Below is some information on Langston Hughes, the original author of Black Nativity, as well as some further information into one of his more fiery partnerships – his work with playwright and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston on the modern folk play Mule Bone. The following articles explore his life and career as a writer beyond Black Nativity. As you read, keep in mind how Hughes’ career entered different stages and how that could have affected how he saw the world and his various communities.
BY WILLIAM LANDON
As a poet, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes remains one of the most influential African American writers of our time. He was a leading voice in black communities during the 1920s and ’30s, helping to create a missing narrative in the predominately European American canon. Black Nativity, performed in churches, theaters and college campuses in nearly every major city in the United States, is actually not counted among his greatest works. He is mostly known for his work as a poet and essayist.
Hughes was born on Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His family included a long line of influential political figures involved in the struggle for African American rights. Hughes’ parents separated just after he was born, and his mother brought him to live first in Kansas, then Illinois and later Ohio. In the midst of his family’s constant moving, he was elected class poet in middle school and high school, showing a promising start to a vibrant literary career. He graduated and published his first major poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the piece he is perhaps best known for today. He finished this poem en route from Mexico in the same year he was admitted to Columbia University in New York City, under his father’s condition that he study engineering instead of writing. This was a move that would change his life. In New York he met several prominent writers, including W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen, who were already familiar with his work. Impressed, they counted him among their fellow writers as part of the new black cultural movement: the Harlem Renaissance.
After dropping out at the end of only one year at Columbia, Hughes took a job as mess boy on board a ship bound for West Africa and Europe. Afterward he returned to Harlem to take part in the Renaissance before moving to Washington D.C. He continued to write and frequent jazz clubs; the two had a profound influence on each other and the young writer. During his time in the United States and abroad, he published poems in journals such as The Crisis, the NAACP journal and the Urban League journal, Opportunity. By 1924 he had developed a strong literary reputation and was very well known and well read among primarily black communities. In 1926 he published his first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, and enrolled back in college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. By the time he graduated three years later, he had a second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), in addition to his college degree.
The 1930s were to be one of Hughes’ most transformative decades. Shortly after his graduation, he became heavily involved in politics; many considered him to be a radical. His actions certainly lent to these claims. He wrote for communist journals and other politically Left (liberal) publications. One of his greatest undertakings during the 1930s was the case of the Scottsboro Boys—the alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenage boys on a Southern Railroad freight train—which he explored in a dramatic verse play titled Scottsboro Limited. Thanks to a benefactor with whom he had a close personal relationship, he also was able to write his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). During this period he travelled quite a bit, from visiting the Soviet Union with a failed coalition of black writers to trekking around China, Japan, Mexico and Europe. His focus also shifted from the poetry for which he had become so well known to prose fiction and plays.
In 1935, Hughes’ first major play, Mulatto, debuted on Broadway. After briefly serving as a war correspondent in Spain, he returned to America. He established the Harlem Suitcase Theatre as a people’s theatre in 1937 and found its first home in the hall of a leftist labor-cultural order, staying true to his politically liberal beliefs. During World War II he worked as a columnist and became further known for collections of writings and musical plays. His works also showed a popular recurring character named “Jesse B. Simple,” an African American everyman whose adventures became the subject of several books. His first major Broadway musical was the debut of Street Scene in 1947, but more was yet to come.
On Dec. 11, 1961, Black Nativity entered the theatrical world. Originally titled Wasn’t It a Mighty Day?, the play was first produced off Broadway. Hughes achieved even greater success later with the gospel play Tambourines to Glory (1963), a collaborative effort with Jobe Huntley and the first full-length gospel play by an African American artist to appear on Broadway. Both gospel plays prominently feature the use of gospel music and lyrics. The presence and popularity of gospel—and its presence in Hughes’ early life—inspired him to incorporate more of the music into his dramatic writing. He also was aware of the popularity of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and wanted to explore the idea of creative musical retellings of the Nativity story from a new perspective. Rather than write a play featuring a few gospel songs, he would create a Nativity play with gospel music at its heart.
He was a writer who was very interested in the African American oral tradition. Although best known as a poet, Hughes wrote more than 20 plays and other musicals before and after Black Nativity. Emperor of Haiti, Simply Heavenly and Jericho-Jim Crow are a few of his stage works, and his political plays include Scottsboro Limited, Harvest, Angelo Herndon Jones and De Organizer. He also wrote Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston. His short story collections include The Ways of White Folks (1934) and the verse collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).
Hughes died of cancer on May 22, 1967, after one of the most varied and distinguished literary careers of the 20th century. As with other great writers, his legacy remains. His residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and his entire block of East 127th Street was renamed “Langston Hughes Place.” Several additional collections of poems and other works have been published in the decades since his death, and we still come to see Black Nativity each year.
A Play to Be Dug Up: Mule Bone
BY TERESA RENDE
It was in 1930 that prominent African American writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes began work on a new comedy, Mule Bone. Hurston was a scholar in multiple disciplines, and as a trained anthropologist her literary work was infused with her passion and talent for ethnography. Hughes had a history as a playwright, even though his other literary endeavors often took precedence. It was in the late winter-early spring of 1930 that a Dramatists Guild member, Theresa Helburn, asked Hughes why there were no “real black comedies.” Minstrel shows and black drama were common, but Hughes agreed that a great black comedy play had yet to be written.
It only made sense that Hughes and Hurston would embark on this task together. They were living very near to each other that spring, visiting with one another almost every day as friends and colleagues. When Hughes approached Hurston with the concept of the first black comedy, her background and anthropological knowledge were major benefits to the project. They decided to base their three-act comedy on a folk tale Hurston had collected from her hometown of Eatonville, Florida.
The folk tale involved two quarreling hunters. Both had shot the same wild turkey and wanted to claim ownership over the dead bird. A physical fight ensued. One hunter hit the other over the head with a hock bone from a mule found somewhere on the forest floor, knocking him unconscious. This dispute eventually went to trial at a local church, where the minister cited the bible for his final decision. In a biblical story, Solomon uses the jaw bone of an ass to kill 3,000 Philistines. The minister felt that if Solomon could kill 3,000 with a jaw bone—and a mule becomes more unruly as you move toward his back end—the hock bone most certainly could be considered a “lethal weapon,” and he made good reason to convict the hunter who had knocked the other out.
This folk tale made great fodder for Hurston and Hughes’ new play. It represented a new era of African American theater in which the soul and culture of the south were represented. Mule Bone was a derivation of the original folk tale, as it replaced the quarrel over a bird by two hunters with a quarrel over a young lady by two young men. The play also worked in current African American culture, dividing the favor of the townspeople by religion. In Mule Bone one young man was Methodist, the other Baptist, adding a new aspect to the story.
The division of labor in crafting the play itself is unclear. It has been said that Hughes crafted some of the story structure, plot and characterization, while Hurston would add important southern dialect as well as details collected from her background in Florida and her ethnographic research. A third party became involved as Hughes and Hurston were worked intensely in the spring of 1930. Louise Thompson, a stenographer, was hired to record the work they dictated. In June of 1930, with the play almost finished, Hurston left New Jersey to return to Florida for the summer. This was the beginning of the end of the collaboration between Hurston and Hughes.
When Hurston arrived back north in the fall, she canceled appointments with Hughes and eventually started ignoring him completely. Hurston scholars point to the blooming friendship between Hughes and the stenographer as the cause for this treatment. Thompson’s role had been elevated to that of a collaborator, a role to which Hurston never agreed and did not feel was necessary. Sadly, these feelings were only expressed after the fallout. Hurston never told Hughes that Thompson’s role was an issue when they were still on speaking terms.
As you can guess, the issues between the two led to more than an incomplete play. In fact, things became worse because of Hurston’s eventual claim to authorship on the work. She first applied for a copyright to Mule Bone under only her name, and later submitted the work to the Gilpin Players of Cleveland. This information made it back to Hughes, who became livid with Hurston’s claim to ownership. In future conversation, Hurston would claim the role of the jaded partner, citing the fact that Hughes wanted to make Thompson a business manager and pay her more than a usual typist would be paid. Hurston also had the backing of prominent literary patron Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, giving her even more reason and financial backing to fight against Hughes for rights.
Despite the Gilpin Players interest in the work, the play would not be produced any time soon. In 1931, after many months of fighting over ownership, Hurston and Hughes agreed to meet and work out the last bits of the play so it could see the stage in Cleveland. Upon arrival, however, Hurston was told that Thompson had been staying with Hughes just days prior, and she became quite angry. Letters between Hughes and Hurston make it clear that this was not just a debate over a play but how Hurston was treated as a friend and how slighted she felt by Hughes’ attachment to Thompson.
The drama surrounding this comedy caused the Gilpin Players to eventually opt out of the play, especially after the attempted meeting of Hughes and Hurston in Cleveland. There was simply too much controversy and uncertainty to push forward with the new work. Mule Bone did, eventually, see the stage in 1991. The Lincoln Center Theatre, New York, opened Mule Bone on Jan. 20 and closed it on April 14. Sadly, the reviews were not stellar, and the play has never been produced again. Though it was only a blip in theater history, it forever shook the friendship of two of the greatest African American writers to date.