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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution

Curvin, Jonathan
Book reviews: revising an image,   pp. [326 and 327]-330 PDF (5.5 MB)

Page 329

for gifted Negroes, they did not overstep
the established boundaries that divided
stereotype from reality.
The highly respected star comedian,
Bert Williams, was obliged to follow
in the minstrel tradition. He created his
famous "Jonah Man," who was an
exaggeration of the ignorant Southern
Negro. The shows in which Williams
appeared with his partner, Ernest Hogan.
broke down the formal structure of
the oldtime minstrels, but retained
the standard characterizations. A
thoughtful and sensitive man, Bert
Williams was well aware of his
dilemma. W. C. Fields has left this
description of him: "the funniest man I
ever saw; the saddest man I ever knew."
Yet another image of the Negro was
fostered in the serious drama and
melodrama of the nineteenth century.
Archetypically he is Uncle Tom in
George L. Aiken's adaptation of Mrs.
Stowe's novel. This gentle creature,
whose name has become so infamous
among Negroes today, induced fears
rather than laughter, and provided
yet another solace to audiences.
When Simon Legree knocks him down
with the butt of his whip, Uncle Tom
utters his consoling line, "I forgive
you with all my soul." Tom's female
counterpart, who likewise bears her
burden of sorrow with patient
submission, is the beautiful Zoe,
in Dion Boucicault's meretricious
The Octoroon.
For all their good intentions, white
dramatists of the twentieth century,
in Mitchell's opinion, have proved
incapable of portraying the Negro justly.
They have succeeded only in creating
what he calls a "neostereotype." In
1917, the production on Broadway
of Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a
Negro Theatre was thought to represent
a highly significant advance toward
truth; but in 1967 Mitchell disparages
these plays. Their themes appear
to him "remote from the actual
experience of black people on this
continent." Similarly, Eugene O'Neill's
The Emperor Jones he finds "ludicrous."
Paul Green's In Abraham's Bosom
'seems to have little relationship to
the plight of the Negro," while both
The Green Pastures and Porgy and
Bess malign the Negro with their
spurious "folk" treatments.
Mitchell recognizes and applauds the
totally different image in certain
plays of contemporary dramatists like
Langston Hughes, Theodore Ward,
Alice Childress, Louis Peterson, James
Baldwin, Ossie Davis and LeRoi
Jones. He concludes that only the
Negro can have the deep insight,
born of his being a Negro, to create
a valid Negro drama.
When the long roll of distinguished
Negro performers is called, from Ira
Aldridge to Sidney Poitier, the impulse
is to say. "See how many Negroes have
'made it' on the American stage?
Talent always wins. Color is no
barrier." We are misled, however,
and take the exceptions for the rule,
overlooking the price the Negro has
too often paid for stardom in the white
theatre. He has been at home there
on the white man's terms. The Negro
drama of the future holds promise
of allowing him to realize himself as
never before.
Mr. Mitchell is most convincing when
he describes from firsthand experience
the temper of Negro artists today.
He communicates their fervor.
He shares their determination to erase
the false images of the past, and
to draw the Negro accurately. It must
be said that his final chapters have an

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