There's a tremendous sense of history on the stage of the Barrymore Theater in the first production of Langston Hughes' and Zora Neale Hurston's "Mule Bone."
Before I go further, I should also say there's tremendous enjoyment. The second act is a joyous piece of American comic writing, fresher than many comedies that have been hailed and forgotten in the 60 years since "Mule Bone" was written.
As everyone must know by now, Hughes and Hurston collaborated on this play, based on an unpublished story of Hurston's. The two had a falling-out before it was finished. Hurston did further work on it - which complicated the work of scholars preparing an acting script - but until now it has never been produced.
Another reason for its remaining unproduced is that its characters - the folk Hurston knew in rural Florida - seem stereotypical. There was a time - when interaction between races were minimal - when such humor, which blacks might relish themselves, was considered unsuitable for "outsiders."
Nowadays no one would make generalizations about blacks on the basis of the backwoods sensibility of "Mule Bone." Nevertheless, there will doubtless be some yelping on the part of sanctimonious, humorless liberals, who don't give people credit for being able to make such distinctions.
"Mule Bone" is a simple story. Two men fight over the same woman. One hits the other over the head with, yes, a mule bone.
This act of assault leads to a hilarious trial, the high point of the evening because of the farfetched Biblical exegesis of two rival ministers. The wielder of the mule bone is exiled from the little town, but eventually he and his "victim" realize their friendship means more than the woman they both loved.
The plot matters less than the earthy dialogue and the irresistible humor, the authenticity of which are unmistakable. That's why the play, even unfinished and with an aimless first act seems so solid. It's based on folkways, folk wisdom whose roots go very, very deep.
(The weakest parts of this production are a prologue, written in the voice of Hurston, which is unnecessarily coy, and the music. Taj Mahal's work is in the style of black folk music and is quite congenial, but it lacks the power of the genuine article. The contrast is noticeable when Theresa Merritt brings the house down with a piece of historic black music, "Shake That Thing.")
If the production is itself historic, so is the cast, which has actors who have played a role in all the major black ensembles of the last few decades. In a small part, there is even the venerable Robert Earl Jones, a protege of Langston Hughes and, of course, the father of James Earl.
Eric Ware and Kenny Neal are enormously appealing as the rivals for the delectable Akosua Busia. Leonard Jackson and Arthur French do standout work as the warring ministers. Marilyn Coleman and Frances Foster are particularly funny as hostile neighbors. Joy Lee, who seems awkward as Hurston in the needless prologue, makes up for it later as a tart young woman. Samuel E. Wright has a wonderfully befuddled quality as the town's mayor.
In all the performances - and in the design - there is an abounding affection for the material and for this irretrievable, innocent past. Whatever animosity Hughes and Hurston developed for each other, their love for the traditions out of which their work grew animates their powerful collaboration.
Better late than never, an unpublished but mythical 1931 classic of the black theater finally made it to Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night. Every even casual student of black literature had known about the play, but virtuallly no one had been able to read it. Now, 60 years late, it wasn't even panting.
The play is "Mule Bone," the legendary and controversial collaboration between those two luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, which was started in hope and abandoned in acrimony all those years ago.
Today, slightly revamped and re-edited - no authentically definitive script ever existed - with a prologue and epilogue added by George Houston Bass, and a score by Taj Mahal to lyrics taken from Hughes' poems, this vernacular comic epic of rural African-Americana emerges with a unique style and freshness in this premiere production by Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten's Lincoln Center Theater.
"Mule Bone" positively sparkles with its rich dialect and vivid language, and it shines with the unaffected simplicity of a folk tale - taken pretty straight without any undue literary sophistication or gussying up.
The first idea for the play came from a short story by Hurston, "The Bone of Contention," although it had to be considerably altered - even a love interest was added, as the argument originally centered around who shot a turkey! - for its dramatic translation.
Now the story, still set in a black community in Florida during the 1920s, ostensibly concerns a cute village belle, Daisy, and her two suitors - the two halves of a street dance and music team, the dancer Dave and his blues guitarist partner, Jim.
Quarreling over the girl, Jim hits Dave with the thighbone of a mule, which just happens to be handy. The mayor has Jim arrested, and in his subsequent trial by kangaroo court held in the local Baptist Church, the accused is "defended" by the Methodist minister and "prosecuted" by the Baptist minister. The weighty judicial arguments hinge on whether a mule bone can be legally considered a weapon.
With some fancy biblical rhetoric - citing Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass - the Baptist wins. But who gets the girl? The answer to that comes in the evening's comic coda.
But the pleasure of the piece is not really in the fable itself, but in the genre picture of the whole community, which oddly reminded me in spirit and even certain salient details of Alvin Ailey's more solemn evocation of African-American rural roots in his great ballet "Revelations."
Both dance and music, incidentally, are well to fore in this buoyant staging by Michael Schultz, which aptly framed by the designers Edward Burbridge and Lewis Brown, is light, fast, and concentrates on the colloquial humor and bold characterizations of the original, but comes close to using it as the book for a musical that often seems about to burst out.
The bluesy music by Taj Mahal - wonderfully rendered chiefly by Kenny Neal, a country blues singer making a most assured stage debut - is one of the chief glories of the show.
This and the dancing - neatly staged by Dianne McIntyre - certainly add savor to the play, but what you really carry away from the evening is the sheer vigor of its life, the hyperbole of its language, the cross-cut of its genial insults, the sharp-etched caricatures of its characters. And, of course, the acting.
Here is a magnificent ensemble piece. The huge cast works together as effectively as those Chicagoans in last season's "The Grapes of Wrath."
One could and perhaps should mention individuals - Eric Ware, Neal and Akosua Busia are delightful as the lighthearted love triangle, Arthur French and particularly a wonderfully grotesque Leonard Jackson respectively have fun as the Baptist and Methodist ministers, and Samuel E. Wright makes a belligerently if nicely overbearing mayor.
But the cast is good to the last giggle - there are such fine veterans here as Frances Foster, Theresa Merritt (who has one great song), Sonny Jim Gaines and Robert Earl Jones, as well as such lively comparative youngsters as Joy Lee, Reggie Montgomery and Mansoor Najeeullah.
Apparently, before this production of "Mule Bone," there were some fears in the black community that here and now the characterizations, even the broad outline of the deliberately folk-legendish plot, might serve to reinforce oldtime black stereotypes of Amos 'n Andy minstrelsy.
"Mule Bone" does no such thing. It suggests an artistic reality as palpable as that evoked by O'Casey or Chekhov, and, both revealingly and rewardingly, a black America as different from white America as, say, Ellington is from Gershwin.
The Lincoln Center Theater has done the American drama a real service in rescuing this wonderful piece of black theater from the academic shelf, and placing it down where it belongs, living, breathing and laughing, on stage.
If ever there was a promising idea for a play, it is the enigmatic story of what went on when two giants of the Harlem Renaissance briefly collided in 1930 to collaborate on "a comedy of Negro life" they titled "Mule Bone."
The writers were the poet Langston Hughes and the anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Both were in their late 20's, and both had the same dream of a new truly African-American theater. Their goal was Broadway, which they hoped to liberate from the stereotypical minstrel musicals (the many progeny of "Shuffle Along") and sentimental problem dramas ("Green Pastures," "Porgy") that then distorted the black experience on the mainstream stage. Yet "Mule Bone" was never finished and never produced because, as Hughes put it, "the authors fell out."
What went wrong? No one knows for sure, despite the fascinating and painstaking efforts of both writers' authoritative biographers, Arnold Rampersad (Hughes) and Robert E. Hemenway (Hurston), to piece the events together. Everyone agrees, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, that the fight was "an extremely ugly affair" that at the very least involved a battle over authorial credit and the neurotic machinations of a wealthy white patron. Hurston's present-day publisher, Harper Perennial, has just brought out a first edition of the uncompleted text of "Mule Bone" in which all the relevant biographical accounts and documentary evidence have been assembled, and the volume leaves no doubt that whatever the provocation, the Hughes-Hurston conflict was the stuff of high drama.
The same, sad to say, cannot be said of "Mule Bone" itself, at least as mounted by Lincoln Center Theater at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway, six full decades after Hurston and Hughes set their sights on the Great White Way. This is an evening that can most kindly be described as innocuous -- not an adjective usually attached to either of its authors -- and it is not even a scrupulously authentic representation of what Hughes and Hurston wrote, fragmented and problematic as their aborted collaboration was. Indeed, there's something disturbingly disingenuous about the entire production. This "Mule Bone" is at once so watered down and bloated by various emendations that one can never be entirely sure if Lincoln Center Theater is conscientiously trying to complete and resuscitate a lost, unfinished work or is merely picking its carcass to confer a classy literary pedigree on a broad, often bland quasi-musical seemingly pitched to a contemporary Broadway audience.
On occasion -- rare occasion -- this rendition does make clear what Hurston and Hughes had in mind, which was to bring to the stage, unfiltered by white sensibilities, the genuine language, culture and lives of black people who had been shaped by both a rich African heritage and the oppression of American racism. The play was adapted from an unpublished Hurston story recounting one of the many folk tales she had collected during her anthropological exploration of Eatonville, Fla., the black town where she was born. In the story, two male friends come to blows over a turkey, with one knocking out the other with a mule bone and ending up in a trial that turns on an issue of biblical interpretation. In the play, the object of dispute is a woman named Daisy, not a turkey -- the change is believed to have been Hughes's -- but the anecdote remains in any case an excuse for an explosion of vernacular speech, blues poetry and extravagantly ritualized storytelling.
Perhaps if the writers had had the chance to finish "Mule Bone" and to see it with an audience, they would have tightened or rethought what was a work in progress. Perhaps even if they had completed their mission, "Mule Bone" would still seem as dated today as other ambitious American plays of its exact vintage, such as Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra." We'll never know. As the text stands, it often feels like a rough draft in which two competing voices were trying to reach a compromise. Among the more arresting sections are a boisterous trial scene featuring dueling Baptist and Methodist congregations and a late-evening confrontation in which the antagonists compete for their woman's hand with hyperbolic metaphors. When the men try to court Daisy by bragging about how long a chain-gang sentence they would serve to win her over, "Mule Bone" surely succeeds in creating startling, linguistically lush folk comedy that nonetheless reflects the tragic legacy of slavery.
Those scattered passages, as well as sporadic well-turned lines, make the Barrymore vibrate, but they are surrounded by slack sequences and contemporary interpolations. "Mule Bone" opens with an embarrassing prologue by George Houston Bass, the literary executor of the Hughes estate until his death last year, in which Hurston herself awkwardly appears as a character on stage and gives the audience a primer on her career. At other isolated junctures five Hughes poems have been set to music by Taj Mahal, and sweet as the music and words are, the songs are not particularly well sung and always bring a flaccidly constructed show to a self-defeating halt. Dianne McIntyre's rudimentary, thigh-and-knee-slapping choreography lends only perfunctory animation.
As staged by Michael Schultz, who is certainly capable of tougher work, the whole enterprise has a candied Disneyesque tone, more folksy than folk. "Mule Bone" entirely lacks the striking visual style and gut-deep acting with which George C. Wolfe and his collaborators so precisely distilled the tough-minded voice of Hurston and the passions of her characters in "Spunk" last year. ("Spunk" also dramatized three Hurston stories in less time than "Mule Bone" takes to dramatize one.) Here the production design is mostly hokey, the performances often aspire to be cute, and even the fisticuffs are not played for keeps. While the authors intended "Mule Bone" to be funny, this production confuses corny affability with folk humor.
No wonder, then, that a number of precocious children roam the stage. The company is also profusely stocked with distinguished actors who have a lot of time on their hands while waiting for an occasional cue: Reggie Montgomery, Frances Foster, Robert Earl Jones, Arthur French. Though the three principal performers -- Eric Ware, Kenny Neal, Akosua Busia -- are at best likably amateurish, their efforts are balanced by the assured center-stage turns of such old pros as Leonard Jackson, as a fuming man of the cloth, and Theresa Merritt, who gets to shimmy to a traditional blues recalling her Broadway performance as August Wilson's Ma Rainey. But it is all too typical of the evening that Ms. Merritt's song, the sole rousing musical interlude, is abruptly truncated before it can reach a soaring conclusion. It's almost as if this maiden production were determined to make "Mule Bone" prove on stage what it has always been in literary legend -- a false start that remains one of the American theater's more tantalizing might-have-beens.