A collection of seven compelling plays from award-winning Texas writers, spanning turning points in history, intergenerational struggles, and cultural triumphs while exploring the complexity of African American life from a dazzling array of perspectives.
Series: Southwestern Writers Collection Series, The Wittliff Collections, Wittliff Collections at Texas State University
One of the few books of its kind, Acting Up and Getting Down brings together seven African American literary voices that all have a connection to the Lone Star state. Covering Texas themes and universal ones, this collection showcases often-overlooked literary talents to bring to life inspiring facets of black theatre history.
Capturing the intensity of racial violence in Texas, from the Battle of San Jacinto to a World War I–era riot at a Houston training ground, Celeste Bedford Walker’s Camp Logan and Ted Shine’s Ancestors provide fascinating narratives through the lens of history. Thomas Meloncon’s Johnny B. Goode and George Hawkins’s Br’er Rabbit explore the cultural legacies of blues music and folktales. Three unflinching dramas (Sterling Houston’s Driving Wheel, Eugene Lee’s Killingsworth, and Elizabeth Brown-Guillory’s When the Ancestors Call) examine homosexuality, a death in the family, and child abuse, bringing to light the private tensions of intersections between the individual and the community.
Supplemented by a chronology of black literary milestones as well as a playwrights’ canon, Acting Up and Getting Down puts the spotlight on creative achievements that have for too long been excluded from Texas letters. The resulting anthology not only provides new insight into a regional experience but also completes the American story as told onstage.
Introduction: Definition of Black Theatre
Camp Logan Celeste Bedford Walker
Johnny B. Goode Thomas Meloncon
Killingsworth Eugene Lee
Driving Wheel Sterling Houston
Br’er Rabbit Adapted by George Hawkins
When the Ancestors Call Elizabeth Brown-Guillory
Ancestors Ted Shine
Appendix A Chronology
Appendix B Playwrights’ Canon
Publications That Include Plays by Black Texas Playwrights
Definition of Black Theatre
In “Note on Commercial Theatre,” Langston Hughes, poet, novelist, editor, and playwright, predicts the emergence of a cadre of black playwrights dedicated to writing plays that explore the complexities and nuances of black life. Hughes asserts:
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what’s about me—
But someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
Like the speaker in Hughes’ poem, playwrights featured in Acting Up and Getting Down: Plays by African American Texans have accepted the challenge to write for a black theatre. One might ask: What is black theatre? According to W. E. B. Du Bois, eminent social scientist, historian, editor, author, and co-founder of the Krigwa Players, black theatre must be
1. About us. That is, they [plays] must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is.
2. By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro . . . .
3. For us. That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval.
4. Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people.
In the introduction to their Black Drama Anthology, editors Woodie King and Ron Milner insist that black theatre “must be housed in, sustained and judged by, and be a usable projection of and to a black community!” Moreover, Willis Richardson, author of the first African American non-musical drama on Broadway, The Chip Woman’s Fortune, explains: “When I say Negro plays, I do not mean merely plays with Negro characters, but dramas portraying the soul of a people.” While black theatre focuses mainly on works written by blacks about black life, it may also encompass works written by non-blacks about black life featuring black characters and actors—for example, Green Pastures by Marc Connelly or Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. Typically, black theatres/artistic directors have adapted plays from other cultures and traditions, such as plays by Shakespeare, Euripides, and Tennessee Williams. Black theatre may also include all-black casts in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, presented by Austin’s Pro Arts Collective, or Crimes of the Heart and Steel Magnolias, produced by San Antonio’s Renaissance Guild. The plays in this collection probe the “soul of a people” while enriching and expanding the Texas theatrical canon. Historically, well-crafted plays by African American Texans have been denied a place in the canon, as anthologies like William Martin’s Texas Plays attest. In a chapter in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars entitled “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African American Tradition,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., discusses efforts to define the African American canon, mainly by editing anthologies of African American literature and citing anthologies dating from 1845 to the present. In “Cultural Valorization and African American Literary History: Reconstructing the Canon,” Sarah Corse and Monica Griffin envision the process of canon formation as a “field of contestation featuring struggles among diverse groups that propose, support, and contest specific canonical tests as a way of enhancing their own social standing.” Corse and Griffin suggest, “One example of this contest for canonical authority was the struggle to include African American and other minority literatures in the American canon.” As Harry Elam, Jr., indicates in the anthology The Fire This Time, new writers extend the “definitions of what a black play is and what black theatre should be.”
The Vibrancy of Black Theatre in Texas
Black theatre in Texas dates from the rise of the minstrel troupes of the nineteenth century. The black theatre movement in Texas included early musicals, the Negro Little Theatre Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, theatre companies and productions organized at historically black colleges and universities in Texas as early as the 1920s, and the development of theatre companies as part of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties and seventies. This history of black theatre now serves as a foundation and source of inspiration for contemporary black theatre companies in Texas. Although scholarship focusing on black theatre in America began to appear shortly after the Civil War, serious research into the history and development of black theatre in Texas dates from 1981, when Sue Dauphin included a chapter on the history of black theatre in Houston in Houston by Stages. Bernard L. Peterson chronicles black theatre in Texas in his 1997 book, The African American Theatre Directory, 1816–1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups. In addition, Annemarie Bean’s Sourcebook of African Performances: Plays, People, Movements includes a chapter by James V. Hatch, “Theatre in Historically Black Colleges: A Survey of 100 Years,” that offers insight into theatre in historically black colleges and universities in Texas. Dawn McGhee, founder and director of Dallas-based Artists for ArtSake, highlights the history of her father, Bill McGhee, who, in the early 1950s, broke through the barriers of race and racism and became the first African American to make a professional mainstream debut on the Dallas stage. A growing body of scholarship documents the long history of black theatre in Texas. In metropolitan Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, black theatre served as the cornerstone of arts activity prior to the twentieth century in community centers, churches, and historically black colleges. Because theatre often brings together a variety of performing arts, including dance, music (vocal and instrumental), and design, as well as acting, black theatre has served as an outlet for artistic expression in the black community. Notable theatre groups that performed before the 1950s include the Thespian Society for “Cullud genman” in Houston (1866), the Phyllis [sic] Wheatley Dramatic Guild Players in San Antonio (beginning ca. 1920), the Log Cabin Players at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas (1925), and the Charles Gilpin Players at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College, Prairie View, Texas (1929). Inspired by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, many more black theatre organizations emerged in the United States, and the black Texas theatre community participated in this historic flowering of artistic expression, or new Black Renaissance, with the establishment of the Urban Theatre in Houston (1969), the Black Arts Alliance in Austin (1970s), and the Sojourner Truth Players in Fort Worth (1972), among others. Today, several successful black theatre groups in Texas maintain active production schedules; these groups include the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, and the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth (all with over thirty years of well-documented growth and development), in addition to the Encore Theatre in Houston, Pro Arts Collective in Austin, and Hornsby Entertainment Theatre Company and the Renaissance Guild in San Antonio. Black theatres are crucial for the nurturing of black playwrights. Whereas mainstream theatres typically produce one play a year by a black or minority playwright in conjunction with their “diversity initiatives,” black theatres build their entire seasons on works by black playwrights. Therefore, the production of the seven plays at the center of this study by black Texas theatres not only offers diverse audiences enlightenment and entertainment but also provides opportunities for black Texas playwrights, directors, and technical staff to refine their craft and gain invaluable experience. Black theatre documents the cultural legacy of black Texans, particularly during the sociopolitical upheaval that marked the period between 1930 and 1954. For example, during the celebration of the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, the Harlem Unit of the Works Project Administration’s Theatre Project of New York City presented Macbeth in an open amphitheatre in Dallas before a capacity audience of two thousand black and white spectators. However, amateur theatrical productions also gained popularity among black Texans in the 1930s. Organized in 1931, the Houston Negro Little Theatre opened with three short plays: White Dresses and No ’Count Boy by Paul Green and The Slave, written by Elizabeth Yates, a member of a prominent African American family in Houston. In 1940, the Department of Recreation sponsored a drama tournament at Emancipation Park for the three playgrounds in Houston. The competition presented one-act plays judged by representatives of the Houston Negro Little Theatre. In 1953, the Houston Negro Little Theatre performed Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie before an enthusiastic audience. Several months later, the theatre presented Sophocles’ Antigone, using contemporary costumes. The success of the Negro Little Theatre in Houston inspired similar efforts in Dallas. While the Negro Little Theatre Movement was limited to large urban communities, it nurtured and sustained black cultural expression when few other outlets existed: “If nothing else, the Little Theatres marked a period of self-expression and self-revelation among the black people of the state.” It was a time when “black culture in Texas was conceived by black artists within the black urban community for black audiences,” in keeping with Du Bois’ theory of Black Arts. Black playwrights in Texas began to emerge in the 1960s, entertaining and enlightening audiences with original comedies, domestic dramas, and thought-provoking history plays.
The Identification of African American Texas Playwrights
In assembling this collection of plays by black Texas playwrights, our first challenge involved defining the black Texas playwright. Because William Martin, editor of the anthology Texas Plays, encountered a similar challenge, we adapted his approach to defining the “Texas” play and the Texas playwright. Martin writes:
In compiling this anthology, I have made no attempt to rigorously define Texas play or to balance choices of writers or works to fit a plan. Not all of the nine authors represented are native Texans, and [the] majority make their homes in either New York or California. Those who are not natives, however, have studied and lived in Texas long enough for it to constitute a significant influence. All have given serious attention to the distinctive characteristics of life in Texas and are represented by works that contribute to its greater appreciation and understanding. Also, of course, they have dealt with the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself ” and with the universal struggles for knowledge, ease, and love that transcend boundaries.
Represented in our collection are not only black writers who were born in Texas but also those who have lived and worked in Texas for decades, even though they were born elsewhere. Like the writers featured in Martin’s book, our black Texas playwrights’ artistic sensibilities were fundamentally informed by their long-term exposure to black Texas culture and history. Four of the seven plays in the collection are set in Texas. All of the playwrights in the collection have had one or more of their plays produced in Texas by a theatre group or at an institution committed to the development of the black theatre canon in Texas. Of the black playwrights featured in Acting Up and Getting Down, four received undergraduate degrees at Texas universities—Eugene Lee, Thomas Meloncon, George Hawkins, and Celeste Bedford Walker. Six of the seven playwrights attended public schools in Texas. Although Elizabeth Brown-Guillory attended public schools in Louisiana, she has been a professor in Texas for the last twenty-five years and currently serves as distinguished professor of theatre, associate provost, and associate vice president for academic affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. Others in the collection who have taught at Texas universities or colleges include Ted Shine and Thomas Meloncon. Eugene Lee, artist-in-residence at Texas State University—his alma mater—is also the founder and artistic director for the state of Texas’ annual Black and Latino Playwrights Conference.
Accolades for African American Texas Playwrights
Although the playwrights represented in Acting Up and Getting Down are essentially regional writers, they have garnered significant regional, national, and international recognitions and awards. For example, Ted Shine, author of over thirty plays, including many comedies and serious dramas as well as a history play, received the Brooks-Hines Award for playwriting in 1970 and the Texas Playwrights Award from Houston’s Ensemble Theatre in 2007. He studied playwriting with the noted playwright Owen Dodson. Shines’ Contribution, written in 1969, is one of the most frequently produced plays in the African American theatrical canon. He is co-editor (with James V. Hatch) of Black Theatre U.S.A., the standard anthology of plays by black authors. His papers now reside in the prestigious Hatch-Billops Collection in New York City. Another highly successful black playwright in Texas is Thomas Meloncon, author of more than thirty plays. A native Houstonian, Meloncon has taught in the Department of Communications and in the Fine Arts Department at Texas Southern University. He has received many awards and honors, including the Outstanding Texan Award from the Texas Legislative Black Caucus for his contributions to the arts, a creative writing award from the Houston Chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, and an achievement award from the Texas Southern Program Council. He was among the writers honored in the Salute to Texas Playwrights by the Ensemble Theatre of Houston. Like Ted Shine and Thomas Meloncon, Eugene Lee, Sterling Houston, and George Hawkins are key figures in the development of black theatre in Texas. Eugene Lee—artist-in-residence at Texas State University and founder and artistic director of the annual Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, which is hosted by the Texas State Department of Theatre and Dance—has seen his plays produced at the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York City, the Royal Court Theatre in London, England, and several other venues. Lee was one of the writers honored during the Salute to Texas Playwrights by the Ensemble Theatre of Houston. The late George Hawkins, the multi-talented founder and artistic director for Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, wrote and directed six plays, including Br’er Rabbit, a popular children’s play. Adapted from the classic folktale, Br’er Rabbit is produced annually by the Ensemble’s Children’s Theatre. Hawkins also wrote and directed a humorous murder-mystery entitled Who Killed Hazel Patton?—a box-office hit that is revived periodically. Although Hawkins died before his full potential as a writer could be realized, he is still remembered fondly at the Ensemble, where one of its performance spaces is named in his honor. Another Black Texas playwright who died in his prime was Sterling Houston, the former artistic director and writer-in-residence for the Jump-Start Performance Company and author of thirty-three plays. Houston received a New Forms Regional Initiative Grant funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Houston’s play Black Lily and White Lily was selected to open the Cleveland Public Theatre’s Festival of New Plays in 1996, and in 1997, the Texas legislature honored Houston with a citation for his invaluable contributions to the cultural life of Texas. As further evidence of the high esteem in which he was held in the San Antonio artistic community, Jump-Start renamed its performance space the Sterling Houston Theatre in 2009. The women playwrights represented in the anthology have also received notable honors and recognitions. Celeste Bedford Walker, one of the most prolific black Texas playwrights, has written nearly forty plays. Her celebrated historical drama Camp Logan (a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards winner) has been performed in major venues across the country, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given to an outstanding female playwright, and she was among the writers honored in the Salute to Texas Playwrights by the Ensemble Theatre of Houston. Walker has also served as resident playwright for the Ensemble Theatre. Like Shine and Meloncon, Walker has received numerous commissions to write plays for theatres and other groups. Another outstanding Houston playwright is Elizabeth Brown-Guillory; she has held playwright residencies in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York. Her work was showcased recently in Houston at the Ensemble Theatre’s “Heart of the Theatre” series. Brown-Guillory was named distinguished scholar/artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. She was also winner of Denver’s Eden Theatrical Playwriting Award, as well as Danny Glover’s Robey Theatre Playwriting Award. The playwrights represented in this anthology are experienced, prolific, and highly regarded writers whose work deserves a wider audience.
The Importance and Uniqueness of This Anthology
This anthology makes plays by black Texas writers accessible to theatre professionals around the world. One of the greatest challenges facing emerging playwrights is getting their work into the hands of artistic directors and other theatre professionals. Playwrights make their plays accessible to readers by circulating their work in manuscript form, thereby risking copyright infringement, or they seek public readings at venues such as the National Black Theatre Festival, which is held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, every two years. They engage in networking at theatre conferences, or they host public readings of their work. The well-known and widely produced playwright Pearl Cleage, author of Flyin’ West and Blues for an Alabama Sky, used these strategies to bring her work to the stage. Once playwrights garner major awards—such as a Tony, Obie, Lorraine Hansberry Award, a Theodore Ward Prize, or a Pulitzer Prize—publishers are more likely to accept their manuscripts. But even when playwrights are fortunate enough to get their work accepted, they are often published in a script form that is not reviewed or catalogued in libraries, resulting in limited access for general readers and theatre professionals. This limited access is even more problematic, as recent scholarship indicates that African American drama is performed by international and transracial theatre companies when scripts are available. Two cases in point are Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which has been translated into more than thirty languages and staged in Poland as well as other international venues, and black Texas playwright Eugene Lee’s East Texas Hot Links, which was mounted at Britain’s Royal Court Theatre, a theatre noted for its production of international plays. Our anthology not only gives a voice to black Texas playwrights but also highlights the importance of regional theatre in Texas. Although New York City remains the Mecca of American theatre, regional theatres offer opportunities to new playwrights. African American playwrights, who rarely get a chance to showcase their work on Broadway, depend upon regional theatres to stage their plays. In Texas, these theatres include Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre, Dallas’ Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and Austin’s Pro Arts Collective. While African American Texas playwrights have enjoyed success in the regional theatres, their work remains virtually unknown to the mainstream theatre establishment. This anthology privileges writers who would be invisible without it. William Martin’s 1990 anthology, Texas Plays, includes no plays by black Texas playwrights, suggesting that none exist. Acting Up and Getting Down corrects this misperception. Typically, plays are published individually as scripts, but publishers are also producing a wide variety of play anthologies that present plays as literary texts. Anthology models for Acting Up and Getting Down include The Longman Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Drama, The National Black Drama Anthology, The Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award: An Anthology of Prize-Winning Plays, Asian American Drama: 9 Plays from the Multiethnic Landscape, The Pain of the Macho and Other Plays, and American Gipsy: Six Native American Plays. Just as black Texans have made and continue to make a unique contribution to Texas music, black Texas playwrights’ singular contributions foreground a marginalized community whose history and culture are often neglected, devalued, and/or ignored. While Texas theatre aficionados would most likely recognize the names of Texas playwrights such as Horton Foote, Ramsey Yelvington, and Oliver Hailey, few, if any, are familiar with Black Texas playwrights Ted Shine, Celeste Bedford Walker, Eugene Lee, or Thomas Meloncon. This anthology bridges the gap between the two groups and complements earlier texts such as William Martin’s Texas Plays (1990) while celebrating the state’s cultural diversity and unique Texas “brand.”
The Texas “Brand”
As Leigh Clemons notes in Branding Texas, African American Texans and other ethnic minorities are engaged in a struggle for the control of Texas history and, by extension, the maintenance of Texas cultural identity. The Texas “brand,” or Texas cultural identity, encompasses much more than the iconic cowboys and oil wells. Clemons describes the uniqueness of the Texas cultural identity, which derives from a “whitewashed” discourse that relegates people of color to the margins, with white males dominating the cultural center. Although the construction of the Texas cultural identity remains a highly contested process, it is often represented in “violence as romanticized spectacle” grounded in revolution and performed in reenactments. According to Clemons, “Historical plays serve as a form of ritual sacrifice presented as if for all Texans, but, in fact, they operate within the Anglo/Mexican binary.” Although white male experience dominates the construction of Texas cultural identity, other groups—Mexican Americans, African Americans, and women—strive to ensure that their own representations are included. Clemons argues that “Texans can be created through historical plays.” The two historical plays in this anthology, Ancestors by Ted Shine and Camp Logan by Celeste Bedford Walker, also promote the impulse to construct a more diverse Texas cultural identity. In the dominant narrative featuring white males, African Americans are relegated to the periphery of the action, defined as objects rather than subjects with agency. However, African American playwrights refocus the traditional narratives, situating African Americans at the center of the action. Clemons suggests that “Blacks and American Indians, long excluded but with many historical ties to the state, struggle even to be acknowledged as part of the historical narrative other than as footnotes.” In Ancestors, a play commissioned for the Texas Sesquicentennial Celebration, Shine focuses on the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Bose Ikhart, a slave, and Green-bury Logan, a former slave, participate in the battle. One of the most important facets of white male Texas culture is a selfless courage in the face of danger. By fighting in the battle, Bose Ikhart displays a type of bravery not typically attributed to slaves, yet he hopes that performing this act of courage will prompt his white master to find him worthy of his freedom. Similar gestures toward the development of Texas cultural identity are highlighted in Celeste Bedford Walker’s historical drama, Camp Logan, as well as in the family dramas set in Texas.
The Black Aesthetic
Plays in Acting Up and Getting Down can be profitably studied and evaluated through the lens of the black aesthetic. In the introduction to The Black Aesthetic, Addison Gayle asserts that Black Art, a “unique art derived from unique cultural experiences[,] mandates unique critical tools for evaluation.” Therefore, when we refer to the black aesthetic, we call attention to critical tools that take into account culturally specific techniques such as call and response, repetition, oral tradition, folklore, and jazz and blues motifs used by writers like Langston Hughes and August Wilson. In an essay entitled “The Development of African American Dramatic Theory,” Mikell Pinkney traces theoretical writings on the black aesthetic from W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1920s to August Wilson in the 1990s, citing five fundamental aesthetic principles and seven periods of black aesthetic thought in America. The aesthetic principles or elements encompass protest, revolt, assertion, music, and spirituality. The periods of development include (1) Plantation or Slavery, (2) American Minstrelsy (slavery, end of slavery through the turn of the century), (3) New Negro Renaissance, or Harlem Renaissance (1917 through the 1920s; W. E. B. Du Bois, Montgomery Gregory, Alain Locke), (4) Assimilation (1930s through the 1950s; the Federal Theatre, the American Negro Theatre, Lorraine Hansberry), (5) Black Power/Black Arts and Black Aesthetic/Black Revolutionary Era (beginning mid-1960s to mid-1970s; Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Larry Neal), (6) Revolutionary Afrocentric Era (beginning mid-1970s through 1980s; Paul Carter Harrison, Barbara Ann Teer), and (7) New Age Post-revolutionary Era (1990s to present; postmodern intellectual spiritualism and prophetic pragmatism, including Ntozake Shange, Suzan-Lori Parks, August Wilson, Cornel West). For more than eighty years, black scholars and literary theorists have engaged in a continuing dialogue about the nature and function of the black aesthetic. The concept of the black aesthetic was at the center of the influential Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, whose theorists reject the prevailing “Eurocentric criticism that judges the literature’s merit based on its appropriation of European literary genres, languages, and aesthetics.”
The Black Aesthetic and the Regional Theatre Movement
The black aesthetic informs the work of the black regional theatres in Texas. The regional theatres are absolutely indispensable to fledgling playwrights struggling against great odds to bring their plays to the stage. While mainstream regional theatres may produce one play annually in their “diversity slot,” black regional theatres—for example, Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre, and Austin’s Pro Arts Collective—build their seasons around plays by black playwrights, nurturing and promoting black Texas playwrights. The black Texas regional theatre movement is part of a larger national regional theatre movement in the United States. For example, the League of Resident Theatres consists of professional (paid-staff) non-profit companies that function outside of New York’s commercial theatre. The league’s member theatres frequently produce new plays, experimental work, and plays by unknown playwrights. Black Texas regional theatres also provide training and employment for black theatre professionals; involve local communities via churches, city arts councils, and local news media; engender community pride; and establish successful arts education programs for youth. The regional theatres are the lifeblood of professional theatre in Texas.
The plays in this collection explore enduring universal themes and issues involving father/son conflicts and search for identity (Johnny B. Goode), sibling rivalry and the influence of the past on the present (When the Ancestors Call), the quest for self-fulfillment (Driving Wheel), the pain of injustice (Camp Logan), the importance of family unity (Killingsworth), the importance of honoring history (Ancestors), and the importance of living by your wits (Br’er Rabbit). These plays probe “the connections between the social, political, and the metaphysical.” We use the term “universal” to suggest themes, ideas, and experiences that apply to human beings regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or social class. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson comments on the universal in theatre, writing that
theatre asserts that all of human life is universal. Love, Honor, Duty, Be trayal belong and pertain to every culture and every race. The way they are acted out on the playing field may be different, but betrayal is betrayal whether you are a South Sea Islander, a Mississippi farmer or an English baron. All human life is universal, and it is theatre that illuminates and confers upon the universal the ability to speak for all men.
The plays in this collection speak eloquently to all audiences.
Organization, Genres, and Style
Since our forthcoming companion volume to this anthology documents the history of black theatre in Texas, it seems logical that we open and close the book with strong history plays. Between them we include a dramatized folktale, realistic dramas, domestic dramas, an autobiographical memory piece, and plays that blend realism and magical realism. As well as following the traditional structure of a well-made play, the authors of the four two-act plays and three one-act plays create interesting characters involved in compelling situations that demand our attention. As previously noted, Ted Shine began writing plays during the 1950s, the period identified with assimilation; however, four of the black Texas playwrights in this anthology are products of the black intellectual aesthetic that gained prominence in the 1970s—the period identified as the Revolutionary Afrocentric Era, dating from the mid-1970s through the 1980s (George Hawkins, Br’er Rabbit; Ted Shine, Ancestors; Eugene Lee, Killingsworth; and Celeste Bedford Walker, Camp Logan). Three of the playwrights developed their plays here during the seventh period, the New Age Post-revolutionary Era (Sterling Houston, Driving Wheel; Thomas Meloncon, Johnny B. Goode; and Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, When the Ancestors Call).
After consulting with artistic directors and others familiar with black theatre in Texas, we identified more than a dozen black Texas playwrights who submitted twenty-seven manuscripts for review. For each play, we created a matrix covering plot, characters, themes, setting, central message, and production history. We wanted intellectually challenging plays that examine timeless, universal ideas, plays that illuminate the black experience in Texas. Assisted by C. Francis Blackchild, a doctoral student conducting independent research on black theatre under the direction of co-editor Sandra M. Mayo, we evaluated each manuscript carefully in weekly roundtable discussions. To make the book useful to artistic directors looking for scripts, we selected stage-worthy plays with a documented stage life. Our goal was to showcase well-written and (with one exception) unpublished one- or two-act, multi-character plays by black Texans, women and men, veteran and emerging playwrights. Although we discovered several talented black playwrights/performance artists in major Texas cities, their work, in some instances, did not fit our play selection criteria. For example, Austin’s Zell Miller, a noted hip-hop theatre artist, has received many awards for his one-man shows, and Austin writer/performer Naomi Mitchell Carrier has written an impressive collection of brief dramatic pieces meant to be performed outdoors at sites such as the George Ranch Historical Park. These writers continue to make valuable contributions to black theatre in Texas. Other worthy plays came to our attention that could not be included in this collection because of space limitations. The seven plays featured in this anthology are representative of the outstanding body of work that black Texas playwrights have produced.
This collection will appeal to students and scholars of theatre and performance history and readers interested in cultural, ethnic, African American, and Southwestern studies. In addition to introducing new plays and playwrights to a wide readership, we have included appendices of the playwrights and their published and unpublished plays, an overview of significant developments in black theatre in Texas and the national black theatre movement, and related black historical events. These appendices further underscore the contributions of black Texas playwrights.
Plays by African American Texans probe the complex dynamics of African American family life, entertain and enlighten children via the legacy of black folklore, and interrogate Texas history that is typically forgotten, ignored, and/or misrepresented. As a companion to our historical study of black theatre in Texas (forthcoming from the University of Texas Press), this collection enriches the cultural heritage of blacks in Texas. In the introduction to “La Voz Latina,” an anthology of contemporary plays by Latinas, the editors state that “this anthology contributes to an understanding of the cultural contributions of Latinas/Latinos to U.S. and world culture.” We feel confident that Acting Up and Getting Down accomplishes the same goal for blacks in the Lone Star State. Playwright Celeste Bedford Walker’s insightful critique of her own plays aptly applies to the canon of black Texas playwrights; she asserts that they “embrace the sacred and the mundane, the serious and the comic[,] but what they all have in common is a delight in the wisdom and witlessness of the human condition.” Echoing the words of Langston Hughes, we find that black Texas playwrights have accepted the call to stand up and tell their stories. They have placed black characters in black stories about black issues celebrating what is black and challenging and inspirational:
. . . someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me—
Black and beautiful—
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
Celeste Bedford Walker
Celeste Bedford Walker received the August Wilson Playwright Award in 2009 at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her canon includes approximately thirty-seven plays. Her celebrated historical drama, Camp Logan (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] Image Award winner), has been performed in major venues across the country, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Not only has she been honored by the NAACP Image Award for positive portrayal of African Americans in the media, but she has also received New York City’s AUDELCO Award for best play and the Heart of Theatre Salute to Texas Playwrights by the Ensemble Theatre in Houston. She was selected as a finalist for the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for outstanding work by a female playwright in the English-speaking theater. In addition, Walker has received numerous commissions, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and cultural arts grants to write dramas, comedies, musicals, and children’s shows for theaters, schools, museums, and organizations. In 2003, Walker received a Recognition of Excellence from the ABC TV Talent Development Program for screen writing. Houston’s Cultural Arts Council awarded her a fellowship to complete the play Sassafras Girls. She was featured by organizers of the thirtieth anniversary celebration of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize as part of their “Women in Theatre: Houston Voices” theme. In 2008, the Alley Theatre in Houston commissioned her to write the historical drama for young people, I, Barbara Jordan. Walker is a Texan who has been involved with theatre in Houston for over thirty years. She was born and raised in Houston. She attended Jack Yates Senior High and received a BA from Texas Southern University in Houston, where she majored in English. She worked as a data processor for many years before turning to writing plays full-time. She has been able to focus on her writing because of the many fellowships, commissions, and grants she has received, but she also has a supportive husband. She has always loved literature and thought she might write novels like Toni Morrison, but she soon discovered that she was more interested in dialogue. She admired the work of many playwrights when she began writing, especially the comic work of Neil Simon and the serious drama of Lorraine Hansberry. Involvement with a theatre group in the seventies, the Black Arts Center in the Fifth Ward, sparked her writing career. The actress Loretta Devine came out of this group. Walker met a group of writers and with them formed Writers Clinic, Inc., led by Alma Carriere. She worked with the Writers Clinic in the seventies for about five years, and her first play and first produced work, Sister, Sister, was the result. Walker has not only written full-length and one-act plays for adults but also for youth and children. The most acclaimed of the full-length plays are Distant Voices (Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist), Once in a Wife Time (formerly Sister, Sister, NAACP Image Award winner), Reunion in Bartersville (NAACP Image Award nomination, AUDELCO Award winner), Over Forty (AUDELCO Award winner), and Praise the Lord and Raise the Roof (a 1999 Olympics Cultural Arts Festival selection). Sassy Mamas (2008), produced by the Hansberry-Sands Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is one of the full-length works. Ten of her thirteen one-act plays have also been produced. They include Noble Lofton; Buffalo Soldier; Adam and Eve, Revisited; Spirits; Smokes Bayou; The Boule; Jack Yates; Blacks in the Methodist Church; Hip Hoppin’ the Dream; Reparations Day; and The History of Wheeler Baptist Church. Some of her children’s shows, performed before thousands of students over the years, include Freedom Train, The African Talking Drum, Where My Girls At?, Giants in the Land, Fabulous African Fables, and Black Diamonds. Walker grew up hearing about the Camp Logan riot and interviewed Houstonians who had relatives caught up in the event. Although she studied the documents on the event in the Robert J. Terry Library of Texas Southern University and in the Black History Section of the downtown Houston Public Library, as well as consulted Robert Haynes’ Night of Violence (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), she found the oral history she collected a rich source for the emotional and personal stories of the soldiers.
As You Read Camp Logan
Camp Logan is a two-act tragedy in eight scenes, with a prologue and epilogue, based on the 1917 riot by black soldiers at Camp Logan. The play is a faithful re-telling of the historical events leading up to the riot, the carnage resulting from the riot, and the sentences meted out to the black soldiers. The action revolves around a male cast of six soldiers and their white captain. The six black soldiers are a composite of the group immersed in the tumultuous event. Walker brings to life their humanity through their camaraderie in the barracks and the stories of home, women, and brushes with discrimination and white hatred. The drama juxtaposes the soldiers’ attempts at normalcy with the hostile events in the environment in which they are placed. The humiliation is offstage, but it is under constant discussion in the private space of the barracks. The style combines presentational (direct address to the audience) with representational (slice-of-life) scenes to immerse the readers and audience in the action, but it also allows them to step back from the action and see it in a different perspective— though always through the eyes of the soldiers caught up in the tragedy. The events of Camp Logan and the play’s grounding in the civil rights struggles of blacks throw into relief the price that had to be paid for dignity. This play is reminiscent of other plays about the struggles of black soldiers, including Aftermath (1919) by Mary P. Burrill, A Medal for Willie (1951) by William Branch, and A Soldier’s Play (1981) by Charles Fuller. It is also akin to the contemporary movies Glory (1989) and Tuskegee Airmen (1995) in chronicling the stories of blacks in the U.S. military.
Representative Production History
Kuumba House, Houston, Texas, 1987
Carver Community Center, San Antonio, Texas, 1990
Billie Holiday Theater, Brooklyn, New York, 1991
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Texas Festival, Washington, DC, 1991
Victoria Five Theatre, New York, New York, 1994
McKenna Auditorium, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California, 1993
McClintock Theatre, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1995
Shades of Truth Theatre, Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts, New York, New York, 2008
African American Performing Arts Community Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2011
Robey Theatre Company, Los Angeles Theatre Center, Los Angeles, California, 2012
SGT. MC KINNEY: Spit and polish career officer. Twenty-two years of army service. Kentuckian, forty years old.
GWEELY BROWN: Twelve years of army service. Texan, thirty years old.
JOE MOSES: Ten years of army service. New Yorker, thirty years old.
JACQUES “BUGALOOSA” HONORÉ: Louisianan, twenty-five years old.
ROBERT FRANCISCUS: Chicagoan, twenty-five years old. CHARLES HARDIN: Six months of army service. Minnesotan, nineteen years old.
CAPT. ZUELKE: White Kentuckian, thirty-five years old.
THE SOLDIERS OF THE COMPANY
Time: Summer 1917 Place: Outside the army camp, Camp Logan, Houston, Texas
(AT RISE: It’s a rainy morning, around 6 a.m. In the blackout, we hear the sound of a train engine coming to a halt, delivering the soldiers to the camp. Off Stage we hear the Camp Logan Quartet (consisting of the members of the cast who can sing) singing an a capella rendition of “Buffalo Soldier” (by Bob Marley and Noel G. “King Sporty” Williams). On Stage we see slides from the Camp Logan Photo Exhibit (the author drew on her personal collection of Camp Logan photos, but exhibit photos are available at the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston and the Houston Public Library in the Texas Room). CAPT. ZUELKE enters, dressed in an army-issue rain slicker. He salutes and addresses the audience as the townspeople of Houston. As he talks, slides from the Camp Logan Exhibit may continue to be shown.)
CAPT. ZUELKE: Good evening folks, I’m Captain Harris Zuelke of the 24th Infantry, Company “I.” Now that Colonel Gentry has briefed you on the battalion in general, I’m glad to get the opportunity to tell you something about my men in “I” Company in particular. For the past eleven months, these boys have been stationed in the desert of Columbus, New Mexico, chasing Pancho Villa. And let me tell ya something, after being out there in that desert, we’re mighty happy to be here in this good ol’ Houston rain. (Beat.) This battalion has a fine record. We’ve pulled duty out West in the Indian Wars, served in the Philippines, and in the Yellow Fever camps in Siboney, Cuba, and went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. These boys are bearcat fighters and I’m proud to serve with them! Sergeants! (SGT. MC KINNEY marches THE SOLDIERS of THE COMPANY On Stage to cadence.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: Ten-hut! (THE COMPANY is brought to order. CAPT. ZUELKE inspects the troops.)
CAPT. ZUELKE: Parade!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Parade!
CAPT. ZUELKE: Rest!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Rest! (The men of THE COMPANY stand at parade rest.)
CAPT. ZUELKE: I know the idea of 654 colored troops being stationed near your town has got some of you white citizens of this town worried. But let me assure you, no need for alarm with these boys. I ought to know, I’ve served with colored soldiers all of the fifteen years I’ve been in the army, and I can truthfully say that these boys are the best of their race—they’re intelligent, hardworking, and as disciplined as any white soldiers I’ve seen. (Beat.) Now, I understand that some of you still remember the Brownsville, Texas, incident a few years back. But that was just an isolated incident. There are some ten thousand colored soldiers in the regular army, and for the most part they’re happy, cheerful, easygoing fellows who aren’t looking to do any violence against white citizens. (Beat.) But to help soothe some of your fears about any violence occurring here, let me give you the rules and regulations of the camp. First, only sentries on duty will carry firearms, and they won’t be allowed to load those weapons except in case of an emergency, such as somebody trying to break into camp or somebody trying to steal supplies. And of course no white folks’ll be doin’ that. The soldiers are divided into four grades, and only the first three grades will be allowed to leave camp. So, set your minds at ease folks, you don’t have to worry about any hotheads walking among the civilians, only soldiers with good conduct will be allowed into town. And you men of the press will get your chance at the soldiers, but first I want the citizens to observe the well-organized way these boys put up camp. They’ll have the latrines dug, grass cut, tents up, in record time! Thank you for coming out, and we look forward to a pleasant stay here in Houston. (A TOWNSMAN planted in the audience, jumps up, shouting hate-filled remarks.) TOWNSMAN: Put those monkeys back on the train!
CAPT. ZUELKE: Sergeants!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Ten-hut! (THE SOLDIERS snap to attention, eyes straight ahead.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) Your left, your left, your left, right, ha!
THE SOLDIERS: (Singing.) Oh here we go, oh here we go, we’re at it again, we’re at it again, we’re movin’ out, we’re movin’ in!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Your left, your left, your left, right, left . . . (Etc.)
TOWNSMAN: They touch our women, it’ll be a lynchin’!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Your left, your left, your left, right!
TOWNSMAN: Remember Brownsville!
THE SOLDIERS: Oh here we go, we’re at it again . . . !
TOWNSMAN: You niggers better not come into town!
THE SOLDIERS: (Eyes straight ahead.) We’re movin’ out, we’re movin’ in! (SGT. MC KINNEY leads the men Off Stage.)
END OF PROLOGUE
(SETTING: A giant U.S. flag on SCRIM provides the backdrop of the tent barracks set of “I” Company. The living accommodations consist of a bunk bed Upstage Center for SGT. MC KINNEY and FRANCISCUS. FRANCISCUS on lower berth. A wooden set of shelves, with water basins, ladle, water bucket, towels, and other prop items is on one side of the stage. The stacked rifles are on the opposite side. The U.S. flag and the yellow 24th Infantry blockhouse flag are prominently displayed. Four cots, two to the right, two to the left, with footlockers and duffle bags for GWEELY, MOSES, BUGALOOSA, and HARDIN, are Downstage. A colorful Mexican blanket is placed at the foot of MOSES’ cot. Next to BUGALOOSA’s cot is a crude altar to the Virgin Mary and his cornet.
(AT RISE: A few minutes later. The lights fade up to the sound of a steady rain and clap of thunder. Hot, tired, and wet, the men run in from the rain. MOSES gets a wash basin from the shelf and begins washing up. He’s quickly followed in by BUGALOOSA, who immediately drops to his knees before his altar, and FRANCISCUS, who’s trying to get egg stains off his shirt. As HARDIN puts away his belongings, he’s dismayed to discover that the tent is leaking over his cot.)
MOSES: (Running in.) These southern crackers acting up already!
FRANCISCUS: (Taking off his shirt.) Damn rednecks. Look at this, eggs all over my uniform!
BUGALOOSA: Welcome to the South boys.
FRANCISCUS: I finally get a uniform with just the right fit and now—I’m sure glad Priscilla wasn’t out there to see this.
MOSES: They better be glad they didn’t hit me.
BUGALOOSA: (Getting whiskey bottle.) They say we better not come into town tonight.
MOSES: Hell, I’m going into town! (GWEELY runs into the barracks, shaking out his rain slicker.)
GWEELY: Well, at least we got camp up ’fore that downpour come.
BUGALOOSA: Yeah, I think we broke our record this time.
MOSES: Rain and nothing else gonna keep me in camp tonight. I can’t wait to see what old Houston town’s got to offer. Gweely, you sure they have plenty colored girls here?
GWEELY: Do a snake crawl?
MOSES: Well, how come we didn’t see any out there then? You and Buga loosa swore up and down they were gonna swamp us.
GWEELY: They is, they is. But ain’t no colored gal gon’ be out ’fore day in the moanin’, in the rain.
FRANCISCUS: No decent one anyway.
BUGALOOSA: Yeah, ain’t none of ’em that patriotic.
FRANCISCUS: Priscilla and some of her church friends were planning to meet us, but since they sneaked us in here in the dead of night—
MOSES: Like we’re criminals or something.
FRANCISCUS: But that’s all right. Priscilla sent me this colored newspaper, and listen to what it has to say about us. (Reading.) “Although the white populace is experiencing some consternation about colored troops being stationed here in town, we at the Texas Freedman’s Press hail these fine young men as a credit to our race. When the white soldiers from the 5th Infantry came to town, there was a big hoopla, and flags flew from every post. Let’s give the 24th the same honor. Wake up Houston! This is 1917!”
GWEELY: That’s right, Houston, this is 1917!
BUGALOOSA: Wake up! MOSES: ’Cause the “Deuce-Four” is here!
HARDIN: (Looking up.) Do you fellows realize that it’s leaking in here? (They notice HARDIN for the first time.)
BUGALOOSA: (Good-naturedly.) Oh, that’ll stop when the rain stops. (The men laugh. HARDIN wipes raindrops from his face.)
HARDIN: These tents need mending.
GWEELY: Where you say you from, boy?
GWEELY: Min-ne-sota? Hear that place so cold, it freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
HARDIN: Well, yes sir, it does get pretty cold at home.
GWEELY: Didn’t even know they had no colored in Minnesota.
HARDIN: Not many like they have here in the South, sir. In my hometown there were only two colored families—the Nesbits and us Hardins.
MOSES: Still ain’t figured out why they’d throw a draftee like you in with reg’lars.
HARDIN: (Peeved.) I’m not a draftee, I volunteered. I quit college to join up, and I’ve been in the army six whole months now and I—
BUGALOOSA: Y’all hear that? Six months he say. Well now, I reckon that make him a real soldier all right. (They laugh.)
GWEELY: Tell you one thang boy, you lucky to be in the 24th, ’specially “I” company. We’ll learn you how to be a soldier.
FRANCISCUS: So, you quit college to join up huh?
HARDIN: Oh yes. It was quite obvious to me from newspaper articles that this country was going to have to go to war, so I joined up to be ready.
FRANCISCUS: I went to college at home in Chicago for a while.
HARDIN: Then you quit to join the war effort too?
FRANCISCUS: (Laughing.) Hell naw. I quit to join the Franciscus effort. When my pa got sick, I took over his job at the slaughterhouse. But I got tired of looking at those bloody sides of beef, and decided to hitch up about five years ago.
HARDIN: (Fervently.) Yes well, my conscience dictated that I put my education on hold, because I feel that any man, colored or white, who is not willing to fight and die for this country, is not worth his weight in salt!
GWEELY: (Rolling a cigarette.) Speak boy, speak!
HARDIN: (Sheepishly.) Well . . . I guess I do feel rather strongly about this war, sir, but I—
MOSES: Will you stop calling him “sir.”
GWEELY: Shut up, Moses. Let the boy show some respect if he want to.
HARDIN: Well, I feel as William Burghardt Du Bois feels, he says that—
FRANCISCUS: W. E. B. Du Bois.
GWEELY: Oh yeah, I remember now, that’s the fella you be tellin’ us about, ’Ciscus.
HARDIN: (Passionately.) Du Bois says that this war is “an end and also a beginning.” He says, “Never again will the darker people of this world occupy just the place we have before . . . “ (MOSES crosses the tent to throw out dirty water.)
HARDIN: (Continued.) “. . . and after we have proved ourselves worthy by fighting and dying for this country, a grateful nation will gladly give us the recognition and respect that the white man now enjoys!”
GWEELY: (Impressed.) Boy, you sound like a professor. (A clap of thunder as MOSES rushes back in.)
MOSES: It’s coming down in buckets out there.
BUGALOOSA: (Shining his cornet.) Hope it slacken up ’fore we get out tonight.
MOSES: I don’t care if it’s raining horse mess; I’m going into town tonight.
GWEELY: Me too, if I gotta paddle a canoe.
MOSES: Anyway, this rain looks good, after being stuck out there in the desert, chasing Pancho Villa’s behind.
HARDIN: You chased Pancho Villa?
MOSES: Yeah, me and Gweely were in Pershing’s special guard for a time.
GWEELY: But I’m the one almost caught him. I come that close . . . (Snaps fingers.) . . . that close to catching Ol’ Pancho single-handed . . .
BUGALOOSA: You believe that lie, you believe anything.
GWEELY: Hell, I did, you don’t know. (Arm around HARDIN.) It was evenin’, boy, ’long about dusk dark, and I was out patrollin’ . . .
ALL: . . . all by myself! (They laugh, as GWEELY waves them off.)
FRANCISCUS: Gweely wasn’t the only one out there that evening.
MOSES: We had Ol’ Pancho right in our sights— (Holding up his rifle.)
GWEELY: (Lovingly caressing his rifle.) With these new Springfield rifles. Ain’t she a beaut? Thirty ought caliber, battle sights, ladder sights up to a thousand yards . . .
FRANCISCUS: Zuelke had told McKinney to take a few of his best shooters out to scout for Mexican Federales. But he said don’t shoot any Mexicans this time, though. ’Cause we’re at war with the Germans now.
MOSES: He just wanted us to fire a few rounds and leave our empty brass, so their German advisors could see what they were up against.
GWEELY: So we went into this little Mexican village to talk to this colored Seminole scout sittin’ under a tree. So we asked him if he knowed anythang. But he was part colored and part Indian, and didn’t speak nothin’ but Spanish.
FRANCISCUS: “Dónde están los oficiales alemanes y los federales?”
GWEELY: (Translating.) “Where the German officers with the Federales at?”
FRANCISCUS: Then the scout said, “Yo te llevo. Siento bien haciendo. Poquito trabajo.” (Translating.) “I will take you to them. It will be good to do a little work.”
MOSES: So we find their camp. A Federale and a German are each holding maps, discussing strategy. We laying up on a hill in the grass, watchin ’em with binoculars. We get in position—McKinney is holding binoculars to spot for me—
GWEELY: Franciscus spottin’ for me. (GWEELY and MOSES enact the scene.)
MOSES: I’m trained on the Federale—
GWEELY: Got my sights on that godless German hun—
FRANCISCUS: McKinney gives the word . . .
GWEELY/MOSES: We fire!
FRANCISCUS: Almost simultaneously. Maps start flying, officers hit the dirt . . .
GWEELY: (Laughing.) Thankin’ they was dead. . . . But all we done was shoot the maps out they hands—
MOSES: Orders were—don’t kill ’em—
GWEELY: —Jest let ’em know we’d been there. (Plants a big kiss on his rifle.) Sweet Jesus! What a weapon!
FRANCISCUS: Yeah well, I’m glad to be shed of Columbus, New Mexico.
GWEELY: Place wasn’t so bad—them senoritas was nice.
FRANCISCUS: Yeah, but eleven months of nothing but rock and sagebush was starting to get to me. I’d forgot what a tree looked like.
BUGALOOSA: Damn a tree, I forgot what a colored gal looked like.
MOSES: Me too. I got so sick of looking at Mexican faces and hearing talk I didn’t half understand. Tonight I’m gonna get my hands on a colored girl, the blackest one I can find!
BUGALOOSA: That Selena sho’ was crazy about you, though. She couldn’t say nothin’ in English but “I love Joe Moses too much; I love Joe Moses too much.”
MOSES: I taught her how to say that.
GWEELY: Useta wear me out with that mess. Hell, I met her first, don’t know what she seen in you—you ugly and you sho’ don’t part with no pesos.
MOSES: (Smugly.) I’ll have to tell you my secret one day, Gweely.
FRANCISCUS: (Shining his boots.) Ol’ Selena’s probably hooked up with some other soldier by now.
GWEELY: Sho is.
MOSES: Say Franciscus, you still writing that cross-eyed pen pal of yours?
FRANCISCUS: (Good-naturedly.) Yeah, and she’s not cross-eyed, either.
MOSES: (Winking at GWEELY.) How would you know, you ain’t never seen her.
FRANCISCUS: Gonna see her tonight.
MOSES: Me, I couldn’t write a woman all this time without knowing what she look like.
GWEELY: Me neither. But Moses, we got to remember, Franciscus ain’t innerested in what a gal look like—all he innerested in is how much book learnin’ she got.
BUGALOOSA: And how much money her folks got.
FRANCISCUS: Aw, you two just jealous because those pen pals you had in ’Frisco turned out so bad.
BUGLOOSA: Didn’t they tho.
MOSES/GWEELY: (Waving them off.) Aw man, forget that, don’t nobody want to hear about that . . . (Etc.)
FRANCISCUS: Hardin wants to hear it; don’t you Hardin?
HARDIN: Yes, yes I would like to hear about their exploits.
BUGALOOSA: Y’all hear that—ex-ploits?
FRANCISCUS: Well Hardin, my boy, they finally met these two sisters they’d been writing to in San Francisco. Twins they were . . .
BUGALOOSA: O-ra and Do-ra. (MOSES and GWEELY groan in remembrance.)
FRANCISCUS: Well, Ora turned out to be cross-eyed—
BUGALOOSA: And Dora was big as a bale of cotton! (Laughing, BUGALOOSA spreads his arms and lumbers across the tent.)
GWEELY: Well, I jest might put all these women down over here, and marry up with one of them Franch senoritas.
MOSES: Let you tell it, you always gonna “marry up” with somebody.
FRANCISCUS: Yeah, remember he said the same thing in the Philippines.
GWEELY: But I ain’t shuckin’ and jivin’ this time though. Bugaloosa even much been learnin’ me some of that Franch lingo. (Takes a deep breath.) Pol-ly Vouse Frances? Comin’ Alice too?
BUGALOOSA: Man, they ain’t gonna understand a word you saying. Permittez-moi de presenter. J’ai m’pelle Jacques Honoré. Commentallez vous?
GWEELY: Oo-wee, listen at how that trip offen his tongue! Be glad when I learns how to whisper it like that in them Franch senoritas’ ears.
BUGALOOSA: (Disgustedly.) “Mademoiselles,” man, “mademoiselles.” How many times I got to tell you, you call French women “mademoiselles”?
GWEELY: Yeah, well, me and you got to get together on that stuff. Yep, after the war I just might settle overseas. They say a colored man get treated with respect overseas.
HARDIN: We’re going to be treated with respect right here in America after the war.
MOSES: Yeah, things’ll be different when we get back.
BUGALOOSA: If we get back.
FRANCISCUS: If we don’t get back, then our children’ll get the respect.
GWEELY: Yeah, that’s right.
FRANCISCUS: Black Jack Pershing here we come! Finally gonna see some action!
MOSES: (Sourly.) You call guarding this campsite action?
FRANCISCUS: We’re not going to be here long, Moses—this is just a stopover. Sergeant McKinney says we’ll be shipping out for the war zone as soon as they finish the construction here.
MOSES: We better. All this outfit’s been pulling is garrison duty. White boys see all the action.
GWEELY: Yeah, but pretty soon we gon’ be over there in the foxholes with the rest of ’em.
BUGALOOSA: But what about that stuff you be reading in that N-A-A-C-P magazine, Franciscus? About the gov’ment using colored soldiers to grow food for the army? What about that?
MOSES: I’d like to see the first son of a gun tell me about growing some vegetables! Hell, I ain’t no plowboy, I’m a soldier!
FRANCISCUS: Calm down Moses. They don’t mean reg’lars like us. They’re talking about draftees, like Hardin here, who don’t know which end is up on a musket. (He playfully throws a towel at HARDIN.)
HARDIN: (Unamused.) Look, I know which end is up on a musket! And I didn’t join up to be a plowboy either! (He throws the towel back.)
FRANCISCUS: You’ll do what they tell you to do. (Throwing the towel back again.)
HARDIN: (Stubbornly.) I’m not going to a farm. I’m going overseas and fight.
BUGALOOSA: Next he’ll be giving orders to Old Black Jack hisself.
HARDIN: (Smugly.) Not to him. But maybe to all of you.
HARDIN: They’ve just opened up a colored officer’s training school in Des Moines, Iowa, and I plan to sign up for it.
MOSES: Officer training? For a colored man? Ain’t no such thing.
FRANCISCUS: Yeah, it is, Moses. They just opened it up last month. (Looking pointedly at BUGALOOSA.) Remember that article I read to you about the N-A-A-C-P putting pressure on the War Department to have colored officers? Well, they just started the school.
MOSES: (To HARDIN.) What makes you think you could be a officer, you cocky little son of a b—
GWEELY: How old you say you is boy?
HARDIN: Nineteen. (The others groan.) But I’ve always made top honors in R.O.T.C. (Another groan.) And I’ve always been a leader in all school activities and—
MOSES: School? Who the shit talking about school, boy? This the army. I been in ten years and ain’t no boy like you gonna give me no orders, I don’t care how much “schoolin’” you got.
GWEELY: (Grinning.) Boy got plenty of gumption, don’t he?
MOSES: I don’t know what he got, but I know where he’s gonna be—over there in the trenches with the rest of us.
BUGALOOSA: Or growing squash.
MOSES: (Laughing.) Hey, tell him Frenchy. Nigger talking about being a officer . . .
FRANCISCUS: Ten-hut! (The men snap to attention as SGT. MC KINNEY strides in. He’s holding a burlap sack and a tin cup. He puts these items on the shelf.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: As you were. All right, all right, listen up! (All the men, except HARDIN, resume what they’re doing. HARDIN continues to stand at ramrod attention.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) Ok. We in a Southern town now. And a colored soldier can run into a lot of trouble in a Southern town if he ain’t careful. Houston ain’t like some of the other places we been stationed in, where they lets colored come and go like they please. It ain’t like that here. They got a lotta rules for colored here. Got signs all over the place, tellin’ colored where to eat, where to sleep, where to get on the trolley, where to get off. (Pause.) Ok. Some of these rules might be a bit irksome to some of ya, but I expect ya to go by ’em, ’cause they the law here. You men from the South unnerstand all this, but some of you boys from the North might have some problems wit’ it, but I don’t aim to have no problems. (He stops in front of MOSES.) So, anybody got any questions, best speak ’em now.
MOSES: Now, I just wanna make sure I understand. Now—if I catch a trolley car and all the seats in the colored section are all filled up, but it’s plenty empty ones in the white section, you saying I still have to stand up?
SGT. MC KINNEY: That’s what I’m saying.
MOSES: Don’t make no sense.
SGT. MC KINNEY: Ain’t got to make no sense, they the rules. You just follow ’em. It don’t need to be a whole lotta traffickin’ on them trolley cars no how. Walk—you need the exercise.
MOSES: I hear a colored man can’t hardly walk the streets because of the white police.
SGT. MC KINNEY: You soldiers ain’t got to worry ’bout the city police (Amid murmurs of approval.), you answer to you own MP’s like you always do. And while we here, we gon’ put on some extra MP’s. Franciscus! You one of ’em.
FRANCISCUS: Yes sir.
SGT. MC KINNEY: And you can start your duty by taking this here sack . . . (Throws it to FRANCISCUS.) . . . and goin’ ’round collectin’ all that whiskey y’all snuck in from New Mexico.
THE MEN: (Trying to sound innocent.) Whiskey? What whiskey? We ain’t got no whiskey . . . (Etc.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: In the sack.
BUGALOOSA: (Pained.) Lord have mercy, Sarge. (FRANCISCUS goes around to MOSES and GWEELY with the sack. They grudgingly give up a bottle each. HARDIN, of course, has nothing. Throughout the collection, SGT. MC KINNEY holds forth on the evils of liquor.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: I can’t unnerstand what make a colored man drank liquor. Let the white man drank hisself to hell. He get drunk, go out, do somethin’ foolish, no harm done. But don’t you fools know a colored man can’t ’ford to get all liquored up! Next moanin’ he find hisself swangin’ from a tree. (At this point, FRANCISCUS is at BUGALOOSA’s cot. BUGALOOSA is pulling out bottle after bottle after bottle from his footlocker. SGT. MC KINNEY is unaware of what’s going on at BUGALOOSA’s cot.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) I ain’t gon’ bide no drankin’ in this comp’ny—either in barracks or in public. We gon’ leave a real good impression on these white folks. Ain’t gon’ be no congregatin’ on the street corners, no cussin’ or spittin’ in public, and no drunkenness in “I” Comp’ny. Nothin’ look worser to white folks than a drunk—(Suddenly aware of the constant “clink” of bottles coming from BUGALOOSA’s direction, he whirls around to see Bugaloosa sadly putting a final bottle in the sack.) —loud cussin’ nigger!
HARDIN: Yes sir!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Sit down, Hardin. (HARDIN sits. FRANCISCUS exits with the sack.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) Now to cut down on a lot of goin’ back and forwards into town, the white folks done give up some of their own buildings right close to camp and turned it into a dance hall for y’all soldiers. Somewhere over on Washington Street, they say.
GWEELY: (Doing a little jig.) Hoo-ray! Just point me in the direction, Sarge, ’cause I got my dancin’ shoes ready.
SGT. MC KINNEY: Just hold your horses, Brown. ’Fore y’all go out and blow your pay on some gal, I wants your money for your liberty bonds. (He gets the tin cup from the shelf, while the men go in their pockets.) And dig deep. Them bums in “M” comp’ny beat us out last time. (SGT. MC KINNEY goes around with the cup, stopping at GWEELY first.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) I’m takin’ up money for the folks in East St. Louis too.
GWEELY: I sho’ aims to give to that. I hear some of them folks ain’t got the money to bury they dead. SGT. MC KINNEY: That’s what some of this here money’s for. GWEELY: What they do to them white National Guards?
SGT. MC KINNEY: Nothin’.
BUGALOOSA: Got clean away with murder.
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Sharply.) You watch yo’ choice of words, Honoré. You talkin’ ’bout men in uniform.
BUGALOOSA:I know, Sarge, but those colored folks wasn’t nothin’ but civilians, didn’t have nothin’ to fight with but rocks and sticks.
HARDIN: Sergeant McKinney? What do you think started that riot, sir?
SGT. MC KINNEY: Ain’t got no time to waste speculatin’. I wasn’t there, don’t know the straight of it. (SGT. MC KINNEY rattles his cup before BUGALOOSA. BUGALOOSA drops in two coins.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Continued.) (Disgustedly.) Is that all you givin’ Honoré?
BUGALOOSA: (Shrugging.) Tha’s all I got—deux sous.
SGT. MC KINNEY: Two pennies?
BUGALOOSA: That’s all I got, Sarge. I just bought a new cornet, don’tcha know, and I’m a little short.
SGT. MC KINNEY: You always a little short. (To HARDIN.) Boy!
HARDIN: Yes sir!
SGT. MC KINNEY: Kin you count money?
HARDIN: Yes sir, I can count!
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Giving him the cup.) Count this. (Back to the men.) One mo’ thang. The colored folk in town is got it planned to treat y’all like you some kinda heroes or somethin’—got all kinda festivities planned for ya. But don’t none of y’all get the big head about this. And Colonel Gentry figured it would be good for morale to throw the camp open, and let y’all have visitors from thirteen hundred hours to right ’fore curfew . . . (He holds up a restraining hand at the men’s approval.) as long as you men not on duty and done finished all assignments. (Pause.) Now, they say some Eye-talian woman, name—a—uh—Miss Step -nu-chi or somethin’—she live cross the way and she say you soldiers is welcome to use her telephone . . . THE
MEN: (Excitedly.) Telephone?! We can use a telephone . . .! (Etc.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: . . . but I don’t want none of y’all troopin’ in and outta that white woman’s house, I don’t care what they say. (Pause.) Now, y’all all know how Colonel Gentry always want to be the one give out the good news, and leave it to us non-coms to give out the bad. So, when he call ’sembly at eighteen hundred hours this evenin’, act like y’all ain’t heard none of this.
GWEELY: Sarge? Then visitors? That mean womens too, don’t it?
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Dryly.) Yeah Brown, that mean womens. (At GWEELY’s big grin.) But let me tell you somethin’, Gweely Brown: I got my first time to catch a female in barracks and ain’t gon’ be no mo’ women visitors for “I” Comp’ny period. Unnerstand?
GWEELY: Oh yeah, sure, I unnerstand that.
SGT. MC KINNEY: You done countin’ that money, boy?
HARDIN: Yes sir! Five dollars and thirty . . . (Looks pointedly at BUGALOOSA.) . . . two cents, Sergeant McKinney, sir.
SGT. MC KINNEY: Humph. Curfew same as usual. And any soldier out pass that time got me to deal with. (SGT. MC KINNEY strides out of the tent.)
GWEELY: (Imitating McKinney.) And any soldier out past that time, got me to deal with—
SGT. MC KINNEY: (Re-enters.) And remember this here . . . (GWEELY jumps to attention, as the men cut short their laughter.)
SGT. MC KINNEY: You soldiers of the United States Army, and if some of these white folks don’t respect yo’ color, they bound to respect that uniform. So, compote yo’selves at all times so’s you don’t brang no dishonor on that uniform.
THE MEN: (Solemnly.) Yes sir.
SGT. MC KINNEY: Ok, that’s it. (SGT. MC KINNEY exits. GWEELY makes a point to be sure that SGT. MC KINNEY is gone before he speaks this time.)
GWEELY: Yeah, and I bet he’ll be standin’ guard too, makin’ sho’ every man is in at curfew.
BUGALOOSA: Much as I plan to do, curfew need to be at sunrise.
GWEELY: Wish he was like some of the other non-coms around here. The boys in “M” Comp’ny have to cover for Murphy all the time.
BUGALOOSA: Yeah, he be goin’ AWOL, whorin’ and drinkin’ with the best of us. (BUGALOOSA takes another whiskey bottle from his footlocker.)
MOSES: McKinney ought to get him a woman. I ain’t never seen him with no woman.
GWEELY: Last woman he was with was in 1907.
MOSES: (Laughing.) Man, how you know that?
GWEELY: I was with him. Tried to hook him up with this little gal, but he runned her off, same way he run all his women off—treatin ’em like boots—(Demonstrates on BUGALOOSA.) Straighten up that spine! Throw back them shoulders, pull in that gut! (They laugh.) I ain’t lyin’, he run ’em all off like that, so I quit tryin’ to hook him up y’know, and then after he made sergeant, we just kinda went our diff ’rent ways. (GWEELY starts looking for Franciscus’ hair pomade and mirror, finds it, and takes it back to his cot.) HARDIN: You’ve been in the army as long as Sergeant McKinney?
GWEELY: Damn near. Been in longer than any of these fellers.
HARDIN: You could be a sergeant, maybe even an officer.
GWEELY: (Flattered.) Oh, they done come to me ’bout it, but I don’t want to be in charge of no nigger but me. (FRANCISCUS re-enters, puts the empty sack back on the shelf.)
BUGALOOSA: You didn’t get rid of all of it, didcha?
FRANCISCUS: (Breezily.) Those were my orders. (Beat.) And guess who came out to help me get rid of the contraband?
BUGALOOSA: (Disgusted.) Cap’n Zuelke.
FRANCISCUS: Down his gullet. (Looking through his belongings, puzzled.)
BUGALOOSA: (Heatedly.) That drunk bum! (MOSES laughs.) Hey man, that ain’t funny, no! That was some good liquor all gone to waste. Bon je senyé!
GWEELY: That’s all right, Boog, we ain’t gon’ cry over spilt whiskey, plenty mo’ where that come from.
FRANCISCUS: (Absently, as he searches.) I guess Zuelke figured we owe him. He’s the one who told Colonel Gentry it would be good for morale to open up the camp. But Gentry’ll come in here and take all the credit.
GWEELY: McKinney beat him to it this time.
MOSES: Now we’ll have to hear that same speech all over again. (BUGALOOSA starts to play on his cornet the song “Over There.” All join in as they put finishing touches on their uniforms.)
GWEELY: (Concluding the song.) Hey! Way I figure it, we’ll go by this dance hall on Washington Street first, see what the house got there, then . . . (At this point, FRANCISCUS spies his pomade, starts over to GWEELY’s cot.)
GWEELY: (Continued.) . . . then we’ll mosey on into town, check out the juke joints there.
MOSES: All right by me.
FRANCISCUS: (Snatching pomade.) You’re welcome!
GWEELY: Oh yeah—thanks. Got to buy me some of that stuff one day.
FRANCISCUS: You been saying that ever since I met you.
GWEELY: (Looking in the mirror.) Look-a-there, make my hair look kinda wavy, don’t it? (FRANCISCUS takes the mirror.) You gon’ paint the town with us, Franciscus?
FRANCISCUS: Not tonight. Tonight I’m going to meet Pris-cil-la.
GWEELY: Well, have fun with yo’ preacher gal, but preacher gal ain’t exactly what I’m lookin’ for tonight.
BUGALOOSA: Me neither.
FRANCISCUS: She may be a preacher’s daughter, but her letters sound mighty lively.
GWEELY: What about you, boy? Wanna come with us? (HARDIN’s been lounging on his cot, reading pamphlets. He eagerly sits up.)
HARDIN: Well, what do you fellows have planned to do?
GWEELY: Find some women and get drunk.
HARDIN: Oh—well—I was just planning to go sightseeing. (The men try to keep a straight face. HARDIN runs over to them with a pamphlet.)
HARDIN: (Continues.) I have this little pamphlet here on Houston, and they have these two skyscrapers I’d really like to see—the Carter Building, which is sixteen stories high, and the Rice Hotel, with twenty-two stories.
GWEELY: Colored ’lowed in ’em?
HARDIN: Well—uh—I don’t know, I was just planning to stand outside and look up at them. (The men burst out laughing.)
MOSES: Boy really know how to have a good time, don’t he?
GWEELY: Come on boy, we gon’ break you in tonight. You can see a tall building any time, but bet you ain’t never had no poontain.
HARDIN: (Afraid to ask.) Uh . . . exactly what is that? (Roar of laughter from the men.)
GWEELY: (Slapping him on back.) Naw, you ain’t never had none. Come on, boy, you goin’ with us tonight.
HARDIN: Ok, if you fellows really want me. (HARDIN heads for his cot, BUGALOOSA cuts him off, pulls him aside.)
BUGALOOSA: You got any money?
HARDIN: (Reaching into his pocket.) Well yes, as a matter of fact, I do, my mother just sent me—
GWEELY: Don’t worry Bugaloosa, me and Moses got plenty money, we take care of you.
MOSES: Hey nigger, don’t be loaning out my money. He ain’t got no money, let him stay in camp. (The call for assembly sounds.)
FRANCISCUS: (Snapping to attention.) As-sem-bly! Look smart, men, look smart! (The men snap to attention. By this time they are sleek and sharp in their uniforms, except HARDIN. BUGALOOSA starts playing “Over There,” and the men join in.)
THE MEN: (Singing.) Over there, over there, tell the men to beware over there, ’cause the Yanks are comin’, the Yanks are comin’ and we won’t stop marchin’ ’til it’s over, over there . . . (They dance a little jig on out the tent. HARDIN scurries after them, tucking in his shirt tail.)