding of a national identity as well as black and white racial identities in the United States.
Previous scholarly studies focusing on the representation of lynching in texts and images have not included an examination of lynching drama. Trudier Harris's groundbreaking 1984 book Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals revealed the ritualistic nature of lynching as well as its impact on writers of African American fiction. Her study provides a view of lynch acts as "rites of exorcism" designed by white Americans to eradicate "the black beast" from their midst (or at least render him powerless and emasculated) and an understanding of black writers who graphically portray lynching scenes in their writing to be "active tradition bearers," perpetuating an oral tradition bent on "racial survival" (xiii, 187). Sandra Gunning's 1996 book Race, Rape, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912, focuses on the literary reinforcement of or alternatives to the stereotypes that commonly surround white mob violence against African Americans (black male brute, hel pless white female victim, promiscuous black female, white male avenger). These constructed identities that facilitated lynching were repeated or refuted by both black and white writers, such as Charles Chesnutt and Mark Twain, who influenced public discourse on race and worked to reinvent ideas of "blackness" or "whiteness" at the turn of the century (141). Most recently, Kirk W. Fuoss's article "Lynching Performances, Theatres of Violence," in the January 1999 issue of Text and Performance Quarterly, re-articulates the history of lynching within the context of performance theory and explores the repetitive behaviors that constituted a lynching incident as a cyclical "web of performance" or "performance complex" (5). Harris, Gunning, and Fuoss all address the ritualistic nature of lynching and the symbolic function of the ritual, which was to reinforce the ideology and practice of white supremacy; the ritual was a highly visible means through which white mobs were able to torture and murder black Americans w ith no repercussions for their actions. As lynching became "an American race-ritual," the response of black and white playwrights resulted in the development of an American dramatic genre that requires a focus on "race" and the construction of racial identity in the United States. 
The first known reference to lynching in American drama occurred in 1858 in William Wells Brown's The Escape; Or, A Leap For Freedom, but lynching drama began to appear as a unique type of drama in the early twentieth century when playwrights moved beyond brief references to lynching and began to create representations of specific lynching incidents. Perkins and I have defined a lynching drama as "a play in which the threat or occurrence of a lynching, past or present, has major impact on the dramatic action" (3). Plays which fit this definition have existed as a distinct type of American theatre for at least ninety-five years, and continue to be written and produced today.  They encompass both one-act and full-length dramas as well as a variety of production styles ranging from melodrama and "early realism" to expressionism and contemporary experimental techniques. Although each play is a unique work of art, the representation of a lynching incident provides the hallmark or specific textual feature that determines the genre. 
Plays on lynching both reflect and inform the complex relationship of black and white cultures in the United States by simultaneously preserving and transcending a history of racial separation. The plays preserve, through their symbolic representations of lynching, a consciousness of racial conflict and violence instigated by institutionalized white racism, but they also transcend the boundaries of racial separation through the interracial nature of the playwrights, directors, casts, and audiences associated with their creation and performance. Despite plays such as Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1905), a white supremacist's defense of lynching, most lynching dramas are written in the anti-lynching tradition and reflect a tradition of black and white Americans working together against racial injustice.
This essay, which is part of a larger project to provide a comprehensive history and analysis of the genre, identifies the specific artistic and political movements that converged in the 1920s to produce a distinctive and crucial decade in the development of lynching drama. The analysis of works by three playwrights reveals the decade's anti-lynching aesthetic as well as the innovative performance-based strategies, or performance-oriented techniques, that were employed to represent the racial violence of lynching on stage. During the 1920s lynching dramas appeared on Broadway (Paul Green's In Abraham's Bosom ) as well as in community and educational theatre venues; they were printed in pioneering black publications such as Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory's Plays of Negro Life (1927) and W.E.B. Du Bois's The Crisis, as well as in obscure "little magazines" of the Harlem Renaissance, such as the Saturday Evening Quill. These arenas of production and reception suggest the ubiquity of the genre and vari ety of its audiences.
Lynching and Lynching Drama in the 1920s
Lynching dramas of the 1920s reflect the influences of the Harlem Renaissance and dramatic realism as well as a burgeoning "Folk Drama" and a national "Little Theatre" movement. These artistic movements converged with the ongoing brutality of white mobs murdering African Americans and a national anti-lynching campaign to produce a new aesthetic for black and white American playwrights.
Although incidents of mob violence had dropped steadily since the peak year of 1892, lynching remained the most vivid symbol of black oppression throughout the twenties shaping the consciousness of Americans, both black and white (Hall 136). According to statistics gathered by the Tuskgegee Institute, of the 315 reported lynchings that occurred from 1920 through 1929, 34 victims were white, and 218 were black (Zangrando 6). Lynching can be seen as one of the strongest indicators of the black-white racial divide in the 1920s: For black Americans, lynching reinforced social boundaries that became, quite literally, a matter of life and death, whereas the white reaction to lynching was typically either general acceptance or indifference, although a few whites did speak out against it (Zangrando 14).
The anti-lynching movement, which began within the nineteenth-century African American community, gained momentum in the 1920s with organizations such as the NAACP pressing for anti-lynching legislation in Congress and Mary Talbert's Anti-Lynching Crusaders working to raise one million dollars, as well as the nation's consciousness, in the fight against mob violence. Magazines and newspapers such as the New York Age, The Crisis, and the New York Amsterdam News regularly published editorials and reports calling attention to lynching as "the shame of America," and in the 1920s large Southern newspapers such as The Atlanta Constitution and Greensboro Daily News finally began to follow their lead.  As anti-lynching ideology merged with contemporary artistic movements, plays focusing on a lynching incident began to appear more frequently. In an appendix that lists all currently known lynching dramas, Perkins and I were able to identify ten plays that were written during the decade of the twenties (411-16).
While lynching dramas of the 1920s contributed to the development of lynching drama as a unique genre, they generally conformed to the style of writing for the stage known as dramatic realism and incorporated aspects of the decade's influential artistic movements known as the Little Theatre Movement, Harlem Renaissance, New Negro Movement, and Folk Drama Movement. Since these movements and their legacies are explored in studies of American theatre and literature, I will review them here only briefly, with a focus on their relation to the development of lynching drama.
In the 1920s the flowering of black art and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance coincided with the Little Theatre Movement--a nationwide movement to create community-centered, amateur (i.e., not-for-profit) theatres in which plays, mostly in one act, could be inexpensively produced. At the same time, American playwrights, newly fascinated with their own cultural resources, were attempting to forge a "native drama" by drawing on the folk life, customs, and speech patterns of a particular people, culture, or region. Theatre artists, critics, and educators saw a national theatre emerging from local playhouses and local playwrights. In his 1927 essay "A Chronology of the Negro Theatre," educator Montgomery Gregory wrote that "the drama of Negro Life is now recognized as an important factor in the development of a native American drama" (409), and then-contemporary critic Kenneth Macgowan predicted that, "out of a folk drama, will come a national drama" (218). Since the white-dominated American theatre did not welcome either black artists or audiences, leaders in the African American community took it upon themselves to create opportunities for black theatre artists. As the respective editors of the Urban League's Opportunity magazine and the NAACP's Crisis, Charles S. Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois offered cash prizes and publication for the best black-authored one-act plays dealing with black experience  Du Bois also organized the Krigwa Players Little Negro Theatre to produce "a real Negro theatre" that would address itself to the black community. In the words of Du Bois, the theatre would be "About us, By us, For us, and Near us" (qtd. in Hatch and Hamalian 447). Among the other cultural leaders who created opportunities for black theatre artists were Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory who, as professors at Howard University, championed a "national Negro theatre" (Gregory. "Drama" 159) and established the Howard Players and the Department of Theatre Arts as a professional training ground.
It is significant that a lynching drama--Judge Lynch, by J. W. Rogers, Jr.--claimed the first-place Belasco Cup award in the 1924 national Little Theatre Tournament and that, in the initial year (1925) of the Opportunity and Crisis playwriting competitions, first- and third-place prizes were awarded to early lynching dramas written by G. D. Lipscomb (Frances) and Myrtle Smith Livingston (For Unborn Children). Many of the outstanding black writers associated with the Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Angelina Grimke wrote lynching dramas, as did white "Folk Drama playwrights" Ridgely Torrence, Paul Green, and J. W. Rogers. Rogers's Judge Lynch appeared in Locke and Montgomery's pioneering 1927 anthology Plays of Negro Life: A Source Book of Native American Drama. Throughout the decade, and into the next, lynching dramas were primarily produced in newly developing, amateur "Little Theatres" and educational theaters in both white and black communities. Cultur al critic Ann Douglas has described the 1920s as a period of "complex and double empowerment; at the moment that America at large was separating itself culturally from England and Europe, black America, in an inevitable corollary movement, was recovering its own heritage from the dominant white culture" (5).
Lynching dramas by black playwrights contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and to the emancipatory, anti-assimilationist discourse on behalf of African Americans in the 1920s; the plays were an important part of a racial pride movement in which artistic expression, self-definition, social protest, and self-defense were united as fundamental principles. At the same time, the plays were recognized as part of an American Folk Drama Movement in which every community, with its own native group of plays and producers, would provide "a richly varied authentic expression of American life."  However, Leslie Catherine Sanders has provided scholars with a note of caution here, by revealing the limited similarity in "folk drama" as written by black and white playwrights: While white folk dramatists were primarily concerned with depicting "naked, unaccommodated man" in conflict with the forces of nature, black playwrights desired to treat "the entire range of social, moral, and political problems that face black peop le, both as a group and as individuals trying to make sense of their heritage" (20). The discourse surrounding the production and reception of these texts suggests the shifting racial boundaries of a burgeoning genre that was positioned simultaneously in a form of cultural black nationalism as well as a native American folk drama. 
The Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement refer to an historical period in both American and PanAfrican cultural history that is famous for its legacy of creative work focusing on the lives and concerns of African Americans. The New Negro of the 1920s was seen as assertive in demanding his or her rights as a full American citizen while, at the same time, celebrating a new pride in a distinct cultural heritage. Many writers of the Harlem Renaissance were considered "New Negroes" because their work reflected a cultural nationalism or sense of racial pride in a distinct black culture that supported a view of black America as a nation within a nation.  Alain Locke's The New Negro: An Interpretation, considered by many to be the manifesto of the New Negro Movement, is seen by Houston Baker to project "a nation comprised of self-consciously aspiring individuals who view their efforts as co-extensive with global strivings for self-determination and national cultural expression" (Modernism 74).
Dramatic realism was a style of writing and production that endeavored to portray a serious social problem through particularized characters (true-to-life individuals instead of type characters) who speak and act in localized settings of daily routine, while folk drama valued authentic reproduction of common life and attempted the artistic representation of the speech, characters, manners, and incidents of a particular people, culture, or region.  According to theatre historian Randolph Edmonds, after 1910 the movements of realism and folk drama converged to give the American theatre "more significant" plays and playwrights (385).
While all lynching dramas of the 1920s were written in the style of dramatic realism and addressed lynching as an unresolved social problem of racial injustice, most were also "folk dramas," meaning that they were set in working-class homes of the rural South and employed an idiom that the playwrights judged to be appropriate for the characters and region. In lynching dramas of the 1920s "the folk" were primarily black, rural, working-class Southern families who spoke with a regional dialect and lived with the very real fear of lynching and the threat of lynch mobs invading their homes. Reflecting the racial divide that historical lynching aimed to enforce, most white characters were portrayed as lynch mob members or supporters.
A previous study covering the years 1905 to 1920 revealed the earliest playwrights of the anti-lynching tradition most commonly used the verbal description of a past lynching as a technique of representation. Grimke's Rachel (1916), Ridgely Torrence's Granny Maumee (1914 and 1917), Alice Dunbar Nelson's Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), Mary Burrill's Aftermath (1919), and Tracy Mygatt's The Noose (1919) all contain the verbal recreation of a past lynching and the portrayal of its continuing impact on families and communities. 
Playwrights of the twenties moved away from relying solely on the narration of a past lynching and began to employ more performance-oriented techniques that emphasized the ongoing, current nature of the violence and called upon the non-verbal aspects of theatre, such as the actor's vocal range, musical accompaniment, or visual humor. The following examination of three representative plays reveals how these performance-oriented techniques were appropriated by lynching dramatists and resulted in specific innovations such as: employing a single actor's voice to produce a chorus of voices that recreates an incident in which a black man is lynched for a crime that a white man has committed, using the presence and absence of bodies on stage to create the tense atmosphere surrounding the threat of a lynching incident while incorporating physical as well as verbal humor, and pitting sight against sound to convey a lynching incident as an experience of jarring contrasts. As in the previous decade, the genre's predomi nant setting in the 1920s continued to be a working-class family home in the rural American South, but the racial divide was continually emphasized by portraying the vulnerability and resistance of black families or the complicity of white families.
This essay focuses on the representations of lynching appearing in Judge Lynch (1924) by J(ohn) W(illiam) Rogers, Jr., a white Dallas newspaper reporter; Son-Boy (1928) by Joseph Mitchell, an African American attorney who practiced in Boston but who had been born and raised in the South; and Sunday Morning in the South (c. 1925) by Georgia Douglas Johnson, a leading African American poet and playwright working in Washington, D.C. Reflecting the influences of the Little Theatre and Folk Drama Movements, all three plays are one-acts with small casts and simple sets, containing characters who represent the common, everyday folk with little formal education, and who speak with a dialect written to reflect the rhythms and patterns of their culture and region. While Mitchell's Son-Boy is set in 1900, Rogers's Judge Lynch and Johnson's Sunday Morning in the South, like most of the dramas written in the 1920s, are set in the present, a stark reminder that they were written during a decade in which more than 300 lync hings occurred and filibusters by Southern Senators repeatedly killed all proposed anti-lynching legislation in the United States Congress.
Judge Lynch was first produced by the Green Mask Players of Houston in 1923. A later production by The Dallas Little Theatre won first place in the 1924 national Little Theatre Tournament held in New York. Set in a white, rural Southern home, the action is played out against an incident in which a black man is lynched for a murder a white man has committed. The play creates a mystery for the audience to solve, while also revealing the racist attitudes of the white family, all of whose members never refer to the lynching victim as anything but "the nigger" or "Jack's nigger." Two white women, Mrs. Joplin and her daughter-in law Ella, are shown going about domestic chores as they discuss the murder of their white neighbor and wait for Ed, Ella's husband, who has joined the lynch mob in search of the murderer. All of the characters assume the murderer is the black man with whom the neighbor had argued the previous day. While they are waiting for Ed, the two women engage in conversation with a somewhat dishevele d white stranger who has happened to pass by and stop for a drink of water. As the play progresses, it becomes clear to the audience, but not the two women, that this white stranger is the murderer. Upon his return, Ed describes the lynching in gruesome detail as, unnoticed by the others, the white stranger listens intently and begins to squirm uncomfortably.
Ed's description includes the mob's harassment and threatening of the black man's wife, his capture, his begging for mercy, his forced confession, and his eventual death by hanging and shooting. The description/narration becomes a performance of the cold-blooded viciousness of racism in the white community and is a representation of what Kirk Fuoss calls "narrativizing the lynching" or one of the "subsequent performances" that commonly occurs in the lynching cycle (18). The stage directions of the play instruct the actor playing Ed to carry out routine tasks, such as washing and drying his hands and taking off his shoes, as he delivers what the playwright refers to as "the recital of the lynching" from center stage. A major structural unit in the text and delivered from the central location of the performance space, "the recitation" becomes polyvocal in that it reproduces, through Ed's single voice, the variety of voices that found expression during the lynching incident. Ed's recitation of the lynching inci dent, written to capture his folk dialect, contains his own impressions ("I never before seen a nigger so near the color of ashes.... He'd beg and cry and call on God as a witness"); his recreation of the voices of individual mob members ("Walter Williams hauls off and knocks the nigger down, shoutin' 'Confess you black baboon, or we'll burn you alive'"); the voices of groups within the mob ("Sim kept Walter from hitting him again, but half a dozen of them began to yell. 'Burn him--build a fire--'") and the voice of the victim ("Don't burn me, oh Lawdy, don't burn me. Oh boss, I don't know what it is, but if you say I done it, I done it, just don't burn me. I done it all") (Rogers 227-28).
Ed's recitation calls to mind Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "polyphonic" discourse in that it presents a multiplicity of voices (4), but it ultimately resists this definition because all voices are not given equal value. Within the context of the play, the voices of the lynch mob members serve, ironically, to critique lynching and to express the playwright's ideological (anti-lynching) position. In other words, the playwright has appropriated the views and voices of lynching advocates in order to interrogate and condemn lynching. Bakhtin wrote in 1929 that "drama is by nature alien to genuine polyphony" because "it allows for one, not several, systems of measurement" (28). Although many examples from the history of theatre (such as the contemporary performances of Anna Deavere Smith) challenge that view, Judge Lynch is an anti-lynching drama that includes the representation of contradictory (pro-lynching) voices but primarily to illuminate the views of the playwright, or what Bakhtin calls the "unified consci ousness" of the author (4).
The "recitation" in Judge Lynch is the first detailed verbal recreation of a lynching by a lynch mob member in American drama. An additional significance of this representation is that Ed is not portrayed as a one-dimensional "villain" or "type character." Throughout his recitation of the lynching, Ed is to be "deeply moved" by what he has just witnessed--"so deeply," the playwright notes, that "he tries to appear indifferent with only partial success" (Rogers 225). Ed's struggle to appear "unmoved" by the barbaric violence in which he has participated provides a critique of white "manhood" and its unemotional, stoic ideal. My analysis suggests that, through performing the recitation while carrying out routine daily tasks, in the presence of the character the audience suspects to be the actual murderer, the character of Ed ironically delivers the condemnation of his own lynch-mob mentality as well as the condemnation of racial attitudes that support lynching--or the silence that permits it to continue. The s trength of the condemnation relies heavily on the aural effect of the recitation.
A contemporary review of the play judged it to be "a potent argument against lynching" and praised it for its "dramatic strength" and "unity of construction."  Judge Lynch was published by Samuel French in a 1924 collection of one-act plays "for stage and study," introduced by playwright Augustus Thomas as "an American volume" addressed to "the reading public and amateur players" (7-8), and by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory in their pioneering 1927 anthology Plays of Negro Life. Locke's comments on the play reveal, in the language of the era, the fluid racial boundaries of the genre: "There are plays with Negro characters that are to all intents and purposes not racially distinctive enough to be classified as Negro plays; and a play like Judge Lynch, included in this collection, with entirely white characters, may yet be so much of a play of the peculiar situations of race, as to be indisputably a drama of Negro theme and motive" (Locke, "Introduction" xv-xvi). While Locke saw the development of Negr o drama in America as a "freeman's estate, with a reciprocity and universality of spirit that truly great art requires," he urged black playwrights to draw on their "natural advantage of greater intimacy and knowledge of Negro life and to "tap the gifts of the folk temperament--its humor, sentiment, imagination, and tropic nonchalance" ("Introduction" xv). Joseph Mitchell's Son-Boy, representative of the decade's black folk drama and published the year after Plays of Negro Life, seems to answer Locke's call.
Son-Boy, by Joseph Mitchell, a black Boston attorney who was born and raised in the South, was published in the June 1928 issue of The Saturday Evening Quill. The magazine grew out of the regular literary discussion meetings of the Boston Saturday Evening Quill Club and was edited by Eugene Gordon, who was on the editorial staff at the Boston Globe. Financed by club members, The Quill was viewed as a conservative, East Coast, African American journal and one of the "little magazines" nourished by the Harlem Renaissance. During its short life (1928-1930), it won the approval of such writers of W.E.B Du Bois and Alice Dunbar Nelson and of publications such as The New York Age and Commonweal. 
Son-Boy reveals a distinctive quality of lynching dramas written by African American male playwrights of the 1920s in that, instead of portraying a helpless black victim, it focuses on the threat of a lynching and portrays the resistance and/or escape of an intended victim.  One of the earliest known lynching dramas written by a black male playwright, the play is also one of the most unusual examples of the genre because of Mitchell's use of irony and humor. As theatre scholar and historian James V. Hatch has observed, Son-Boy is one of the few lynching dramas with a "happy ending" (Hatch and Hamalian 74).
The play takes place in "about 1900" in the rural Southern home of Zeke and Dinah Johnson, in which Dinah, who takes in washing for a living, is ironing clothes. Zeke and Dinah's child, Son-Boy, is being pursued by a lynch mob for a crime he did not commit, and much of the plot revolves around deciding where he should hide and how he can secure a gun or razor to defend himself should he be found. In a scene of intense physical activity that calls for meticulous timing on the part of the actors, Dinah finally hides him under the pile of clothes she is ironing. When a family friend arrives and reveals that the real culprit, a white man who had blackened his face and hands, has been caught, Dinah uncovers her son and speaks to him:
Come on out f'om yet hidin' place, Son-Boy. You'se safe. (Son-Boy stands up, Dinah embraces him.) I kno's yu didn't done it. (89)
Rising from the pile of clothes Son-Boy acknowledges that he did not commit the crime, but recalling, in folk dialect, the spirit of Claude MacKay's poetic tribute to self-defense "If We Must Die," he assures his family and friends that, "if they had ter' lynch me for nothin' I wus gwine ter make 'em lynch me fer somethin.'"  Dinah, who has taught her son always to stand up for himself responds, "Dat's right, Son-Boy, dat's right" (90). Along with the scenes of intense physical activity (characters rapidly entering and exiting the stage, and opening and closing closet doors in deciding where to hide) and Son Boy's hiding under, then emerging from, a pile of laundry, a constant verbal debate is carried on between Zeke and Dinah:
Zeke: (looking up at the clock) Ef Son-Boy's bein' lynched what is yuh gwine ter do 'bout it?
Dinah: (still dressing with her body half-way in the closet and closet door half way open) What yuh axin' me fer? YOU'S a man--dat is you's a piece o'one stuck up dere in dem britches! Is YOU too skerry to he'p?
Zeke: (walking around room with pipe in his mouth upside down) I would he'p but I don't kno' where Son-Boy is.
Dinah: Y' don't want ter kno'.
Zeke: I thought you'd kno'.
Dinah: Thought nothin'! How y'spect fer me ter kno'?
Zeke: I thought yuh'd go out an' look fer 'im. (83)
Zeke is afraid of white folks, but Dinah is proud that she came from "a fightin' tribe" who "ain't skeered o' nobody no time. ... Dat's de stock I come f'om an' dat's de stock I'se handing down ter Son-Boy" (84). A significant musical addition to the action is that Dinah opens and closes the play singing, "Before I'd be a slave / I'd be buried in my grave. / And go home to my father and be saved" (77, 91-92).
Joseph Mitchell was perhaps the first known playwright but not the first black American to weave elements of humor into a critique of lynching. Mel Watkins, in his recent book On the Real Side, has documented jokes and humorous tales on lynching as part of the "underground tradition" of African American humor. According to Watkins, the existence of such jokes and stories "underscores the irony in much black comedy" as well as "a comic sense of some white southerners' barbarity" (32). Son-Boy introduces elements of humor into a genre in which humor is rare and unexpected. The technique is successful because Mitchell's ability to relieve a life-threatening situation with everyday domestic humor (the marital bickering between Dinah and Zeke) produces an ironic look at white "Southern hospitality" from a black perspective.
Mitchell drew upon what he knew to be traditional survival skills for the black family: a sense of humor, quick thinking, self-reliance, and unrelenting resistance to oppression. In constructing a play that clearly portrayed these skills passing from one generation to the next, he utilized what Locke calls Michell's "intimate knowledge of Negro life" as well as the common devices of the Folk Drama and Little Theatre Movements. Attesting to its significance as an early contribution to "a theatre that could speak to and for African Americans," Son-Boy was recently republished in Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940, edited by James V. Hatch and Leo Hamalian (18). Hatch and Hamalian remind their readers of the "serious nature" of the conflict at the play's center, noting that the family, although spared this time by mistaken identity, remains vulnerable to the "violently whimsical impulses of their tormentors" (74). My examination of the play has attempted to reveal its historical importance and uniq ue status as a lynching drama. Because of Joseph Mitchell's uncommon approach, which skillfully combines the threat of a lynching with the black tradition of irony and humor, Son-Boy remains as one of the most unusual and remarkable creations of the genre.
When the American theatre is examined through the genre of lynching drama, Georgia Douglas Johnson emerges as a central figure. Although recognized primarily as a poet, she was the most prolific of all anti-lynching playwrights. According to the synopsis of plays recorded in her "Catalogue of Writings," six titles represent the category Johnson referred to as her "lynching plays." Until recently, only four of these texts were thought to be extant, but with the recent discovery of Johnson's two "lost" lynching plays, one of which exists in two different versions, a complete study of her contribution to the genre is possible. 
No known documentation exists of Johnson's lynching dramas being either published or produced in her lifetime. The irony of her status as the most prolific playwright of lynching dramas, but also the least published or produced, speaks to both the neglect of the genre and to the precarious position Douglas held as a black woman writer during the early decades of the twentieth century. In their respective studies of women writers of the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement, scholars Gloria T. Hull and Cheryl A. Wall found that African American women were penalized in subtle and blatant ways for their gender and that their writing reveals a very different, less optimistic sense of the Renaissance than does the work of their male counterparts. Whereas previous scholarship had categorized Johnson as "the lady poet of the New Negro Renaissance" and a "traditionalist and advocate of genteel culture" (Tate xviii, lxvi), more recent works by Hull, Wall, Fletcher, and Tate have brought to light the complexity of her unique vision and her struggles as a black woman artist in the 1920s and '30s.
Johnson's plays clearly reflect the influences of the decade's folk drama, but they are also representative of two contemporary, opposing schools of thought on African American theatre, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. According to theatre historian and critic Samuel A. Hay, Du Bois's Protest/Propaganda School of Theatre favored plays that "depicted the struggle of African Americans against racism," whereas Locke's Art Theatre School championed "a new generation" of playwrights who did not see themselves through "the distorted perspective of a social problem" but who, instead, "would search first for Truth and Beauty" and depict characters who expressed honest emotions "irrespective of politics" (Hay 3-5). Johnson's lynching dramas can be seen as folk dramas as well as a skillful combination of the ideals of both schools. 
An examination of Sunday Morning in the South, Johnson's most accessible (i.e., most frequently published) lynching drama from the 1920s, suggests that she deserves a place among the advance guard of artists who courageously sought to bring what were then considered "taboo" subjects surrounding lynching to the American stage. In addition to addressing such topics as the black male brute/white female victim stereotype, Johnson created innovative techniques that relied heavily on the materiality or semiotics of theatre to convey the horrors of lynching. Her innovative strategy for conveying the horrors of lynching on stage called for a performance that would envelop her audience in an experience of jarring contrasts by pitting sight against sound or, in other words, by constructing a dialectic of the senses in which what the audience sees is challenged by what they hear.
Sunday Morning in the South is innovative in its subject matter in that it was the first lynching drama to portray on stage the apprehension of an innocent black man (Tom Griggs) for allegedly attacking a white woman, as well as the white woman's complicity with the unjust racial order. Johnson employs the conventions of folk drama and portrays the extreme vulnerability of the black home in the 1920s by setting her play in a humble, two-room house in the South where Tom lives with (and supports) Sue Jones, his seventy-year-old grandmother, and Bossie Griggs, his seven-year-old brother. As two white police officers enter the home during the family's Sunday morning breakfast and arrest Tom for a crime he did not commit, a white woman, who accompanies the officers and whom Tom is accused of attacking, stands by with acceptance and passivity. This scene is the first dramatic portrayal of how the actions of white police officers and white women support the more explicitly brutal actions of the lynch mob. The scen e challenges the racial and gender stereotypes that supported lynching:
Sue: Say Mr. Officer, whut you tryin to do to my granson? Shore as God Amighty is up in them heabens he was right here in bed. I seed him and his little brother Bossie there saw him, didn't you Bossie?
Bossie: (in a frightened whisper) Yessum, I seed him and I heered him!
First Officer: (to Bossie) Shut up. Your word's nothing. (looking at Sue) Nor yours either. Both of you'd lie for him. (steps to back door and makes a sign to someone outside, then comes back into the room taking a piece of paper from his vest pocket and reads slowly, looking at Tom critically as he checks each item) Age around twenty, five feet five or six, brown skin ... (he folds up the paper and puts it back into his vest) Yep! Fits like a glove. (Sue, Liza and Tom look from one to the other with growing amazement and terror as the Second Officer pushes open the door and stands there supporting a young White Girl on his arm)
Second Officer: (to girl) Is this the man?
White Girl: (hesitatingly) I--I'm not sure ... but ... but he looks something like him ... (holding back)
First Officer: (encouragingly) Take a good look, Miss. He fits our description perfect. Color, size, age, everything. Pine Street Market ain't no where from here, and he surely did pass that way last night. He was there all right!
We got it figgered all out. (to Girl, who looks down at her feet) You say he looks like him?
White Girl: (looking at him again quickly) Y-e-s (slowly and undecidedly) I think so. I ... I ... (then she covers her face with her arm and turns quickly and moves away from the door, supported by the Second Officer, First Officer makes a move toward Tom and slips handcuffs on him before anyone is aware what is happening) (106)
Tom is handcuffed by the police officers, despite his grandmother's attempts to intervene, and out of concern for her safety and that of his young brother, Tom determines that it is best for him to go along with the officers without protest:
Tom: (utterly bewildered) Granma, don't take on so. I'll go along with him to the sheriff. I'll splain to him how I couldn't a done it when I was here sleep all the time--I never laid eyes on that white lady before in all my life. (107)
All of the action takes place within the home, but Johnson provides a strong counterpoint to the interior action by calling for a sequence of songs to be heard coming from the church next door. This structure provides for the quiet family breakfast, the sudden apprehension of Tom, and the subsequent news of his lynching, to be accompanied by Christian music. From the beginning song, "Amazing Grace," to a chorus of "Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me," through two stanzas of" Alas and Did My Savior Bleed," to the final sounds of "Lord Have Mercy Over Me," Johnson arranges for the performance of sounds to shape, contradict, and illuminate the visual action on stage, and she confronts her audience with a sensory-based dialectic that demands an interpretive resolution.
Audience members or readers could interpret the competing forces of spiritual songs and racial violence as endorsing, questioning, or repudiating the value of retaining a strong religious faith in the face of the decade's lynching epidemic. The sound of the songs as an accompaniment to the intrusion of the home, and subsequent reporting of Tom's lynching, might soothe some audience members, while disturbing or even angering others. Placed in this context, the scene asks whether religion or spiritual faith is an opiate of an oppressed people or a source of undying strength and survival in the face of oppression. The unresolved tension between these competing questions allows for a multiplicity of meanings and emphasizes the collaborative nature of artistic production that depends on audience/reader interpretation.
Among the "modernist impulses" found in Johnson's work, Claudia Tate has noted that "religious faith is tinged in her verse with skepticism" and that "dramatic irony" distinguishes her plays (lxi). The haunting representation of a lynching incident in Sunday Morning in the South repeats this modernist condition of "conflicted awareness" (Tate lxii) and reveals as well Johnson's skill in creating a drama of concentrated emotional power. Furthermore, Johnson's daring subject matter and innovative artistic approach attest to her status as an innovative playwright and reinforces Winona Fletcher's perspective of Johnson as a "revolutionary playwright" (41). Her bold attack on lynching in Sunday Morning in the South provides a contrast to the traditional image of Johnson as the proper "lady poet" of the Harlem Renaissance.
The lack of production or publication of Johnson's plays during her lifetime (in spite of their submission to the Federal Theatre Project) attests to her status as an ignored or unappreciated playwright of the lynching drama genre.  Johnson's position as the most prolific (but unproduced) playwright of lynching drama testifies to her vision of theatre as "art for life's sake" and her timely struggle to bring such a theatre to the American stage. 
This essay has revealed the influences of the Harlem Renaissance, Little Theatre, and Folk Drama Movements on the development of lynching drama during the 1920s. These artistic movements encouraged new playwrights and provided new artistic arenas and audiences for the publication and production of lynching dramas. The representations of lynching in the three plays discussed here indicate the variety of artistic approaches within the genre and reveal the unique merging of artistic creativity and social consciousness that occurred in the 1920s. It is indeed ironic that parallel artistic movements--one seeking to express a distinct black culture and two others seeking to express a national identity--would find common ground in the racial violence of lynching.
As plays representing the development of the genre in the 1920s, Judge Lynch, Son-Boy, and Sunday Morning in the South demonstrate an increased reliance on performance techniques by playwrights who were employing the materiality of the stage in increasingly complex and sophisticated ways. While representations of lynching in the previous decade relied primarily on the verbal description of a past lynching, these dramas are set in a time frame in which the threat or actual occurrence of a lynching takes place. These representations from the 1920s reveal an increased reliance on nonverbal aspects of theatre such as the actor's vocal range, the presence and absence of bodies on stage, the incorporation of visual along with verbal humor, and musical accompaniment chosen to challenge the stage action.
My analysis of these three plays suggests that lynching dramas are a valuable site for exploring the configurations of a distinctly American genre as well as the impact of race and gender on the development of theatre in the United States. Lynching dramas of any era can provide insight into an historical and cultural understanding of black and white identities in the United States. John F. Callahan has suggested their relevance to contemporary discourse on race and national identity through his observation that "enactments of lynching are not mere obscene vestiges of the past but conscientious reminders of racial terrors dormant but not extinguished from the American heart" (467). As a distinctly American genre, lynching dramas provide a unique intersection of aesthetics, race, gender, and politics; they provide a new site for examining the relations among theatre, national identity, and racial identity in the United States.
Judith L. Stephens is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication, College of the Liberal Arts, at Penn State University. She is coeditor, with Kathy Perkins, of Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women (Indiana UP, 1998) and has published numerous articles on issues of race and gender in American drama and on lynching drama as a unique genre. Dr. Stephens teaches courses in speech communication, theatre, and women's studies at both the Penn State Schuylkill and Harrrisburg campuses.
(1.) See the entries in the List of Works Cited for Stephens; Fletcher; and Perkins, "Impact."
(2.) The history of this particular form of lynching is well-documented. For general studies, see Raper; Tolnay and Beck; Ginzburg; Wells-Barnett; White; Cutler; and Zangrando. For 1920s magazine and newspaper commentary, see Du Bois, "We Are a Nation of Murderers."
(3.) According to Mary Church Terrell, founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women, lynching was "the aftermath of slavery" (see Terrell 853). For additional information on Terrell, see Beverly Jones.
(4.) For an historical review and analysis of racial theory in the United States, see Gossett. For an example of scholarship providing a view of "race" as an arbitrary linguistic category and questioning its usefulness as a category of thought, see Gates, "Writing 'Race'"; for a response to Gates, see Baker, "Caliban's Triple Play."
(5.) After 1860, lynching clearly became a racial phenomenon, and it was not until 1953 that the Tuskegee Institute could announce that lynching was no longer a "valid index" of black-white race relations in the United States. See Cuter 135-36; Zangrando 3; and Brundage 257. Victims of recent hate crimes are James Byrd, Jr., Ricky Byrdsong, and Won Joon Yoon. James Byrd, Jr., of Jasper, Texas was dragged to his death on June 6, 1998 while chained behind a pickup truck driven by three white men. Ricky Byrdsong and Won Joon Yoon were targeted and shot to death in July 1999 by white supremacist Benjamin Smith because they were members of minority groups.
(6.) John F. Callahan uses the phrase American race ritual to refer to lynching (465).
(7.) Recent productions of contemporary lynching dramas include a staged reading of Sandra Seaton's The Bridge Party, featuring Ruby Dee and directed by Glenda Dickerson at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on April 30,1998, and a staged reading by the Howard Players of Michon Boston's Iola's Letter directed by Vera Katz at Howard University in February 1999. The Bridge Party will receive a full production at Michigan State University in January 2000. Both dramas are included in the Perkins and Stephens anthology Strange Fruit.
(8.) Genre's etymological roots in the Latin word genus ('kind') generally refer to literary types or classifications (epic, dramatic, lyric, etc.), but as Heather Dubrow points out in her succinct study Genre, a range of criteria (such as meter, structure, subject matter, and effect on the audience) exists for defining and describing genre. According to Dubrow, "The major reason it proves so difficult to arrive at a simple and satisfactory definition for individual genres or of genre itself, then, is that the concept encompasses so many different literary qualities" (7). Clearly, for Perkins and me, the defining feature for lynching drama (the representation of the threat or occurrence of a lynching) is based on subject matter, or is thematic, not formalistic, in nature. The idea of genre as an organizing concept for understanding art and literature has appeared in Western critical discourse since Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Poetics. According to Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin, genre is "always old and new simultaneously" in that it preserves elements of the past through "constant renewal" and "contemporization" (87). Although some poststructuralist criticism has challenged the validity of genres, contemporary critical theorists continue to provide fresh insights into the usefulness of the concept. See, for example, David Fishlove's Metaphors of Genre (1993) for a study that examines both traditional and innovative approaches to genre theory and Thomas O. Beebee's The Ideology of Genre (1994) for a persuasive argument on the inevitability of genres.
(9.) See, for example, "Nation Roused to Lynching Danger" 7.
(10.) For a thorough review of these contests and award-winning dramas, see Austin.
(11.) Frederick H. Koch, founder of the Carolina Playmakers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was a pioneer in the national Folk Drama Movement. See his "A Folk Theatre in the Making."
(12.) By "native American" I mean a drama that is indigenous to--has its origins in--the United States.
(13.) Most scholarship has focused on the New Negro Movement as a movement coinciding with the artistic productivity of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s, but in To Wake the Nations, Eric Sundquist reveals the 1890s and early 1900s as "the first phase" of the New Negro Movement (335). According to Sundquist, distinct signs of racial consciousness, along with writing "infused with a sense of nationalistic purpose," flourished during this earlier era (335). For a study of the New Negro philosophy that saw art and literature as pragmatic ways to effect racial progress and improved race relations, see Lewis. For an analysis that compares the cultural nationalism of the Harlem Renaissance "New Negroes" with the political nationalism of Marcus Garvey, see Cruse. For a 1920s essay setting forth the struggles of a New Negro artist, see Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." For a recent study of African American women playwrights of the era, see Stephens, "The Harlem Renaissance and The New N egro Movement."
(14.) Lynching dramas reflect the development of realism in American theatre by presenting lynching as a serious social problem that is left unresolved by the end of the play. Brenda Murphy discusses lack of closure as a characteristic of realistic plays in American Realism and American Drama, 1880-1940. For a discussion of realism as an "effective tool of resistance" as well as a "mechanism of feminist social intervention," see Schroeder 119, 158.
(15.) For a detailed discussion of these early plays, see my forthcoming essay "Revisiting Representations of an American Race Ritual: Early Lynching Dramas, 1905-1920."
(16.) "Little Theatre" n.p.
(17.) See Johnson and Johnson 92-94.
(18.) The other lynching drama from the decade written by an African American male is Frances, by college professor G. D. Lipscomb. In Frances, which received first prize in the 1925 Opportunity contest, George Mannus, a black teacher of tenant farmers in Mississippi, arms himself with a gun and avoids being lynched by, apparently, escaping on a northbound train.
(19.) Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die," published in The Liberator in 1919, has been called a "symbolic manifesto" for the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see Ali 205).
(20.) Johnson's plot summaries suggest that six plays deal with lynching. Blue-Eyed Black Boy, Safe, and one of the two versions of Sunday Morning in the South have all now been published, and I was recently able to recover "A Bill to Be Passed" and "And Still They Paused," both of which deal with the then-current anti-lynching bill before Congress. Both versions of Sunday Morning in the South are in the Federal Theatre Project collection at the Library of Congress.
(21.) Johnson knew both Locke and Du Bois, both of whom attended the gatherings of artists and public figures at her home on S Street in Washington, D.C. Du Bois wrote the introduction to Johnson's Bronze: A Book of Verse (1922) and Locke wrote the foreword to her later volume An Autumn Life Cycle (1928). Samuel Hay notes that, although they held different views on what functions theatre should serve, Locke and Du Bois "drew up the ground plans for African American drama" (5).
(22.) Winona Fletcher reports that of the three plays on lynching that Johnson submitted to the Federal Theatre Project, Sunday Morning in the South was the only one that met with the approval of FTP readers. However, as Fletcher adds, "Their acceptance and recommendations did not lead to a production of the script..." (57).
(23.) dele jegede's essay on Yoruban arts contrasts an African view of "art for life's sake" with the Western concept of "art for art's sake." The phrase art for art's sake suggests a view that values a work of art solely for its own intrinsic beauty; there is no expectation for the work to serve any "useful" function. According to jegede, in traditional societies in Africa, art is "integral to life" and committed to "human survival" (239, 241).
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|Author:||Stephens, Judith L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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