Reading In/On Stages
George Bornstein, the scholar whose method of bibliographic analysis is the basis of our project, focuses primarily on the changes a poem experiences in different contexts of publication (e.g. anthology, magazine). He opens his discussion of bibliographic codes by posing a question about a play: “If the ‘Mona Lisa’ is in Paris at the Louvre, where is King Lear? This question opens important issues of what constitutes the (or is it a?) text” (Bornstein 5). People universally acknowledge that Leonardo’s smirking lady resides in the Louvre, although we can access a picture or a copy online with the click of a button. But in considering King Lear (or Johnson’s Plumes, in this study), there is no way to acknowledge any one publication as more important than the other. The method of analyzing the bibliographic codes — what changes about the text and its context from publication to publication — shows us that it is important to read different versions of a supposedly single text in order to learn new things about the author and the context she was writing in. Plays are also peculiar in that their contextual differences also include live performances, providing us with not just bibliographic codes, but performance codes as well.
The Disappearing Act
Analyzing a play is not like analyzing a poem. While they do have similar characteristics, as material forms of both provide opportunities for examination, when reading a play you must consider the performance as well as the text — a difficult, even impossible task that requires some digging for information about specific performances. In the case of Georgia Douglas Johnson, we must also recognize the context of the society in which Johnson’s plays were performed — or censored, as was sometimes the case due to her realistic but provocative representations of lynching. We must try to consider all of these things — the text, the performance, the social context — to have a more complete understanding of Johnson’s plays.
Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote dozens of plays and is considered to have written more lynching plays than any other writer. However, very few of her plays were published or produced at the time they were written. Her plays did not often find recognition as significant literary contributions in the way that her poetry did because they did not fit the feminine ideals of tradition and purity expected of women poets at the time. Johnson sent in several plays to NAACP executive secretary Walter White (for possible use by the Youth Council), but they were not produced because, according to White, “‘they all ended in defeat’ and ‘gave one the feeling that the situation was hopeless'” (quoted in Stephens 90). Despite rejection Johnson refused to change her plays. Instead, she decided to preserve her artistic integrity, and maintain the endings which she believed to be realistic representations of the struggles facing African Americans at the time.
Aside from lynching dramas, Johnson also wrote several folk plays — a genre that was meant to depict the everyday life of African Americans, with the intention of humanizing them. Plumes was one such drama, and one of Johnson’s few to be both published and produced. The play won Opportunity Magazine‘s annual drama contest, after which it was published in a 1927 issue of the magazine. It was first staged by The Cube Theatre in Chicago in 1927, and again in 1929 by the Harlem Experimental Theatre in New York. Outside of Opportunity, the play was published three times: in an anthology of African American drama edited by Alain Locke in 1927; in its acting edition by Samuel French in 1928; and in an anthology of African American Literature edited by V.F. Calverton in 1929. Each version of the play has slight differences in representation of the dialect, diction, and punctuation as well as larger differences in how the editors, actors, and reviewers have contributed to the meaning of the play. Taking into account these variations – in bibliographic as well as performance codes – gives us a richer reading of Johnson’s work, revealing how she expressed herself as well as how others perceived her work.
Plumes tells the story of a poor woman named Charity attempting to care for her deathly ill daughter, Emmerline. She has fifty dollars and must decide whether to spend that sum on an operation for her daughter — which may or may not save her life—or on a proper funeral. Charity’s friend reads her fortune in her coffee grounds and delivers the prophecy that there will be a funeral. Charity must decide whether or not to believe these superstitions over the word of the white doctor, whom she clearly does not trust, saying “I’ve got no faith a-tall in ’em. They takes all your money for nothing” (Johnson 76). At the end of the play, before Charity comes to a decision, Emmerline’s condition worsens, and she dies. The doctor did not have his surgical tools with him when he came to the house originally; he had to go back for them and therefore would not have made it back in time to perform the surgery to save her life. Science couldn’t be successful. As the coffee grounds predicted, paying for the funeral was the necessary decision for Charity to make.
Plumes weaves together themes of race, gender, and class, which are present in the text and further highlighted in performance. The protagonist is a poor black woman, and her identity drives the action of the story. Charity, though she may be a part of three marginalized groups, does have agency in this story, but it is very limited — the choice may be hers to make, but either decision leaves her poor and possibly daughterless. Due to her lack of wealth she must decide between her daughter’s life and a respectable death. The doctor writes off her superstitious reading of coffee grounds, discrediting her because of beliefs tied to her racial identity and telling her not to “believe in such senseless things” (Johnson 81).
Johnson embraces the popular genre of the folk play, attempting to represent the struggles of black people realistically, including a specific dialect. She uses “Ain’t” rather than “are not” or “am not,” “em” replaces “them;” we see “shore” instead of “sure” and the “g” cut off of the end of some words ending with “ing.” Johnson doesn’t just let the dialect speak for itself; as Sullivan writes, she uses “the discourse—or talk—behind these dialects…the ways in which women challenge hegemonic definitions of culture and rely on the solidarity of female friendships” (Sullivan 407-8). In a way, this struggle against the white patriarchy – represented by the doctor – is the same struggle faced by Johnson and black women everywhere. Having to decide between choosing a dignified funeral on her own terms or submitting to a white doctor’s improbable surgery reflects the economic difficulties faced by many black women. Even Johnson, who sat solidly in the middle class, did not enjoy the same privileges as a wealthy person or a white person in the middle class. Anne Stavney quotes in an article that “‘even the black bourgeoisie,’ stresses scholar Ann Douglas, ‘could not hope for steady employment or financial security’” (Stavney 552). This lack of financial security was especially true for Johnson after her husband died. As a black woman, her race and gender disadvantage kept her from fully experiencing her middle class advantage.
To understand a play, it is not only important to look at the text, and the context in which it was published, but at how it was performed (especially in the context in which it was written). We must read its performance codes. Ideally, we would look at all aspects of the production: costumes, set design, lighting design, the size and location of the performance space, and the makeup of the audience as well as their reception of the play. However, we don’t always have access to all of that information, especially for an older play — and we certainly don’t for Plumes. But a review of the second production of the play gives us information on the performance space, audience makeup, and the reception of the play and all of those can inform our reading of the play.
A Baltimore newspaper reviewed the New York Negro Experimental Theater’s production of Plumes in 1929. The show was put on in the auditorium of a public library during the height of the Little Theatre movement, in which groups made theatres in found spaces (unconventional buildings not originally designed to be theatres, intended to subvert theatrical conventions). The play was well received at its semi-private performance; the audience was selective and black, and greatly enjoyed the show. The review notes especially how successful the actors were in their portrayal of the characters, describing the “long and enthusiastic applause at the fall of the curtain” (Afro American). Black actors were finally able to play characters with real emotions and problems instead of clownish stereotypes in minstrel shows. The reviewer lauds the actors, saying that “every member of the company gave a performance that approached professional excellence” (Afro American). Johnson’s play not only portrayed black characters in a more realistic and humane way and exposed financial difficulty of black women but also created a physical space in which black actors could have more dignified roles.
The review outlines the plot of the short play, speaking favorably of the doctor and saying that, in the end, the mother’s love wins out because surgery could not have saved her daughter in time. Although Charity’s choice is affirmed, her intelligence is questioned, as the reviewer calls her love “sometimes more devoted than wise” (Afro American). The review also provides information about a meeting of the theatre group, which took place prior to the performance, at which they signed their constitution, making this performance a rather historical one for the Negro Experimental Theater. The solidification of this theatre group emphasizes the point Locke made in his introduction to the play, that it was finally time for African Americans to take ownership of the theatre movement—for the powerful and universally affecting writing of Johnson, as well as for the groups producing these intense stories.
This review helps us learn about important performance codes. From the audience’s enthusiastically positive reaction, we learn that Johnson was reaching people, this story was affecting people (mostly black bourgeoisie). The unconventionality of the performance space, in Harlem, no less (the heart of the Renaissance), tells us that Johnson was not focused on the traditional, like she often was in her poetry. Race comes to the forefront of this work when we consider the performance codes of where and to whom it was performed.
While the performance codes are extremely important, editorial contexts of the published text also inform our readings. Alain Locke was the first to publish Plumes after its appearance in Opportunity. His anthology, Plays of Negro Life, includes twenty plays by African American authors, as well as a few photographs of certain productions. This edition does use an exclamation point in a couple of places — distinct from other editions — such as in the aforementioned line said by the doctor about the coffee grounds: “don’t you believe in such senseless things!” (Locke 297). This makes the doctor, the white figure, seem perhaps a bit harsher or more exasperated.
The most stark differences we find in editions of Plumes, however, are not typographic differences but rather differences in editorial intention expressed in the introductory materials. Locke’s introduction distinguishes this edition of Plumes from the rest by emphasizing the universality of the themes, and also depoliticizing Johnson’s intentions. Locke supported the black foray into drama, writing that “no group experience in America has plumbed greater emotional depths” (Locke). To Locke the social conditions of black people inherently enriched their art and made it more emotionally honest. These everyday struggles could lead to the best drama, the most powerful drama — more powerful than the work by white authors who did not have the same experiential depth to draw from.
This anthology aims to showcase the talent and strength displayed by these black playwrights, but not to make a political statement. Locke meant to avoid being political, and explicitly stated that “the Negro playwright has had to abandon his puppets of protest and propaganda and take to flesh and blood characters and situations” (Locke). Locke’s clear preference for folk plays over the more popular problem plays may explain why he included Plumes, a folk play with a deeper character study, instead of one of Johnson’s more political anti-lynching plays.
Locke intends this anthology to let African American authors claim the dramatic form for themselves — and they certainly do. These writers reject the old minstrel show habits of forcing humor on black subjects who were “forced to laugh outwardly and weep inwardly” (Locke). Instead African American drama draws from personal experience with racial adversity—but is, according to Locke “universal even in sounding its most racial notes” (Locke). This anthology is meant to recognize and celebrate the talent of the race, but is not meant to protest on behalf of African Americans. Plumes then becomes not a story of poor black women rejecting white, patriarchal oppression, but rather a poignant tale of a woman struggling to help her daughter either live or die respectably. It is an affecting drama with universal themes; Locke encourages us not to negate the race of the characters, but to consider it secondary to their experiences. The focus on themes make more collectively relevant issues of loss, choice, and family come to the foreground.
In seeking to create a collection of black authors making art informed by their blackness rather than charged with it, Locke does this play, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, somewhat of a disservice. Because his intentions with this anthology are supposedly not political, he reduces each work to its aesthetic properties. While Johnson’s poems were arguably intended to be enjoyed as artistic, her plays are intensely political and racially driven. Plumes is about a woman who finds solidarity in her female friendship has choice in a helpless situation. She may be poor, she may be black, and she may be a woman, but Johnson makes a strong choice in a male dominated society by empowering Charity — a decision which Locke undermines by emphasizing the quality of the writing over its subject.
While Locke focuses on the universality of themes in African American drama, V.F. Calverton intends to present African American experiences to readers. The second anthology to publish Plumes was the 1929 Anthology of American Negro Literature, which contains drama as well as songs, poems, essays, and stories. V.F. Calverton, the editor, dedicates the collection to his friend, and influential NAACP worker, Walter White. But what sets this anthology apart the most is that V.F. Calverton is white. In a short preface, he describes his intentions with this book: “it is an anthology which is representative above everything else” (Calverton vii). He means to be inclusive of many genres, and give a general snapshot of literature by African Americans.
Calverton then tells readers that “it has then been necessary to include material because of its representative value, although it is without fine, literary distinction” (Calverton vii). There is no championing of African American contributions to literature in this anthology. Calverton is almost an anthropologist, taking samples of a strange culture’s work and collecting it neatly into a little book so that white people know what’s going on. In this context, the literary integrity of Plumes — and indeed of every work in the collection — is called into question, as Calverton doesn’t specify which works he included were of a lesser quality. The play may serve as a box to be checked: an African American folk drama, about the daily life of the lower class, written by and about a woman.
Locke, despite his neutering of Plumes’ political implications, still praises it as a literary work. Calverton doesn’t even do that: He merely presents the works as an ethnographic study. But not only are the literary qualities of Plumes overlooked, the politicism is, again, not acknowledged. This anthology was certainly collected for white readers, who would be unlikely to understand Charity’s situation (and perhaps only sympathize from a distance). Calverton wanted to show what African Americans were writing merely as an example that they were able to put words down on paper, stripping all talent and political intention from Johnson.
Georgia Douglas Johnson’s play Plumes shows how different contexts supply a text with different meanings. The introductions by Locke and Calverton confine Johnson’s work to their own aesthetic or anthropological goals and don’t allow the author to speak for herself. Regardless, the reaction of the New York crowd and reviewer reveal that Johnson’s play intensely affected the audience when it was finally produced. In production, it transcended editorial reduction to impress the audience. Analyzing all extant editions allows us to read Johnson in and out of different contexts, with and without different editorial paratexts, and on and off the stage.
Bornstein, George. “How to read a page: modernism and material textuality.” Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. NY: Cambridge. UP, 2001. 5-31. Print.
Calverton, V. F. Anthology of American Negro Literature. New York: The Modern Library, 1929. Print.
“Experimental Theatre Group Gives ‘Plumes’: Semi-Private Performance of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Play Presented.” Afro-American. 6 July 1929: 9. Print.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. “Plumes.“ The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson: From the New Negro Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement. Ed. Judith Stephens. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005: 74-82. E-book.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. Plumes. Digital Image. W.E.B. DuBois Papers. University of Massachusetts: 1926. Page 2. Web. 2 December 2015.
Locke, Alain, Thomas Montgomery Gregory, and Aaron Douglas. Plays of Negro Life : A Source-Book of Native America Drama.New York: Harper & Bros., 1927. Print.
Stavney, Anne. “‘Mothers of Tomorrow’: The New Negro Renaissance and the Politics of Maternal Representation.” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 533–561. JSTOR. Web.
Stephens, Judith L. “Art, Activism, and Uncompromising Attitude in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Lynching Plays.” African American Review 39.1/2 (2005): 87–102. Print.
Sullivan, Megan. “Folk Plays, Home Girls, and Back Talk: Georgia Douglas Johnson and Women of the Harlem Renaissance.” College Language Association Journal 38.4 (1995): 404-419. Print.
Young, Patricia Alzatia. “Female Pioneers in Afro-American Drama: Angelina Weld Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Mary Powell Burrill.” Ph.D. Bowling Green State University, 1986. ProQuest. Web.