American Memory | The Zora Neale Hurston Plays

About the Collection

 
  • Hurston and Her Plays
  • Uncovering Buried Treasures
  • Rediscovering an American Dramatist
  • Looking at the Texts

    The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress received eight of the ten Zora Neale Hurston plays that appear in The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress in the late 1980s as transfers from the United States Copyright Office. At that time, these plays were dispersed among the approximate 250,000 transferred scripts registered as unpublished, which were arranged roughly chronologically, 1901-77, by registration numbers. The other two Hurston plays had been previously transferred when curators selected them for custody by other Library of Congress divisions, probably following their registrations in 1925 and 1944.

    The Copyright Deposit Drama Collection from which the Hurston plays were selected is a rich source of twentieth-century theatrical and cultural history. It includes scripts for early silent film and vaudeville; radio and television plays; and dramas by unknown as well as famous writers, many forgotten, many unproduced, many remaining unpublished. The entire mega-collection is being microfilmed, and selected scripts, such as the Hurston plays, will be retained in their original paper format.

    Hurston and Her Plays
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    Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the author of the ten plays (with co-authors Langston Hughes on Mule-Bone and Dorothy Waring on Polk County), deposited these scripts with the United States Copyright Office in 1925, 1930, 1931, 1935 and 1944 in order to protect their copyrights and to place copies in trust with the government. Because none of the plays' copyrights was renewed during the twenty-eighth year, as required by the then-operative copyright law, all eventually fell into the public domain in the versions deposited. Revisions or other versions of these plays held in other repositories or in private hands, or later published, may still be under copyright protection.

    Included in the group presented here are four very short plays (sketches or skits) and six full-length plays. Most are light-hearted if not outright comedies, and several include song lyrics without the associated music. Hurston knew the songs and the subjects of these plays from her own upbringing and her professional folklore research in the African-American South. She identified as her hometown Eatonville, Florida, the first African-American incorporated township. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Hurston traveled the American South collecting and recording the sounds and songs of her people, while her research in Haiti is reflected in the voodoo scenes and beliefs woven into several of the plays.

    Meet the Mamma (1925) is a high-spirited early experimental play, with act 1 taking place in a Harlem club, act 2 aboard an ocean liner, and act 3 in the jungles of Africa. Each scene of act 2 experiments with a different dramatic genre. The play spoofs the "Back to Africa" movement of Marcus Garvey.

    Cold Keener (1930) is a "revue" with nine skits that are unrelated in themes, characters, or even their settings, which include Georgia, Harlem, Florida, the Bahamas, and a jook joint. Cold Keener illustrates Hurston's concept of "primitive angularity" in dramatic structure: the parts are linked only by their differences. With this fresh approach, she hoped to challenge the African-American stereotypes derived from minstrel shows and thus contribute to the formation of a "real Negro theater."

    De Turkey and de Law (1930) is Hurston's original folk-tale-anchored version of the play Mule-Bone which she co-authored in 1931 with Langston Hughes. His insistence on a more conventionally romantic version of the tale contributed to the infamous rift between the two Harlem authors.

    Spunk (1935) and Polk County (1944) are romantic comedies with music, a folk music that is a typical part of the life of the people portrayed. Such naturalistic use of musical sources distinguishes the Hurston folk-play-with-music from the mainline American musical, in which songs are introduced in operatic fashion.

    Uncovering Buried Treasures
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    With the exception of Mule-Bone, the plays presented here were all unpublished when they were rediscovered in the Library of Congress in 1997. At that time, only Polk County was at all familiar to scholars on the basis of copies in other repositories. Hurston had died in obscurity in 1960, and her achievements remained in eclipse until Alice Walker's 1973 pilgrimage to find and mark the grave of this mother of the Harlem renaissance galvanized her posthumous fame. Even her rediscovery, however, celebrated Hurston's achievements as a novelist and folklorist rather than as a dramatist. Little was known about her theatrical career until 1998, when scholarly publications began to reflect the drama discoveries announced by the Library of Congress.

    After the Library's cache of Hurston scripts was identified, a retired copyright specialist determined that they were all in the public domain and could therefore be duplicated and even produced. A series of in-house Library staff lunch-hour readings followed. They began with the sketch "Woofing" (slang for giving a humorous verbal insult), progressed in 1998 to monthly readings of each of Spunk's three acts, and finished in 1999 with the first act of Meet the Mamma.

    The unrehearsed readings were such happy and popular events that the Library of Congress co-produced two public concert readings of Polk County in December 2000 in its Coolidge auditorium, featuring archival materials from the Library and artistic talent from Washington's Arena Stage. The production honored the Library of Congress's bicentennial and Arena Stage's fiftieth anniversary.

    The great success of these public readings led in turn to a full production of Polk County, enhanced with music, at Arena Stage in the spring of 2002. In preparation for it, dramaturge Cathy Madison and director Kyle Donnelly created an original adaptation from Hurston's long text. The music was researched and recreated by Stephen Wade, a folk-song and banjo specialist long associated with both Arena Stage and the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. The production was a success with both audiences and critics.

    Rediscovering an American Dramatist
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    The discovery of the Hurston scripts, added to those Hurston plays already known, firmly establishes their author, an African-American woman, as a significant dramatist of the twentieth century. The first outside scholar to see the scripts was Carla Kaplan of the University of Southern California, who visited the Library of Congress in 1997 to look for letters for her 2002 edition of Hurston's correspondence (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters). She immediately confirmed that a scholarly treasure had been uncovered.

    Spunk and Mule-Bone were not a part of the original cache that Kaplan saw, although their copyright registrations were listed. Pearlie Peters of Rider University examined the cache later in 1997 and recommended a search for the text of Spunk. Peters realized that the 1935 script registered under that title had to be Hurston's long-lost unpublished play, and should not be confused with George C. Woolf's 1992 libretto published as Hurston's Spunk: that musical, produced in New York and Washington, D.C., was Woolf's own creation based on the early Hurston short story of the same title. The 1935 Spunk proved to be a major find and was added to the cache late in 1997. Peters went on to coordinate a session on "Hurston as Dramatist" at the Modern Language Association's 1998 convention in San Francisco. Finally, the text of Mule-Bone was added to the group in 2002 so that scholars could compare it to the version that had been published in 1991.

    Looking at the Texts
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    Visually, the digitized images presented online in this collection are very rough, at times running into margins and off the bottom of a page. That is because they were scanned from typescript copies made on old-fashioned manual typewriters imprinting through carbon paper, with a few original typescript pages included. Hurston appears to have typed some pages herself and dictated others to clearly non-professional typists. Authorial changes on some pages are in pencil or ink, with occasional original typescript inserts. In one case, Hurston has drawn a scene's stage set (Spunk, act 1, scene 2).

    So many scholars have asked to copy these play texts in the years since 1997 that the Library of Congress has decided put them online for the world to examine, enjoy, and produce. Hurston showed great foresight in depositing the scripts with the Copyright Office. She knew of its close connection to the Library of Congress, which preserves cultural-history documents. She had worked with Alan Lomax and corresponded with Benjamin Botkin, both of the Library's Archive of Folk Song (now part of the American Folklife Center). Many Hurston productions failed during her life--due, perhaps, to her strong personality, the prevailing prejudices, bad luck, or bad timing. Now her plays may be studied and staged on into a new century.

    Alice L. Birney
    American Literature Specialist
    Manuscript Division
    Library of Congress


    American Memory | The Zora Neale Hurston Plays