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Theater Revolt Essay

            Langston Hughes is ranked as one of the most prominent theatrical revolutionists between 1930 and 1950, as is evident in his 1935 work: Mulatto: A Play from the Deep South. Although the play is identified directly with works released in 1935, Hughes had actually created it in 1930 but it was not until five years later that it received public interest on Broadway. In fact, the play received much acclaim and set a notable record both in that year well as in the following periods in the African American category as the most demanded playact (Brooks, Wanda and McNair 12). Mulatto uses the theme of revolt through Hughes’ confrontation of racial bigotry present within interracial America, as noted between the Whites and Blacks in the early 20th Century period (Galens 19). The revolt is created through Robert, the protagonist and the Colonel, his White father thus the antagonist. Hughes’ outline of the efforts towards exposing subjugation, interracial relations and limited civil rights towards the African American populace positions Mulatto as a promoter of theater revolt.

Langston Hughes was the son of James Hughes and Carrie Langston and was born in the year 1902 on the first day of February. Hughes’ birthplace was Joplin and his parents were both African Americans. He was born into an unequal community setting where he lacked parental love and association as his father forsook the family on a vocational bid to Cuba and later to Mexico. Additionally, Hughes’ father was also fleeing from the racial bigotry that was present in the US at the given period. Soon after, his mother left for Kansas to try to establish her practice within the theatrical occupation from her teaching practice and therefore young Hughes was left with his grandmother, Mary Patterson, in Joplin (Thurston 419). Mary nurtured Hughes in an approach that was focused on instilling practices of advocacy, namely activist tendencies in terms of political inclinations, abolitionist practices and human rights. Activist practices within the Hughes can therefore be traced to Mary Patterson, his grandmother, and this created the revolt aspect in the writer’s works, as he desired to establish equity within both societies by representing the Blacks.

In 1888, John Mercer Langston was voted into the US Congress marking a notable milestone within the African American populace thus proving to young Hughes that revolt is successful in acquiring given desires. Additionally, Mercer Langston was Hughes’ great uncle therefore Hughes acquired a lot of racial pride that shaped his fight for the African Americans’ revolt towards the Whites (Thurston 421). This pride is reflected in Mulatto, in the character of Robert, the protagonist. Robert’s mother is Black and his father, the Colonel, is White. By default, Robert is therefore white but due to his color, he faces the same inequity as other Blacks and he therefore decides to enforce his identity through coercive means. The Colonel being White tries to suppress Robert’s revolt, as evidence of the suppression noted within both communities. Hughes’ ideals and inclinations towards activist (revolt) practices are also fashioned by his environment. During Hughes’ period of development, racial bigotry was still experienced within the US and the writer largely faced the same in his learning setting. Due to this, Hughes acquired a passion towards the elimination of inequity within the nation as directed to the African American populace.

Hughes outrivaled other learners in his schooling despite the discrimination he faced within his learning setting. He had his high school studies partially in Illinois where his mother was residing with her second spouse, and partly in Cleveland where he was supported by his allies. In Cleveland, Hughes’ writing talent was nurtured as he acted as a poet and school editor. Most scholars attribute Hughes’ expertise in writing towards his abandoned childhood, as the greater part of his lone time was spent in a lot of studying. Subjectively, Hughes believed that his election into the poetry group was largely due to his African American nativity and the aspect of bigotry as he was one of the two Black learners in his high school class. With his burgeoning writing ability, Hughes was able to join Columbia University for a short period while living with his father (Thurston 427). The father and son relationship in this period was impaired just like in the periods of the father’s absence and this served as a form of awakening to Hughes who finally grasped the fact that the  of rejection would never be overcome.

Rejection served as an impetus in Hughes writings as noted in other of his works like the 1931 Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, 1934 The Ways of the White Folks, and 1938 Let America be America Again, amongst others. It is noted that Hughes evidences bitterness in most of his publications as the chief propeller to his revolt practices in overcoming the racial aspect. Hughes discontinued his learning in the university as racial bigotry was very prominent and became a marine worker up to the year 1924 when he began his writing vocation. It is believed that the second rejection acted as his drive towards the play in paralleling Robert’s case as the protagonist undergoing the same experience from his White father. Mulatto is set within a Georgia farm belonging to Colonel Thomas Norwood as indicated in the first act. Colonel Norwood had borne mulatto children with his maidservant of African American origin namely Cora (Hughes, Rampersad, Dolan and Sanders, 9). Cora’s children by the Colonel as identified in the play are William, Sallie, Bertha and Robert. Sallie is “a Negroid, although her skin is very fair” (Hughes and Webster 6) and through her characterization, revolutionist ideologies are evidenced. In the introduction part, Sallie prepares for her boarding school trip and Robert has to transport her to the train station with his father’s car. Education is brought out as a secondary necessity to the African American populace as the Colonel believes that African Americans are only fit for labor within the cotton farms. Sallie therefore has to conform to the same pattern as every black individual but she balances the same with learning.

From the initial scene, Cora, upon the Colonel’s inquiry with regard to Sallie’s departure, responds “she’s goin’ directly, I’s getting’ her ready now, packin’ up an’ all. ‘Course, she wants to tell you goodbye ‘fore she leaves” (Hughes and Webster 3). This reflects her uneducated nature characteristic of the African American populace as also brought out in Sam and William’s responses and conversations in the whole play. William is actually quite contented with his uneducated life as he justifies his decision to discontinue schooling by his remark “de Lord knows, I was dumb at school” (Hughes and Webster 12). Contrastingly, Sallie exhibits a high proficiency in the English dialect unlike her unlearned mother and Sam, the Colonel’s aide. She acts radically in overcoming her discouraging surroundings by according enthusiasm in her learning through notable efforts. Her educational aptitude is noted by the principal who offers to allow Sallie in the “next year…to Normal and learn to be a teacher” as a form of career establishment.

The Colonel does not share Sallie’s intention with regard to her schooling and only views her as only fit in catering and sewing activities that conform to Bertha’s career. The Colonel’s viewpoint offers a succinct reflection with regard to the element of inequity drawn within gender issues with careers being categorized as either male or female (Barnard and David, 26). Sallie resorts to studying typing lessons in school devoid of her father’s knowledge and although her mother and brothers are acquainted with her actions, they hide this information from the Colonel. Sallie’s courageous nature is noted as a woman revolutionary as she evidences her own will and desires within the play. However, in comparison to Robert, Sally’s revolutionist practices have a lesser magnitude noted by the conniving approach she employs in her studies. Additionally, Sallie acknowledges her father as ‘Colonel Norwood’ while her mother has to use the title “sir, Colonel Tom” (Hughes and Webster 3). This reflects the fact that Sallie bears a limitation as a revolutionist by the fact that she acts out of timidity in some instances as the one identified and this limits her effectiveness as a pioneer of change within the play. Some critics have pointed out that this may have been consciously accorded by Hughes in a bid to reflect the inequity occurring within the gender aspects on a community level, even within the African American populace.

Robert in the first and second scenes reflects the most revolutionary character in Mulatto as initially noted by his rebellion towards his father. The Colonel is well aware of his son’s inflexibility with regard to societal typecasting concerning his behavioral patterns. Robert’s father describes him as a “hardheaded…nobody…driving off in the middle of day to town, after I have told him to bend his back in that cotton” (Hughes and Webster 4). The Colonel, who acts as a representative of the White populace as noted within the historical setting, bears a controlling nature on the African Americans by viewing them as only fit for serving purposes. This is overtly reflected by the nature of association between the Colonels and his aide, Sam, who is controlled as a pawn with regard to the Colonel’s needs. Cora and her other children bear a slight resemblance to the same practice with the exception of Robert who refuses to serve his father. In fact, Robert does not consider himself as a servant mandating approval from his father for any decision. For instance, with the knowledge that the Colonel’s vehicle cannot be used without his consent, Robert still utilizes it whenever he pleases. His argument is based on his view “ain’t I his son and heir? Am I not Mr. Norwood, Junior?” (Hughes and Webster 15).

Additionally, as initially noted Robert repudiates his father’s direct domination by refusing to work on the plantation. This stands in direct disparity to Sallie who, being a blood        descendant of the Colonel, tolerates the demeaning and condescending attitude that her father directs to his whole household. Robert opposes this compliance by quoting to the town’s populace that “his name was Norwood-not Lewis, like the rest of his family” (Hughes and Webster 10). This offers a distinct revelation of Robert’s views with regard to his identity. Hughes shapes the aspect of African American pride in Robert, which acts as the impetus towards his revolt practices (Farrell 37). Upon the Colonel’s reprimand to Cora for her son’s behavior since the society outlines the nurturing function to mothers, she decides to confront his attitude towards several matters.

As Robert returns from Sallie’s drive, he shocks his mother with his audacity of using the front entrance following her many warnings. Cora being infuriated by his conduct questions him “Aint I told you and told you not to come in that front door, never?” (Hughes and Webster 15). Robert simply waves her off. Through this, Robert also revolts against the African American systems that he deems as unpleasant offering the view that both Whites and Blacks bear the same capacity towards societal inequity. Through this, Hughes deals equally and in a holistic manner with regard to the given issues plaguing the setting. Robert extends his revolution to the larger society first during his childhood by addressing the Colonel as his father in the presence of eminent White visitors (Bloom 27). The Colonel is infuriated by this boldness and thrashes him for the conduct. When he develops into his early youth, Robert extends the revolt to the larger society but this time the Colonel is unable to thrash him and infuse the desired silence.

Higgins notes that, upon Robert’s visitation to a store for desired goods, “if he ain’t waited on as quick as the white folks are, he walks out and tells the clerk his money’s good as a white’s money any day” (Hughes and Webster 10). Within the initial periods of the twentieth century even after years of abolitionist practices, societal inequity was noted in trading, educational and transport structures amongst others with the Whites being given precedence with regard to service. Robert action therefore negates this attitude setting a base for the desired equity factor. Additionally, Robert overcomes the speech oppression within the post office by “talking back to a white woman” (Hughes and Webster 9) much to the chagrin of the white populace. Hughes’ play, having been written within the 1930s, offers an expression of the given lifestyle noted within the African American populace following the 1929 depression. The economic retardation was largely noted within the Black populace because formal business organizations employed the labor reduction tactic in a bid to lessen costs and this was highly spread within the unskilled component that comprised of the African Americans.

Following this, most Blacks were strained in terms of employment and this led them to any form of work just like the cotton fields, as noted in the play, for their survival. In fact, cotton fields were highly abhorred amongst African Americans because slavery was associated with this work setting (Wade and Sara, 216). Additionally, racial bigotry was also strong at this time, particularly notable from the White perceptions towards Blacks especially within the southern region. As evidenced by Jim Crow and his earlier edicts, racial bigotry towards the African Americans was permitted in work settings, recreational institutes, learning establishments, and transport systems. In fact, Blacks were viewed as minor beings and often degraded as noted by the Colonel’s terms such as ‘pickaninnies’, ‘darkies’, ‘niggers’, and ‘black ape’. Crow’s edicts were employed for at least sixty years towards the subjugation of the community. With the racial aspect present within the given period, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was instituted to overcome the issue. Therefore, Hughes’ play was revolutionary by enhancing antagonism against this inequity.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Barnard, Barbara, and David Winn. Access Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Langston Hughes. New York: Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008. Print.

Brooks, Wanda M, and Jonda C. McNair. Embracing, Evaluating, and Examining African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2008. Print.

Farrell, Mary V. Protest, Pride and Langston Hughes: A Study of the Themes of His Non-Musical Three-Act Plays. , 1965. Print.

Galens, David. Drama for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Dramas. Detroit, Mich: Gale, 2003.

Gayer, Eva. Social Criticism in Three Afro-American Plays: “mulatto” by Langston Hughes; “the Slave” by Leroi Jones; “the Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” by Lorraine Hansberry. S.l: s.n., 1972. Print.

Hughes, Langston. Five plays. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1963. Print.

Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, Dolan Hubbard, and Leslie C. Sanders. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Print.

Thurston, Thomas. “Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement (2006).” Slavery & Abolition. 28.3 (2007): 407-508. Print.

Wade, T, and Sara Bielitz. “The Differential Effect of Skin Color on Attractiveness, Personality Evaluations, and Perceived Life Success of African Americans.” Journal of Black Psychology. 31.3 (2005): 215-236. Print.

 

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