"And Yet They Paused" and "A Bill to be Passed": Newly Recovered Lynching Dramas by Georgia Douglas Johnson.
Plays representing the history of lynching in the United States are only beginning to be understood as a distinctly American dramatic genre, a type of theatre that began to appear at least as early as 1905 and continues to evolve on the contemporary stage.(2) As the first anthology to address how the horrors of lynching have been represented in American theatre, Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens (Indiana UP, 1998), reveals the historical continuity of the genre and speaks to its prior neglect in theatre history and dramatic criticism.
The fact that Johnson is known primarily as one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance but has, until recently, remained invisible as the leading playwright of an unrecognized dramatic genre speaks loudly to the genre's status and critical reception, as well as to the precarious position Johnson occupied as a black woman writer in the 1920s and '30s. In her recent review of Strange Fruit, Eileen Cherry's comment that lynching dramas "may not present the picture that America wants to see of itself" provides insight into why the genre has been neglected in the recorded history of American theatre (224-25).
This note describes the conditions surrounding the production of "And Yet They Paused" and "A Bill to be Passed," provides brief synopses of the plays, and locates the texts in relation to Johnson's more familiar and accessible lynching dramas: Sunday Morning in the South, Safe, and Blue-Eyed Black Boy. I am indebted to the work of scholars such as James V. Hatch, Ted Shine, Winona L. Fletcher, Margaret Wilkerson, Sandra Richards, Kathy Perkins, Bernard L. Peterson, Nellie McKay, Gloria T. Hall, Cheryl Wall, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, and Claudia Tate, whose writing on Johnson brought the importance of her work to my attention.
According to correspondence in the NAACP files, in June of 1936 Johnson sent Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, several of her plays on the subject of lynching, but White returned the plays in January of 1937 on the grounds that they "all ended in defeat and gave one the feeling that the situation was hopeless despite all the courage which was used by the Negro characters."(3) Johnson graciously replied that she understood the point that White was making but added, "Yet, it is true that[,] in life, things do not end usually ideally[;] however, it is a point that I shall keep in mind if I write others or perhaps rewrite these."(4) Today Johnson's words are prophetic, since we know that, despite the NAACP's considerable and sustained efforts, the United States Congress never enacted any federal anti-lynching legislation. In her letter to White, Johnson mentioned that her lynching plays were under consideration for publication by Samuel French, but since her more recent "Catalogue of Writings" does not list these dramas among her published plays, it seems clear that French rejected them. Winona Fletcher's valuable 1985 article in Theatre Annual documents Johnson's submisson of her lynching dramas to the Federal Theatre Project between 1935 and 1939, as well as the result that none were accepted for production in any of the producing units of the FTP. These historical records provide a glimpse into the struggle Johnson faced in seeing her lynching dramas published or produced in her lifetime, especially in the 1920s and 1930s when the brutality of lynching was not an uncommon occurrence in society.
In January of 1938 the NAACP called upon Johnson to write a short play to be used in the then-current "fight against lynching," but a request for last-minute revisions in the script prevented its inclusion in a mass anti-lynching demonstration, as originally planned. Correspondence shows that Johnson was asked to draw on the Congressional Record in dramatizing the specifics of the struggle to pass a federal anti-lynching bill. The NAACP assured Johnson that her scripts would be kept by the organization and made available to "the numerous white and colored groups throughout the country who constantly write us for anti-lynching plays."(5)
The NAACP file of 1937-38, titled "Anti-Lynching Bill Play," contains three typed scripts by Georgia Douglas Johnson, and correspondence concerning the writing of the plays. Two scripts, each fourteen pages long (with one script including three additional pages of songs) are slightly different versions of "And Yet They Paused," which depicts the struggle to pass a federal anti-lynching bill through the U.S. House of Representatives. The third script, "A Bill to be Passed" (sixteen pages, plus three pages of songs), portrays the successful passage of the bill in the House and ends with a call to continue the struggle for passage in the Senate. A brief (four-and-one-half-page) additional ending scene by Robert E. Williams (currently unknown, but possibly an NAACP staff member) is attached to Johnson's third script and represents the historic filibuster carried out by Southern Senators to defeat the Wagner-Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill. Williams's scene ends with a commentator as well as the character of Walter White, then Executive Secretary of the NAACP, urging audience members to fight on.
All three of Johnson's scripts call for the on-stage action to occur in two different locations: a black church in Mississippi and a hallway outside the doors of the House Chamber. All three include a scene in which a young boy enters the church and painfully describes, to the congregation, an extremely brutal lynching occurring outside. Joe Daniels, the victim of the lynching, is accused by the white mob of bootlegging and murder. The three episodes consisting of the black church service, the arguing over the anti-lynching bill in the halls of Congress, and the brutal lynching of Joe Daniels form a central triad that simultaneously binds the incidents together and allows them to illuminate, challenge, and contradict one another.
Each script includes the black congregation singing "Walls of Jericho," "Go Down, Moses," and "Sisters Don't Get Weary." The technique of using spirituals to accompany the action of a lynching drama was used before by Johnson in what is probably her best known work in the genre, Sunday Morning in the South. In an artistic gesture that points to the pervasiveness of racial separation in the United States, Johnson wrote one version of Sunday Morning in the South with music coming from a black church, and another from a white church. Her technique of employing sound effects and vivid verbal description to convey the events of an off-stage lynching to on-stage listeners is also seen in Safe and Blue-Eyed Black Boy, Johnson's other two contributions to the genre.
Finally, all of Johnson's lynching dramas include the medium of prayer, which reveals the constant presence of a spiritual dimension embedded in these stark dramas of social realism. To borrow a phrase from dramaturg Sydne Mahone, Johnson's plays effect a "spiritual realism" which "uses theatre to reveal the unseen through that which is seen" (xxxi-xxxii). The unique convergence of a political and spiritual voice found in Johnson's lynching dramas affirm her status as an important pioneer in the tradition of African American women playwrights.
An examination of the artistic techniques Johnson used to set forth the brutality and injustice of lynching attests to her skill as an innovative playwright and suggests the unique vision Johnson possessed as an African American artist/activist. Her position as the most prolific playwright of lynching drama testifies to her vision of theatre as "art for life's sake" and her struggle to bring such a theatre into being.(6)
Lynching dramas, written in the anti-lynching tradition by both black and white playwrights, are perhaps the only collection of performance texts providing a sustained portrayal of white Americans as terrorists. According to bell hooks,
To name that whiteness in the black imagination is often a representation of terror: one must face a palimpsest of written histories that erase or deny, that reinvent the past to make the present vision of racial harmony and pluralism more plausible. To bear the burden of memory one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited, searching the debris of history for traces of the unforgettable, all knowledge of which has been suppressed. (342)
The recovery of the lost lynching plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson brings to light a vital part of African American culture that is continually under the threat of erasure. These plays also provide scholars with a newly complete unit of Johnson's work that commands a central position in a distinctly American theatrical genre, a type of drama that is only now beginning to gain recognition. In addition to their value as a unique contribution to American dramatic literature and theatre history, the dramas provide a new site for studying relations among race, gender politics, and aesthetics; they permit us to see more clearly the impact of racism and to understand art as a force of resistance as well as a force of renewal.
1. See Georgia Douglas Johnson's "Catalogue of Writings" in the Georgia Douglas Johnson Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard U, Washington, DC. A typescript of these papers indicates that Johnson wrote six one-act lynching dramas, not eleven, as previously reported.
2. See my numerous articles on the genre.
3. "Anti-Lynching Bill Play, 1936-1938," NAACP Papers, Box C-299, Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress. All correspondence concerning Johnson's typescripts is in this file.
4. Letter from Johnson to Walter White, 19 Jan. 1938.
5. Letter from Miss Jackson, Special Assistant to the Secretary, NAACP, to Johnson, 7 Feb. 1938.
6. 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."
"Anti-Lynching Bill Play, 1936-1938." NAACP Papers, Box C-299. Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ed. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. New York: Praeger, 1990.
Cherry, Eileen. Rev. of Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, ed. Kathy Perkins and Judith L. Stephens. Theatre Journal 51.2 (1999): 224-25.
Fletcher, Winona. "From Genteel Poet to Revolutionary Playwright: Georgia Douglas Johnson." Theatre Annual 30 (1985): 41-64.
-----. "Georgia Douglas Johnson." Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. Dictionary of Literary Biography 51. Ed. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 153-64.
-----. "Georgia Douglas Johnson." Notable Women in the American Theatre. Ed. Alice Robinson, Vera M. Roberts, and Millie Barranger. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 473-77.
Hatch, James V., and Ted Shine, eds. Black Theatre U.S.A: Plays by African Americans. 2nd ed. New York: Free P, 1996.
hooks, bell. "Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination." Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 338-47.
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
jegede, dele. "Art for Life's Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology." The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions. Ed. Kariamu Welsh-Asante. Westport: Greenwood, 1993. 237-47.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. "Catalogue of Writings." Georgia Douglas Johnson Papers. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard U, Washington, DC.
Mahone, Sydne, ed. Moon Marked and Touched By Sun: Plays By African-American Women. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1994.
McKay, Nellie. "What Were They Saying?: Black Women Playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined. Ed. Victor A. Kramer. New York: AMS P, 1987. 129-47.
Perkins, Kathy A., ed. Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Perkins, Kathy A., and Judith L. Stephens, eds. Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.
Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalogue of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
Richards, Sandra L. "African American Women Playwrights and Shifting Canons." Unpublished essay. 1992.
Stephens, Judith L. "The Anti-Lynch Play: Toward an Interracial Feminist Dialogue in Theatre." Journal of American Drama and Theatre 2.3 (1990): 59-69.
-----. "Anti-Lynch Plays by African American Women: Race, Gender, and Social Protest in American Drama." African American Review 26 (1992): 329-39.
-----. "The Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement." The Cambridge Companion to American Woman Playwrights. Ed. Brenda Murphy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 98-117.
-----. "Lynching, American Theatre and the Preservation of a Tradition." Journal of American Drama and Theatre 9.1 (1997): 54-65.
-----. "Racial Violence and Representation: Performative Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s." Forthcoming in African American Review 33.4 (1999).
-----. "Revisiting Representations of an American Race Ritual: Early Lynching Dramas, 1905-1920." Forthcoming in The Imagined Self: Re-visioning the African American Text. Ed. Wilfred D. Samuels. University: U of Alabama P, 2000.
Tate, Claudia. "Introduction." The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: Hall, 1997. xvii-lxxx.
Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. 9 Plays By Black Women. New York: Mentor, 1986.
Judith Stephens is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication, College of Liberal Arts, at Penn State University. Her article "Racial Violence and Representation: Performance Strategies in Lynching Dramas of the 1920s" will appear in the Winter number of African American Review. Professor Stephens wishes to thank the Penn State Schuylkill Campus Advisory Board for a research award that provided the funding for her research and travel in Washington, DC. She also wishes to thank the NAACP and the Library of Congress for preserving the plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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