Langston Hughes

Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921–1943
Joseph McLaren

The Harlem Suitcase Theatre

Langston Hughes was instrumental in organizing the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, an experimental theatre-in-the-round that premiered his didactic play Don’t You Want to Be Free? during its first season in the spring of 1938. The Suitcase Theatre staged a series of satiric skits, “hilarious histrionics,” during its second season in the fall of 1938. Through parody, these skits “signify” on certain well-known texts, some of which had been also made into films.  1

With the assistance of Louise Thompson Patterson, Hughes began forming the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938. The goal was to organize “a group of proficient actors” who would present productions for labor organizations. Paul Peters, Whittaker Chambers, Langston Hughes, and Jacob Burck would serve as directors.  2 Rather than the “N.Y Suitcase Theatre,” the organization ultimately became known as the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, suggesting that Hughes and the other organizers had decided to locate the theatre in Harlem rather than a downtown area. The name also implies that the productions would use “‘about as much stage property as can be packed in a suitcase.’”As expressed by Hughes in the Daily Worker, the intention was to produce plays in a variety of styles, to present African Americans in roles other than the “‘comic and servile’” parts associated with Broadway productions, and to provide entertainment that was neither “morbid nor tragic.”  3

With its mission to promote interracial plays, the Suitcase Theatre had the support and sponsorship of Max Yergan, the black Communist Party spokesperson in Harlem who had been involved with the International Committee on African Affairs and the Manhattan Council of the Negro Congress. Hilary Phillips, who directed the 1938 debut of Don’t You Want to Be Free?, was also one of the founding members.  4

In its “Constitution,” the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, sponsored by the I.W.O. Branch 691, a “leftist labor-cultural group” located at 317 West 125 Street above Frank’s Restaurant, was committed to filling a “longfelt need” in Harlem “for a permanent repertory group presenting plays dealing with the lives, problems, and hopes of the Negro people in their relation to the American scene.” The Suitcase Theatre was responsible for maintaining the Community Center, where the rehearsals and performances would take place. The financial matters would be “worked out” between the Executive Committee of the Suitcase Theatre and the House Committee of Branch 691 to ensure an “equitable plan of the proportional financial responsibility.”

The Executive Committee of the theatre consisted of Louise Thompson, Robert Earl Jones, Mary Savage, Grace Johnson, Ernest Goldstein, Muriel Unis, Hilary Phillips, Dorothy Peterson, and Hughes. Membership in the theatre was open to “all who conform to the cultural and artistic standards of the group” and applications would be approved by the Executive Committee. The theatre relied heavily on membership as one of the “important foundation stones.” Two of the crucial concerns were “financial” and “technical matters.”  5 Of the fifty or so members of the Suitcase Theatre, many served on committees. The House Committee, the Promotion Committee, and the Technical Department were among the various working groups. Black writers such as Waring Cuney and Gwendolyn Bennett as well as the artists Richmond Barthé and Romare Bearden were included as committee members; Ralph Ellison’s name appears on one member list.  6 WPA personnel also assisted in set design and other needs of the Suitcase Theatre.

As the leading figures in the Executive Committee, Hughes and Louise Thompson were largely responsible for the operation of the theatre during its first season. The nature of their communication concerning scheduling details and other production matters may have influenced the success of the theatre, which had hoped to stage a number of plays directed by various members. The “first theatre-in-the-round in New York,” it was a training ground for actors such as Robert Earl Jones.  7

The second season of the Suitcase Theatre opened on October 30, 1938, with productions at the I.W.O Community Center. For an admission price of thirty-five cents, patrons were presented with a “double bill” drawn from Limitations of Life, The Em-Fuehrer Jones, Colonel Tom’s Cabin, Hurrah, America! (subtitled Jersey City Justice), Scarlet Sister Barry, and Young As We Is. These skits were Hughes works although they were generally credited to the “Theatre Staff,” which included Hilary Phillips, Powell Lindsay, Dorothy Peterson, and Louis Douglas, who collaborated with Hughes on Hurrah, America! The second performance of the double bill was Hughes’s Don’t You Want to Be Free?, directed by Hilary Phillips, which, along with the series of skits, could be seen on Sundays throughout the month of November.  8

The goal of the Suitcase Theatre was to launch additional productions during its second season, which would include two of Hughes’s plays, Front Porch as well as De Organizer, the “folk opera” with music by James P.Johnson and the libretto by Hughes. In addition to Hughes’s works, Powell Lindsay’s Young Man of Harlem and an adaptation of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, adapted by Hughes and Dorothy Peterson, were scheduled for production.  9

The 1939 summer season of the Suitcase Theatre was under the direction of Thomas Richardson, who served as “Guest Executive Director,” responsible for overseeing the revival of Don’t You Want to Be Free?, planning the 1939–40 season, reorganizing committees, and raising funds. It was during this period that Hughes resigned from the theatre. Richardson was critical of the “business” and “production” activities. In his view, the Suitcase Theatre had “no business department as such,” resulting in staffing problems during the summer season. It was difficult to revive Don’t You Want to Be Free? successfully because it had already been seen by “the majority of habitual theatre-goers.” However, visitors to the city for the 1939 World’s Fair might be attracted to the production. The box office problems of the theatre were caused by the lack of an “efficiently-functioning business department.” Furthermore, Don’t You Want to Be Free? fell short of “being the show of high artistic level which it should have been” because of the lack of an “officially-functioning head of production” at the beginning of the 1939 summer season.  10

The theatre, which “limped to the end of the summer season,” needed to be reorganized if it were going to function effectively in the future. Richardson proposed that Muriel Unis serve as business manager, along with such committee members as Helen Brown, Kenneth Dotson, and Oliver Smith. The revitalized business department would execute a “realistic plan for the progress of the theatre.” The “dual system of performers” in which “no one cast performed continuously” was problematic for community theatre. Richardson wanted additional productions so as produce a “full bill of an evening’s entertainment.” Once the weaknesses in production and technical areas were remedied, the theatre gradually assumed the “shape of a permanent organization.”

Developing and maintaining membership was critical to establishing a “state of community permanence.” This could be achieved through the “membership secretary,” possibly Toy Harper, and the continued efforts of members in building the theatre. Furthermore, training sessions in theatre technique organized around weekly studio sessions would contribute to a reputation as “one of the outstanding Negro theatres of the country.” Hilary Phillips was a proposed director of studio activity.

The future success of the theatre also depended on a functioning repertory department, possibly under the direction of Dorothy Peterson, that would track plays submitted to the theatre. This might lead to the selection of plays that were not necessarily political, such as Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies, a “mystery-melodrama” presented by the Federal Theatre and considered the “most successful play” produced in Harlem at that time. However, Don’t You Want to Be Free? was also a popular success, then the “longest running play in Harlem.” It ran for some 135 performances over a two year period, three performances each weekend, at a price of thirty-five cents for admission.  11

The production schedule for the 1939–40 season included two one-act plays for October, Young Man of Harlem and The Organizer, Hughes’s blues opera, although there had been difficulties in getting the music from James P.Johnson. With proposed music directors Dean Dixon and Albert Moss, another option was Hughes’s Troubled Island. For the 1939–40 season, the theatre might also sponsor lectures, symposiums, and theatre parties to Broadway productions such as John Henry, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and The Little Foxes. The Suitcase Theatre could become a “permanent community cultural institution” in the forefront of “Negro people’s theatre in the country.”  12

The hoped for longevity of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre did not occur. Its demise, after two years of success, can be attributed to a “lack of a director” after Hughes’s summer move to California in 1939. The underlying reason for Hughes’s departure from the Harlem Suitcase Theatre was economic, as suggested in his ironic statement concerning the limited financial rewards of Don’t You Want to Be Free?

Of course, I am delighted to present DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE as a gift to the Negro people. But, on the other hand, starvation is not always amusing. For public consumption: Take Your Choice.

In the fall of 1939, the theatre was relocated in the basement auditorium of the “Harlem Branch Library.”  13


Don’t You Want to Be Free?: A Poetry Play, which incorporated poems from The Weary Blues and The Dream Keeper, contained music and dance elements.  14 Unlike the majority of Hughes’s earlier plays, which are confined to limited time frames, Don’t You Want to Be Free?, a hit in Harlem, is epic in scope though short in duration.

The staging was influenced by “constructivist” theatre and the works of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Nikolai Okhlopkov. Like Meyerhold, Hughes was determined to bring “theatre to the people.” Furthermore, Hughes did not receive the support of the state as did the Moscow Art Theatre or the Kamerny Theatre, which Meyerhold thought to have outmoded repertoires. The Federal Theatre Project was not a major source of funding for the Suitcase Theatre.  15

In Russian drama, constructivism, according to Chuzhak,” ‘united constructive furnishings’” and “‘constructive gestures, movements and pantomime’” as in the biomechanics of Meyerhold, in which acting was coordinated with rhythms. Hughes, however, was not immediately concerned with the original ideological basis of constructivism, the inclusion of artists in “industrial production.” Moreover, the involved mechanical sets used in certain constructivist stagings of Meyerhold, including “multileveled skeletal apparatus of platforms, revolving doors, scaffolding, and wheels,” were not used in Suitcase Theatre productions. Don’t You Want to Be Free? was not presented on a stage, nor did it use a set or curtain. The staging involved “two raised half-circles connected by a narrow runway against a side wall.” What Hughes borrowed was the basic utilitarian concept of constructivism, which could be adapted to the limited economic resources of the Suitcase Theatre.  16

In addition to Russian influences, Don’t You Want to Be Free? displays aspects of traditional African drama in which there is an interrelationship of dramatic elements. Music, song, dance, speech, and poetry provide a complex “interdependent” structure, unlike “conventional” Western drama, which emphasizes speech. The works of the contemporary Nigerian dramatists Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan exemplify these elements of traditional African theatre. The political nature of Don’t You Want to Be Free? can be paralleled to Soyinka’s and Osofisan’s “guerrilla” theatre and the South African township plays of Mbongeni Ngema.  17

Don’t You Want to Be Free?, which opened publicly at the IWO Center on April 24, 1938, was also staged on June 10, 1938, in midtown Manhattan at the Nora Bayes Theatre along with Alice Holdship Ware’s Mighty Wind A’ Blowi,’ performed by the New Haven Company as part of “New Theater Night.” Hughes’s play was the more “imaginative” of the two, Ware’s “no more than a glance through a cabin door at two uninteresting though hard-pressed families.” Don’t You Want to Be Free? used jazz and techniques from the Living Newspaper Unit of the Federal Theatre, which presented topical social issues.  18

Don’t You Want to Be Free? resembles not only Scottsboro Limited but other works of the period. Like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935), a proletarian work supporting the organizing of cab drivers, Don’t You Want to Be Free? was experimental in structure. Odets’s play advocated strikes and solidarity with the left: “WE’RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD…. OUR BONES AND BLOOD!” Like Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog, Don’t You Want to Be Free? suggests political “solutions based on the black and white working class.” In its espousal of class consciousness, it is similar to George Sklar’s Life and Death of an American (1936), and, in certain respects, Don’t You Want to Be Free? resembles Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943), which also traced the black experience. Don’t You Want to Be Free? presented a broad historical outline: “From Slavery /Through the Blues/To Now—and then some!”  19

The lack of extravagant staging of Don’t You Want to Be Free? was the result of both a bare budget as well as aesthetic intentions, suggesting similarities to Brecht’s staging. Although Hughes, like Brecht, was not a member of the Communist Party, Hughes clearly supported their organizing efforts. However, Hughes did not go as far as Brecht in voicing the “‘historical necessity’ of Stalin’s ruthlessness.”  20Don’t You Want to Be Free? appealed directly to the audience and encouraged their participation, especially in the ending. In the play, the “Young Man,” the principal character, discusses the bareness of the stage, alluding to the limited financial resources: “This show is for you. And you can act in it, too, if you want to. This is your show, as well as ours.” The play breaks the traditional boundaries of proscenium staging and fashions a world in which the audience participates vicariously and learns “what it means to be colored in America.” This staging method has also been used by the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o in I Will Marry When I Want (1982), which, because of its political involvement of the audience, was banned and led to the author’s detention without trial. The direct appeal for audience involvement is also part of the didactic intentions.  21

Don’t You Want to Be Free? is built on both poetry and dialogue. Some of the poems were taken from The Weary Blues (1926), Hughes’s first poetry collection, which, along with Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), earned him the dubious title of “sewer dweller,” a label ascribed by William Kelley, a reviewer for the Amsterdam News.  22 “Proem,” from The Weary Blues, later titled “The Negro” in The Dream Keeper (1932), echoes “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a historical overview of the African American experience with references to an African homeland, slavery, and the modern experience of labor in the industrial North. The poem connects African heritage to musical legacy.

I’ve been a singer:
All the way from Africa to Georgia
I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime.

The historical experience also includes European colonization and American racism. “Proem” suggests Pan-Africanism in its reference to the brutality of the Belgians in the Congo, which is linked to lynchings in Texas. The imagery of Africa is somewhat romanticized, resembling European depictions of the mysterious, “dark” continent. However, Hughes undermines the stereotype by connecting through race and political hegemony the African and the African American experience.  23

The characters in the play, the “Young Man,” played by Robert Earl Jones, a “Boy,” a “Girl,” an “Old Man,” his “Wife,” a “Man,” a “Woman,” and the “Overseer,” are used to present poems and dialogue. The white Overseer is transformed into symbolic characters of “white oppression,” and there is an intentional pairing by gender of the black characters. “Dance Africaine” is recited by the Boy, followed by the Girl’s recitation of “Dream Variation,” which contrasts white and black imagery and ends in a praise of darkness, an acceptance of the “Night.” The Young Man is a black “everyman” who understands the African past, as in the poem “Lament for Dark Peoples.”  24

The play chronicles the separation from Africa and the Jamestown arrival in 1619, symbolized by the auction block and the chained characters. The Young Man recounts resistance to slavery, represented in such icons as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. The transition from slavery to freedom is symbolized by a Man and a Woman, and agricultural labor is expressed in “The South,” an angry poem that indicts the South: “The child-minded South/Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes/For a Negro’s bones.”  25 Other icons of resistance are mentioned, including Christ and John Brown; Angelo Herndon Jones is echoed in the lines “but a million more will rise to take my place.”

The African American experience in the twentieth century includes the Great Migration and the dilemmas of labor, reflected in the experiences of the Young Man and a “Mulatto Girl.” The itinerant Young Man carries a “tramp’s bundle,” and the Mulatto Girl, “painted and powdered, and wrong,” is reduced to prostitution.  26

Northern migration is associated with a “sad old Negro blues” used as piano background for the beginning of the Young Man’s journey. The blues song explores migration and the uncertainty of the life in the North: “Road, road road, O! /On de No’thern road.” Lines from the Bessie Smith recording “Down-Hearted Blues,” an Alberta Hunter composition, are also interspersed within the exchanges of blues statements.  27

However, the desperation associated with the blues turns to elation, a resurgence of hope expressed in “When Sue Wears Red,” which presents a revitalized vision of the black woman as Egyptian queen, “an ancient cameo/Turned brown by the ages.” Susanna Jones, in contrast to the mulatto prostitute, signifies the sophistication of Harlem and the potency of jazz, the “blast of trumpets.”  28

With piano music as background, the Woman—played by Toy Harper—an emblem of the historical experience of African women in the Diaspora, recounts her experiences from Africa to the Americas, retracing some of the historical material already expressed in the play. The monologue-like poem fits well into the structure of the “Poetry Play” because of its proselike, “speakerly” quality. It is presented in rhyming couplets; the Woman’s past is a “living story” of history. The metaphor of the hill—upliftment—expresses the progress of the “race.” The message she delivers to the Young Man is that he must remember the historical legacy in order to carry forward the dream for future generations.  29

The Woman’s words also reflect metaphors from Jessie Fauset’s “Oriflamme,” whose persona is a black woman who recounts Sojourner Truth’s experience of motherhood and slavery.  30 The Woman’s call to uphold the “banner” resembles the “Oriflamme” symbol of Fauset’s poem. The Woman also symbolizes resistance based on a recollection of “the whip.” Similar to Toni Morrison’s complex evocation of memory in Beloved, memory is used by the Woman to foster resistance despite the pain associated with that remembering.

The language of progress and resistance reflects the future as well, the strategies of the civil rights movement and universal natural symbols of hope: “But march ever forward, breaking down bars./Look ever upward at the sun and the stars.”  31 Discrimination in housing and eating establishments is countered by organized protests, which include boycotts and picketing: “DON’T BUY HERE! /THIS STORE DOES NOT/EMPLOY NEGRO CLERKS.” The Woman protests that the only job offered to blacks in the “MEAT MARKET” is that of janitor rather than clerk, which is reserved for whites. This discrimination is attributed to Mr. Schultz, the store owner, who is a transformation of the Overseer.

The transformation of the Overseer from store owner to Editor of the “DAILY SCRIBE” suggests the conservative white response to black protest. After the Editor urges patience and loyalty to America as the solutions to the “hard times” facing African Americans, the Young Man recounts the black military contribution. The War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the fight for “democracy” in World War I are evidence of African American patriotism. However, military service for African Americans implies a fundamental contradiction and irony of American democracy. African Americans were expected to be loyal though they were denied equality and civil rights had not been achieved. This contradiction becomes the basis for political argument against discrimination during the World War II period when Hughes modifies his socialist position to accommodate the democratic ideal and the fight against fascism.

In the play, the socialist position on race and labor is presented through a White Worker, who proposes solidarity with the black working class, arguing that race is not necessarily the only factor that determines economic status and fair treatment: “labor with a white skin’ll never be free as long as labor with a black skin’s enslaved.” The Young Man considers the White Worker to be an ally who understands his own predicament, a reflection of Hughes’s socialist idealism, the unity of the working class despite racial differences. To the Overseer, both the Young Man and the White Worker are “Radicals.”  32

The Overseer further represents a series of exploitative characters, including an Insurance Man and a Laundry Boss, who is exposed by a politically conscious woman Laundry Worker for his unfair treatment of blacks. She realizes the way Harlem has been used as a source of capital, which is not reinvested in the community: “You making all your money off of colored folks, and taking every dollar of it out of Harlem to spend. I’m tired.” The statement is prophetic of Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus on December 1, 1955, an action that launched the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement. The Laundry Worker exemplifies the economic “fatigue” and frustration of the Harlem community that led to the Harlem riots. “Rent gouging,” discrimination in services, unemployment, inadequate housing, and police authority are the underlying causes.  33

The Harlem riot was sparked by an incident at the W.H.Kress store located on 125th Street. On March 19, 1935, a teenager, Lino Rivera, was caught stealing a knife in the Kress store, known for its reluctance to hire black clerks. Rivera was taken into the basement of the store by police officers, who eventually released him through a back door. However, a rumor circulated that Rivera had been beaten up by the police, resulting in a demonstration by the Young Liberators, a party group that called for interracial unity. Signs reading “Kress Brutally Beats Negro Child” were used in the ensuing demonstration.

The breaking of a Kress window and the excessive police response resulted in a full-blown riot following additional rumors of Rivera’s death. The Harlem riot caused the destruction of property from 120th to 138th street between Fifth and St. Nicholas avenues.  34 By using the Harlem riot as a political turning point in the historical drama, Hughes suggests the continuity of social inequity. Ralph Ellison also portrayed a Harlem riot in Invisible Man, which explores the contending political forces of black nationalism and communism.

The Harlem riot of 1935, the same year Hughes’s Mulatto had its run on Broadway, is not presented as a solution to the dilemmas of race and class. The riot foreshadows the urban upheavals of the 1960s, which have been treated by Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poem “Riot” evokes Chicago. Brooks cites a statement by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”  35

Although Don’t You Want to Be Free? portrays radical political resistance as positive, it does not present violent civil unrest as a viable strategy for social rectification nor does it avoid the dilemmas of socialist idealism. Using members of the audience, the play dramatizes the contradictions of race and class that hinder white-black unity. One Member of the Audience doubts the viability of organizing efforts between white and black workers, suggesting that racial discrimination also exists within union ranks, a remark that complicates Hughes’s socialist idealism: “Let the white workers learn to stop discriminating against us, if they want us with ‘em.” The Young Man confirms this assertion and proposes that the black worker must teach the white workers how to end this kind of discrimination if unity is to be achieved.

Despite the issue of racism and unionization, the Young Man ends with a projection of political power if this organizing is achieved. By investigating the problems of racial unity in organized labor, Hughes goes beyond the fundamental slogans found in Angelo Herndon Jones and The Organizer. The ending of Don’t You Want to Be Free? focuses on race and labor organizing, in references to “The Auto Workers of Detroit,” “The Sharecroppers of the South,” “The Miners of Birmingham,” and “The Stevedores of the West Coast.” Each of these constituencies is represented on stage by a black and a white character. The joining of hands by the black and white workers, similar to the expressions of unity among interracial civil rights workers, is the final symbol of unity. The play closes with a song initiated by the Laundry Worker.

Oh, who wants to come and join hands with me?
Who wants to make one great unity?
Who wants to say, no more black or white?
Then let’s get together, folks,
And fight, fight, fight!  36

The simple political message of unity is a capstone to a complicated dilemma in labor organizing. Hughes did not overlook the issue of race as a hindrance to successful organizing. He went further with his critique of the labor movement than he had in his earlier didactic plays.


Critics praised both the play and the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. The play was positively reviewed by the Amsterdam News; writing for the paper Marvel Cooke called the production a “significant proletarian drama.” Two of the leading members of the cast, Robert Earl Jones and Toy Harper, were credited for their performances; Jones’s performance “stood out in bold relief.” Considered “startling in its stark realism,” the play was a journey from “the sweet barbaric freedom of Africa” through the degradation of slavery. The inclusion of spirituals such as “Go Down Moses” contributed to the “hope for a bright new day in the unity of the black and white worker.” Somewhat negative was the review in the Crisis: “He [Hughes] feels the Negro as his race, but only thinks himself (at least, in this work) a member of a white and black working class.” Opportunity also commented on the play, calling it “engagingly new” and referring to the call-and-response elements: “the audience answers with almost a single voice.”  37

Alain Locke briefly commented on Hughes’s play and Owen Dodson’s Divine Comedy, which had been performed at Yale. Locke thought that Don’t You Want to Be Free? “vindicated the possibilities of a new dramatic approach” and that the creation of “a people’s theatre,” which offered materials “familiar” to the audience, could lead to a revival of black drama. The Harlem Suitcase Theatre was similar to the Richmond People’s Theatre in that both provided “better laboratory facilities than the drama groups” of black colleges and would further “real folk portraiture in drama.” The “Blues Episodes” in Don’t You Want to Be Free? and the satirical skits written for the Harlem Suitcase Theatre were hopeful signs of new “potentialities.” The movement for self-expression in the arts through “cultural revivals” was an indication of a general awakening of black people. Don’t You Want to Be Free? was also a memorable achievement because it was staged “without benefit of scenery or theatrical trickery.”  38

Darwin Turner praised the poetry play, considering it “in language and in thought” the “most artistic which Hughes had written” although it was “unsuitable for commercial production on Broadway” because it was directed toward a black audience.  39 It was superior to Mulatto because it used the blues and spirituals. Loften Mitchell also lauded the “rousing, exciting production” performed on a “bare, improvised stage.”  40


As one of the skits performed in the second season of the Suitcase Theatre, Limitations of Life represents the satiric side of Hughes’s dramatic vision and his “signifying” on the presentation of African Americans in certain white-authored literary works and films. Published in the New Theatre League’s second volume of Skits and Sketches, Limitations of Life uses “comedy as protest” in order to “ridicule white superiority.”  41Limitations of Life is a “take off on the Fannie Hurst novel and the John M.Stahl 1934 film melodrama Imitation of Life,which starred Claudette Colbert and Warren William. It featured the black actresses Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, who appeared along with Duke Ellington in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929). An example of “‘the woman’s picture’” genre, the film was praised for both its acting and direction but ridiculed by some for its romantic view of African Americans.  42

In Imitation of Life Aunt Delilah, a black domestic, accidentally meets Bea Pullman, a widow faced with providing for her children. When Aunt Delilah, responding to an advertisement for a maid, mistakenly knocks on Pullman’s door, she is persuaded to work for Pullman. Aunt Delilah becomes part of the household and in exchange for her labor asks only that she receive room and board for herself and her mulatto daughter Peola. Pullman eventually launches a pancake business, which she turns into a mass produced operation. Aunt Delilah’s neon image in the window of the establishment is used to promote the successful boxed pancakes; however, Aunt Delilah is troubled by her daughter’s decision to pass as a mulatto. Peola’s denial of black identity adds to the tragic ending of the film.  43

Hughes’s Limitations of Life is a humorous treatment of the relationship between servant and mistress romanticized in the Stahl film. More satirical than Hughes’s other plays, it reverses the color expectations and undermines the Aunt Jemima stereotype. Set in Harlem, the play uses only three characters, Mammy Weavers, Audette Aubert, and Ed Starks, all of whose names are puns. “Weavers” is a manipulation of “Beavers,” “Aubert” a modification of “Colbert,” and “Ed Starks” a renaming of “Ned Sparks,” a character in the film. The reversal of social relationships and the satirical tone are evident in the setting, a “luxurious living room” that contains an electric griddle and a box of pancake flour with an image of a white Aunt Jemima.  44

Punning and reversal are Hughes’s techniques in rendering the absurd and the ridiculous. In the stereotypical conventions of domestic labor, an African American woman would usually have been cast as the servant. In Limitations of Life, the maid Aubert is a “pretty blond,” and the mistress named Mammy Weavers is a “colored lady, in trailing evening gown, with tiara and large Metropolitan Opera program.” Despite the name “Mammy” and its connotations of subservience, Mammy speaks in a British “Oxford” accent. Hughes parodies the power hierarchy of domestic labor, using the pancake to elicit humor. The language is inverted when Audette, speaking in black vernacular, addresses Weavers: “ah been waitin’ up for you-all.” Returning from the opera with Ed Starks, a “sleek-headed jigaboo in evening clothes,” Mammy is served by an obsequious Audette, who rushes to get Weavers’s slippers and assures Weavers of her faithfulness. The absurdity of the relationships is furthered by Aubert’s discussion of her own family, especially her daughter, who is “tryin’ so hard to be colored” by attempting to tan herself in the Harlem sun. Audette’s discussion of her daughter’s father is the epitome of the absurd, unlike the “serious” treatment of the absent father in Soul Gone Home.

Mammy’s patronizing and Audette’s loyalty are made ridiculous when Audette rejects the offer of “something nice” from Mammy, settling for a”grand funeral” and the basement room. In the film, Aunt Delilah dies as a result of her rejection by her daughter. Ed’s closing line—“Once a pancake, always a pancake!”—is in response to Audette’s claim that she would not know “what to do” with a day off, a comment made as she flips a pancake. The word “pancake,” which can signify a white person, also has meaning within the Aunt Jemima stereotype.  45


In Colonel Tom’s Cabin, also called Little Eva’s End, Hughes satirizes a classic literary text that was also transformed into a film, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental romance Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), “probably the most influential novel ever written, and certainly the most effective political novel.”  46 Though an abolitionist novel, which sought to show the horrors of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is known for its portrayal of the Uncle Tom figure, who is the antithesis of black heroic icons and radical organizers. The novel, which had a distribution of over a half-million copies in five years, also became “an emotional torch for scores of theatrical troupes, lighting up the far distant corners of the nation.” Various theatrical figures developed an interest in dramatizing the novel, such as Asa Hutchinson, a “temperance concert singer,” and Charles Western Taylor, a Purdy’s Company actor for the National Theatre. In the modern era, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for Hollywood films such as Topsy and Eva (1927); Can This Be Dixie? (1936); Dimples (1936), starring Shirley Temple as Little Eva; The Dolly Sisters (1945); and Everybody Sing (1945), featuring Judy Garland in blackface as Topsy.  47

Stowe’s characterizations are sentimental and often racist commentaries on black intellect and morality. Topsy, for example, is portrayed as an amoral character, her identity obliterated by enslavement. Uncle Tom is a simple but physically powerful, thoroughly Christianized figure, who, ironically, resists his last master, Simon Legree. Early in the novel, Uncle Tom is described as “a large, broad-chested, powerfullymade man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with kindness and benevolence.” The narrator refers to the “negro mind,” which, “impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid and pictorial nature.” However, Stowe’s depiction of the mulatto characters George and Eliza contrasts sharply with her portrayal of the “African” characters. George and Eliza, both of whom escape to Canada, are symbols of resistance and protest.  48

Eva St. Clare, the daughter of Uncle Tom’s master, is the essence of kindness and moral vision. She is saved from drowning by Uncle Tom, beginning a friendship characterized by Eva’s antislavery benevolence. Unlike certain nineteenth-century dramatizations of the novel, thought to be “the first serious portrayal of the Negro, in sharp-cut contrast to former characterizations,” Colonel Tom’s Cabin mocks the friendship of Eva and Uncle Tom.  49 Hughes responded to the various Hollywood characterizations, especially Shirley Temple’s portrayal of Little Eva in Dimples. Eva’s idyllic benevolence is parodied, as is the “master-slave” relationship of Uncle Tom and St. Clare, renamed “Sinclair” in the skit.

The short play contains only three characters, Eva, Uncle Tom, and Sinclair. As in Limitations of Life, there are inversions of racial characterizations and exaggeration. Eva, “an overgrown adult in child’s clothes,” is “colored, with blond curls.” One of the intentions is to ridicule notions of benevolence.  50 The skit opens with Sinclair’s satisfaction with a supposedly harmonious lifestyle. He remarks, “Ah, the beautiful South! Sunshine, cotton, mammies and moonlight! But where is Uncle Tom and Little Eva?” There is humor when Eva responds to Uncle Tom’s admonition that “God don’t love ugly” with the reply “Has he seen you?”

Another way Hughes parodies the original novel is to introduce modern references as in Eva’s remark “I like Benny Goodman. Hot cha! Aw, swing it!” Topsy, though not a character in the play, is referred to as “a nice little girl,” whom, according to Uncle Tom, Eva should emulate. Song motifs are employed when Sinclair requests that Uncle Tom sing an “old Southern” song, but “tongue-tied” Tom declines. After Eva calls Uncle Tom “an old handkerchief-head,” he offers to sing “an aria from Porgy and Bess.” The blending of contemporary references with the original elements of the novel contributes to the humorous tone and the overall mockery. Sinclair prefers that Uncle Tom sing a spiritual, but Eva urges Tom to “swing” “St. Louis Blues.” When Tom begins to sing the opening lines of the blues, Eva begins to “switch and hop to the music.”  51

The closing of the play shifts to a political theme in the transformation of Uncle Tom from a servile character to one who recognizes his rights as a citizen.  52 Uncle Tom is transformed into an assertive voter: “No! No! I may chop your cotton and cut your cane, but when I votes, I votes for Roosevelt!” The 1930s political references further a “signifying” on the novel to achieve both satirical and political ends. When Eva responds to Uncle Tom’s assertions by calling him a “Red,” the political context is enlarged to include themes explored in Don’t You Want to Be Free? and Scottsboro Limited. Uncle Tom’s transformation is completed by two actions, the reclaiming of his dignity when he demands to be called “Mister Thomas” and his slapping “Little Eva.” The novel’s pre-Civil War time frame is discarded in order to show the cumulative anger and frustration of African Americans in the segregation era.  53


Satire is also evident in The Em-Fuehrer Jones, which parodies another classic American work of literature that had been both a play and a film, Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, originally staged by the Provincetown Players in 1920 and published in Theatre Arts Magazine in 1921. The play received a good deal of recognition and ran for 204 performances after its move to Broadway. In the play, Brutus Jones is “emperor” of a Caribbean island whose inhabitants have sought refuge from his tyrannical rule. Jones, who escapes into the jungle, is beset by visions that reveal his past and his paranoia. He is ultimately captured and killed by leaders of the opposition led by the “Cockney trader” Smithers. In its stage version, The Emperor Jones was a vehicle for Charles Gilpin; Paul Robeson played the leading role in the film version.

Considered an expressionist melodrama, O’Neill’s play contains a number of elements that Hughes had addressed in his own plays, especially Emperor of Haiti, which is based on actual historical events. O’Neill used black vernacular and treated aspects of Caribbean history that resemble the revolutionary era in Haiti, though the play is set in the twentieth century and deals with religion and the spirit world.  54

The Emperor Jones, a one-act play in eight scenes, is developed through extensive monologues by Jones, who reacts to visions from his own past blended with the historical experiences of “New World” Africans. Hughes’s skit is set in “The Black Forest”; instead of a black emperor the main character is a mock version of Adolph Hitler, the “Em-Fuehrer.” Similar to O’Neill’s play, The Em-Fuehrer Jones is built around a single character. The Em-Fuehrer speaks with a German accent and occasionally uses complete German phrases.  55

Like Brutus Jones, the Em-Fuehrer is beset by visions, which are represented through a variety of echoing voices. The Em-Fuehrer’s “Heil,” recited as he goosesteps across the stage, is answered by the voices with the word “Heel!” When the sound of tom-toms is heard, the Em-Fuehrer responds, “Mussolini! Cut out that Ethiopian racket! I don’t like it! That’s non-aryan! Heil!” The Em-Fuehrer attributes the voices to his location, his having wandered “off the road to Rumania”; the voices respond, “He’s off! Ru-maniac!”

As in Colonel Tom’s Cabin, the pun is used to achieve humor and ridicule. The historical contexts German and Italian fascism, the invasions of Hitler and Mussolini, become the backdrop for a critique of their activities prior to the entrance of the United States into World War II. The celebrated victory of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics is used to show the absurdity of Hitler’s Aryan purity idea. The Em-Fuehrer believes that he is being chased by Jesse Owens: “Jesse, vat you doing running after me? You got your laurel wreath, so stop it, I say!” Joe Louis’s 1938 victory over Max Schmeling is the basis for word play when the Em-Fuehrer takes off his own boots and remarks, “What’s this I’m Schmelling? [sic].”

The Em-Fuehrer escapes to what he hopes will be Berlin but discovers that he is actually approaching the Bronx, which in the 1940s signified Jewish communities. The journey of the Em-Fuehrer through the forest eventually leads to a “red sun” rising in the east, which causes him to scream “The Bolsheviki!” Similarly in Colonel Tom’s Cabin, “red” serves as an obvious reminder of political ideology.

As in the ending of The Emperor Jones, the skit closes with the death of the central character by gunshot. The Em-Fuehrer is dragged across the stage by an “enormous Negro youth in boxing togs with a Joe Louis ribbon across his chest.” The closing lines in black vernacular recall the victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmeling: “Ah guess it was dat punch to de ribs dat got him!”  56

The Em-Fuehrer Jones is a lighthearted parody, which uses broad humor and slapstick to make political and cultural statements. The skit brings together three groups, all of whom were derided by Aryan assertions of racial superiority: African Americans, Jews, and Catholics. Although the skit uses somewhat stereotypical emblems, they contribute to the satirical critique of fascism.


Like The Em-Fuehrer Jones, Hurrah, America! is also a satirical commentary on World War II issues. Written in collaboration with Louis Douglas, another of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre dramatists, the skit, subtitled Jersey City Justice, contains three principal characters, a “German American,” an “Italian American,” and a “Negro American,” each of whom represents the ethnic makeup of Jersey City in the 1940s. The “Policeman,” who “might be Irish,” is a symbol of a racist social order. The skit uses ethnic caricatures and stereotypes, the German American using such phrases as “Vat dis” and the Italian American, “What-a you say?” A swastika and a fasces, emblems on their clothing, identify them as supporters of Hitler and Mussolini, and, in addition to advocating that America needs either a “good Hitler” or “a good Mussolini,” they urge the suppression of labor unions, the imprisonment of Jews, the burning of books, racial purity, and colonization of Africans.

Exclaiming “Hurrah, America!,” the “Negro” character joins in the “excitement” generated by the two other characters, who accuse him of butting in and begin to “beat him right and left.” The “Cop” accuses the African American, blaming him for the disturbance and for an attack on the “white men.” The skit concludes with the German and Italian giving the “Fascist salute” as the African American is dragged by the neck, “weakly” shouting,” “Hurrah, America!” A satiric look at African American patriotism and ethnicity, Hurrah, America! suggests actual occurrences in Jersey City during the administration of Mayor Hague.  57


Scarlet Sister Barry parodies Julia Mood Peterkin’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Sea Island African Americans, Scarlet Sister Mary (1928). Peterkin’s literary fame stemmed from her portrayal of the Gullah, a culture she came to know during her early years when she was tended to by a Gullah woman. Peterkin’s marriage to the owner of Lang Syne plantation, where over four hundred African Americans labored, furthered her contact with Gullah culture. Although Peterkin’s success with Scarlet Sister Mary and her other works dealing with black culture such as Black April (1927) earned her a great deal of praise, she was also the subject of critical attack by certain southerners because of what they thought to be her sympathetic treatment of black life.  58

Peterkin, who also produced a collection of short stories, Green Thursday (1924), which dealt with plantation themes, was said to have presented “an authentic picture of Negro life.” She was also seen as an unusual white author, to the dismay of her “conservative Southern neighbors,” because she supposedly wrote from a black perspective, depicting “the primitive Negro with an almost pure-black comprehension” or offering a “non-stereotyped portrayal of the Southern plantation Negro.”  59 Authors like Peterkin, Stowe, and O’Neill attempted to reproduce black vernacular, a skill that Hughes regarded as best executed by black authors such as Hurston or Sterling Brown.

Like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary characterizes African Americans through the portrayal of a central protagonist. Peterkin focuses on Mary, a black resident of Blue Brook plantation, who is identified with the adjective “scarlet” because she became pregnant prior to her marriage to July. Maum Hannah, the mother figure in the novel, remarks,” ‘Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet,’ “suggesting parallels to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the visual imagery of “sin.”  60 When she is fifteen, Mary marries July, who eventually deserts her. Mary travels for twenty years, and when July returns, she rejects him. The novel uses Gullah dialect, duplicating expressions that are also found in Africanized English of the Caribbean—“yunnuh” for “you all” and “gwine” for “you are going.” Although Peterkin’s first impressions of the Gullah suggest cultural bias regarding morality, she developed an understanding of the Gullah language, which she thought to be “‘filled with wit and wisdom.’”  61

Scarlet Sister Mary was another example of a white author’s portray-ing black culture in a manner that was thought to be “authentic” but that contained patronizing stereotypes. Hughes’s Scarlet Sister Barry mocks the efforts of Ethel Barrymore, who performed in films from 1914 to 1957 and achieved a significant reputation for both stage and screen performances. Barrymore had played the part of Mary in blackface for the Broadway production and film version of the Peterkin novel. Hughes, who met Peterkin at a literary gathering in New York, at-tempted to visit her at Lang Syne Plantation during his travels through the South for poetry readings.  62

Set in the “Realm of Art,” Scarlet Sister Barry uses “one Actress and her Voices.” It is more a parody of white ability to portray black Americans than of the circumstances of Peterkin’s novel. The “Actress,” who is “blond and pale on one side, brown-skin and colored on the other,” recounts her stage roles, which include Shakespearean performances, and announces her intention to play a “Negress from a Pulitzer Prize book.” Claiming to have a “perfectly sublime” ability to voice black vernacular because of her visits to the South a “day or two at a time,” the Actress is a braggadocio and snob. The underlying critique addresses Hollywood casting policies.

The skit parodies Peterkin’s characters, black vernacular forms, and white popular culture. July, from the novel, is called “July de 4th,” and verb tense patterns are mimicked: “You been gwine—gone—going-go— gone too long, July.” Black dialect is exaggerated to stress the satirical point when the Actress imitates July’s voice: “Ah ain’t been no whar but down de ribber, honey.”  63Scarlet Sister Barry is another example of Hughes’s lighter side—humor based on the reversal of stereotypes. By incorporating bits of well-known songs associated with African Ameri-cans, he mocks white popular music, entertainers, and stage personali-ties who were credited for evoking black Americans.


Set in a 1930s “big city,” Young As We Is, whose title reflects its playful rendering of black vernacular, involves three young African American males, a “Shineboy,” a “Newsboy,” and a “Dancing Boy,” who try to earn a day’s wages in a white neighborhood. The Dancing Boy suggests another form of street labor, impromptu entertainment, which is currently practiced by African American youth in urban settings. “Typical little Negro boys of the city,” they are starting to “earn their own living in the world.” A Newsboy character had been used as well in Don’t You Want to Be Free?

The boys are concerned with the economics of survival and the working world; they represent in microcosm the financial situation of numerous black families during the 1930s. The Newsboy’s father works for the WPA, the Shineboy’s father is deceased, and his mother “works out,” a reference to domestic labor. The Shineboy, who is surprised that the Newsboy’s father is paid by check, is self-reliant, despite his minimal earnings, five cents for the morning, which allows him to purchase a three cent hot dog. To the Newsboy, this purchase is a sign of having money.

Vernacular phrasing is used to evoke humor and to show variations of language. The Newsboy’s language is improvisational, combining malapropism and the coined phrase. He uses the word “pessumistical,” which he learned from his mother who used it when his father’s “pay-check ain’t come.”  64 “Pessumistical” expresses the uncertainty of whites’ purchasing black newspapers; ironically, black Americans buy white newspapers, but the reverse is not generally true. The Newsboy objects to the Shineboy’s use of certain phrases such as “I does.” The irony is that the Newsboy also uses altered forms: “Where was you borned?” When the Shineboy asks for the correct verb form, the Newsboy re-sponds, “Say I do’s.” Their linguistic debate also suggests differences in black vernacular of the rural South and the urban North.

The conversation of the youths exemplifies how vernacular terms are created through symbolic manipulation of certain names. The name of the well-known African American tap dancer and Hollywood film per-sonality Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is the basis for a new word. The Shineboy asks the Dancer, “Is you jangled today?” The name “Bojangles” is used to identify the act of dancing and performance: “Man, I ain’t jangled a drop! Ain’t been nobody stopped long enough for me to get started to jangling.” The Newsboy questions the meaning of “jangled,” which suggests his distance from certain newly created expressions. However, the Shineboy defines the concept by equating the Dancing Boy and the celebrated entertainer: “This here man’s a Dancer like Bojan-gles!” When the Newsboy asks to see the Dancer perform, the Dancer demands payment but eventually performs along with the other boys, who sing a popular lyric of the multiinstrumentalist and vocalist Slim Gaillard.

From the 1938 hit song by Slim Gaillard and the bassist Slam Stewart, the song “Flat Foot Floogie” began the national rise to fame of the duo “Slim and Slam.” The other lyrics of the song, which are not sung by the boys, imply the insouciance of the blues, a way to transcend economic depression.  65

In addition to the blues response, the title of Claude McKay’s 1928 novel is used in the boys’ answer to the hostility they find in the white neighborhood, “Let’s go home to Harlem.” The play closes with an ironic inversion of the “East side” and “West side” locales from the popular tune “The Sidewalks of New York”: “‘Up Town, Downtown, All Around the Town.’”  66 Although a simple, lighthearted skit, Young As We Is presents a number of issues relating to black youth and urban street labor during the 1930s.


1.  Although Don’t You Want to Be Free? was known by this shorter title, the published version, in One Act Play Magazine Oct. 1938:359, contains the additional descriptive additions to the title: “From Slavery Through the Blues to Now—and then some!—with Singing, Music and Dancing.” “Harlem Suitcase Theatre Opens Its Second Season,” flier, in Jack Rummel, Langston Hughes (New York: Chelsea House, 1988) 96. This flier lists a number of skits.

2.  LHP-YUBL. Although a downtown meeting place is indicated, Hughes also gave his Harlem address.

3.  John Harding, “The Public Is Major Stockholder: Langston Hughes Heads Suitcase Theatre of Harlem Supported by I.W.O.,” Daily Worker 20 Apr. 1938:7.

4.  Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983) 293.

5.  Langston Hughes, “Harlem Suitcase Theatre” documents, ts., cat. #497, LHP-YUBL; “Suitcase Theatre” documents, “Constitution,” “Fall Program”; Geneviève Fabre, Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre, trans. Melvin Dixon (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983) 10; John Wray Young, The Community Theatre and How It Works (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957) 21. The financial matters of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre are indicated in various bills such as “Expenditures—Harlem Suitcase Theatre,” which Hughes submitted. In Hughes’s “Statement to Harlem Suitcase Theatre—Initial Expenditures,” the costs for the musical director, stage, lighting equipment, sound effects, costumes, props, publicity and miscellaneous items totaled $200.49.

6.  “Suitcase Theatre” documents, “Members”; “Suitcase Theatre” documents, “Administration” 1–3. Other committee members included Hilary Phillips, Robert Earl Jones, Dorothy Peterson, Mary Sangigian, Mary Savage, Muriel Unis, Grace Johnson, Hubert Thomas, Dorothy Maynor, and Toy Harper. The theatre also encouraged the inclusion of white participants. One of the “Immediate Problems” faced by the Technical Department was acquiring costumes, props, a screen, a megaphone, and a backdrop for the skits. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I: 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America (New York: Oxford UP, 1986) 356.

7.  “Suitcase Theatre” documents, “Suitcase Theatre Memorandum—May 5, 1938”; “Remaining dates,” LHP-YUBL. Hughes’s memo to Thompson on May 5, 1938, addresses the continuation of Don’t You Want to Be Free? The Suitcase Theatre had also planned performances for organizations such as Zeta Phi Beta and the W.P.A. Teachers Union.

8.  James V.Hatch, ed., and Ted Shine, consult., Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, 1847–1974 (New York: Free Press, 1974) 262; “Harlem Suitcase Theatre Opens Its Second Season” 96. To acquire “performing rights” to the various skits interested parties could contact Hughes, the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, or Maxim Lieber at 545 Fifth Avenue. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I: 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America (New York: Oxford UP, 1986) 356, 363–64. Rampersad indicates that of the skits written by Hughes “three were finally used,” Little Eva’s End, Limitations of Life, and Em-Fuehrer Jones. A theatre flier, “Harlem Suitcase Theatre Opens Its Second Season,” Sunday, October 30, 1938, 9:00 P.M., indicates a series of skits: Em-Fuehrer Jones, Limitations of Life, Little Eva’s End, and two titles that probably refer to Scarlet Sister Barry and Hurrah, America! (One Pancake to Another and Jersey City Justice). The flier also contains such quoted titles as “I Am the Law—for Three” and “Joe Kayoe Hitler,” which has relevance to Em-Fuehrer Jones. Don’t You Want to Be Free? was reported to have been staged July 16, 1939, Little Theatre, 135th St., Harlem; Nov. 24, 1939, Harlem People’s Theatre, 4 W. 129th St.; June 15, 1940, New Theatre Nightclub, Philadelphia; Jan. 1941, California. Clipping File, Lib. for Perf. Arts, NY Pub. Lib.; Charles H. Nichols, ed., Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925–1967 (New York: Dodd, 1980) 71.

9.  “Harlem Suitcase Theatre Opens.”

10.  Thomas Richardson, “The Harlem Suitcase Theatre: Its Summer Season and Activity—1939,” “Suitcase Theatre” documents, 10 Sept. 1939, LHPYUBL. This long report contains a number of suggestions and critical comments compiled in response to the eight-week summer season. The absence of Hughes’s name from Richardson’s recommendations implies Hughes’s departure from the Suitcase Theatre.

11.  Richardson 1–11. Faith Berry, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983) 275.

12.  Richardson 1–11. Richardson avoids crediting Hughes with having been instrumental in the Suitcase Theatre. On the whole, Richardson’s suggestions for the continued success of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre echo the original organization plans suggested in Hughes’s 1938 description of various administrative structures.

13.  “Suitcase Theatre” documents, “Langston Hughes & Suitcase Theatre,” 21 April 1938; Langston Hughes, “Statement in Round Numbers Concerning the Relative Merits of Way Down South’ and ‘Don’t You Want to Be Free’ as Compiled by the Author Mr. Langston Hughes,” 6 Nov. 1939, cat. #3901, LHP-YUBL. Rampersad addresses this controversial statement that refers to the economic rewards of Way Down South in contrast to Don’t You Want to Be Free? and Hughes’s conflict with his radical associates. In a July 14, 1939, letter to Louise Thompson, Hughes stepped down as director of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Rampersad 371–72.

14.  Various drafts indicate performances at Talladega College, April 20, 1963; the Aquarian Center production in Los Angeles; and the performance by Frank Greenwood’s Players. In 1963, Hughes drafted a version titled “A Negro History Play,” cat. #296–300, LHP-YUBL.

15.  Langston Hughes, I Wonder As I Wander (New York: Hill and Wang, 1956) 200; Edward Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution on the Modern Stage (New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1979) 23, 152–53.

16.  Henry Gallery Association, Art into Life: Russian Constructivism, 1914– 1932 (New York: Rizzoli, 1990) 9–10, 105. Popova’s set for Meyerhold’s production of Fernand Crommelynck’s The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) uses this design. Hughes, I Wonder 200.

17.  Scott Kennedy, In Search of African Theatre (New York: Scribner’s, 1973) 40–41. Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) or Osofisan’s Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen (1992) are examples of traditional African dramatic elements in modern plays that have political agendas.

18.  Malcolm Goldstein, The Political Stage: American Drama and Theater of the Great Depression (New York: Oxford UP, 1974) 167. Goldstein, Emanuel, Berry, and Rampersad indicate an Apr. 21 opening for Don’t You. However, that date is crossed out on an invitation to the “private performance” and replaced by May 19, creating uncertainty as to whether there was an actual Apr. 21 private premiere or an additional May 19 private staging. See LHPYUBL (Zan H874+S1 v.5). Newspaper accounts suggest the Apr. 24 public opening.

19.  Clifford Odets, Waiting for Lefty, Six Plays of Clifford Odets (New York: Grove, 1979) 31; Hatch and Shine 253; Hughes, Don’t You 359. Ellington’s Boola, an opera he planned in the late ‘30s, became the basis for Black, Brown and Beige.

20.  John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects (New York: New Directions, 1968) 187–88; Ronald Speirs, “Bertolt Brecht, Survivor,” rev. of Journals, by Bertolt Brecht, trans. Hugh Rorrison, ed. John Willett, New York Times Book Review 7 Aug. 1994, sec. 7:18.

21.  Don’t You 360.

22.  William M.Kelley, “Langston Hughes: The Sewer Dweller,” rev. of Fine Clothes to the Jew, by Langston Hughes, New York Amsterdam News 9 Feb. 1927:22.

23.  Hughes, one of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance to visit Africa during the 1920s, had formed a number of his Pan-African views through firsthand experience. Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (New York: Knopf, 1926) 100; Don’t You 360–63. Hughes modified the third line of the first stanza, which originally stated, “I was a black man, too.” In the play, the opening stanza focuses primarily on the African context and the period when “the white men came.”

25.  Weary Blues 54. Another poem used in the play, “Share-Croppers,” was neither published in The Weary Blues nor The Dream Keeper. Included in Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959), it alludes to economic inequities and cotton picking.

26.  Don’t You 372–74.

27.  Don’t You 374–76; Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988) 204.

28.  Don’t You 379–80.

29.  Don’t You 384–85.

30.  Jessie Redmond Fauset, “Oriflamme,” The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922; New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959) 207–8.

31.  Don’t You 385. See also Hughes’s “The Negro Mother.”

32.  Don’t You 385–88.

33.  Don’t You 390–91.

34.  Naison 140–41.

35.  Gwendolyn Brooks, to disembark (Chicago: Third World, 1981) 5.

36.  Don’t You 391–93.

37.  Marvel Cooke, “Suitcase Theatre Group Is Brilliant in Premiere,” New York Amsterdam News 30 April 1938:16. Norman MacLeod, “The Poetry and Argument of Langston Hughes,” Crisis 45 (Nov. 1938): 359; Edward Lawson, “Theatre in a Suitcase,” Opportunity 16 (Dec. 1938): 360. Mary Savage played the Mulatto Girl; Grace Johnson played the Girl.

38.  Alain Locke, “The Negro: ‘New’ or Newer: A Retrospective Review of the Literature of the Negro for 1938,” The Critical Temper of Alain Locke: A Selection of His Essays on Art and Culture, ed. Jeffrey C.Stewart (New York: Garland, 1983) 276–77; Cooke 16.

39.  Darwin Turner, “Langston Hughes as Playwright,” CLAJ 11 (June 1968): 304.

40.  Loften Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (New York: Hawthorne, 1967) 103.

41.  Goldstein 166.

42.  Hatch and Shine 653–55. Timothy W.Johnson, “Imitation of Life” Magill’s Survey of Cinema, ed. Frank N.Magill, vol. 3 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem, 1981) 1128–31. A 1959 remake starred Lana Turner and Juanita Hall.

43.  Johnson 1128–31.

44.  Langston Hughes, Limitations of Life, Black Theater, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black Americans, 1847–1974, ed. James V.Hatch and consult. Ted Shine (New York: Free Press, 1974) 656–57.

45.  Limitations 656.

46.  Josephine Donovan, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction and Redemptive Love (Boston: Twayne, 1991) 11.

47.  Harry Birdoff, The World’s Greatest Hit: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: S.F.Vanni, 1947) 19, 23–24, 401–10.

48.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852; New York: Harper, 1965) 24, 31.

49.  Birdhoff 136.

50.  Langston Hughes, Colonel Tom’s Cabin, ts., unpub. play, LHP-YUBL, 1.

51.  Colonel 1–2.

52.  In the first version, Hughes referred directly to voting “Republican.”

53.  Colonel 3.

54.  Eugene O’Neill, Complete Plays: 1913–1920 (New York: Library of America, 1988) 1092, 1030. The Emperor Jones appeared in the January 1921 Theatre Arts Magazine.

55.  Langston Hughes, The Em-Fuehrer Jones, ts., LHP-YUBL, 1.

56.  Em-Fuehrer 1–5.

57.  Langston Hughes and Louis Douglas, Hurrah, America!, ts., unpub. play, LHP-YUBL, 1–2. Mayor Hague, who held office 1917–1947, was involved in controversial decisions regarding public demonstrations.

58.  Frances C.Locher, ed., Contemporary Authors, vol. 102 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1981) 414.

59.  Marion A.Knight, Mertice M.James, and Ruth N.Lechlitner, eds., Book Review Digest (New York: H.W.Wilson, 1929) 612–13; Frank Durham, ed., Collected Short Stories of Julia Peterkin (Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1970) 25.

60.  Julia Mood Peterkin, Scarlet Sister Mary (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1928) 36.

61.  Durham 27, 7.

62.  Alex Thorleifson, Ethel Barrymore (New York: Chelsea House, 1991) 102–3; Langston Hughes, I Wonder As I Wander (New York: Hill and Wang, 1956) 48.

63.  Langston Hughes, Scarlet Sister Barry, ts., LHP-YUBL, 1.

64.  Langston Hughes, Young As We Is, ts., unpub. play, LHP-YUBL, 1.

65.  Young 2–5. Anatol Schenker, liner notes, Slim Gaillard, The Chrono-logical Slim Gaillard: 1937–1938, Classics, 705, 1993. The original recording of “Flat Foot Floogie” was erroneously titled “The Flat Fleet Floogee,” on Slim and Slam, New York, 17 Feb. 1938 for Vocalion (4021). The song also contains a section in which the listener, in call-and-response fashion, is asked to “sing along.” Gaillard, who also appeared in a number of films, such as Hellzapoppin and Star Spangled Rhythm, died in London in 1991. See also Leonard Feather, The Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York: Bonanza, 1960) 221.

66.  Young 5–6.

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Langston Hughes -- : Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921–1943


" The Harlem Suitcase Theatre ." Langston Hughes : Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921–1943. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 7 Oct 2015. <>

Chicago Manual of Style

" The Harlem Suitcase Theatre ." In Langston Hughes : Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921–1943, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed October 7, 2015).