September 8, 1945 p. 22
THIS IS THE TIME of year when show business is frantically preparing for its new season. Producers have selected for the most part plays which they will present between now and Xmas. Actors are busy getting themselves cast for roles in this or that show. The whole picture is one of high hope and anxiety on Broadway, the brightest street in the entire world. And for the first time in many years, Negroes are a vital part of this hustle and bustle in the legitimate theatre. There are seven shows with Negroes which will [...] the play boards by Xmas and four more which are proposed but as yet have no definite production plans. That makes eleven in all, which is not a bad figure.
The first seven are, Carib Song, starring Katherine Dunham which opened in New Haven last week; Deep Are These Roots, contemporary play which deals with the problems of the Negro vet which opens in Princeton this Thursday; a second and third company of Anna Lucasta; Strange Fruit, which is scheduled for an October opening; a revival of Show Boat, and St. Louis Woman, which will hit New York in December.
Some folks think and say that Strange Fruit should not be put on the stage, that it will harm the Negro, that the character, "Nonnie" is offensive to Negro womanhood. Then there are many who have criticized St. Louis Woman. (I devoted an entire column to this play in the Aug. 18 issue.)
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I should like to discuss here, mainly this phobia we have about the portrayal of Negro women. There is violent objection in some quarters to Lena Horne playing the role of a gal who passes from man to man in St. Louis Woman. Then there is objection to "Nonnie" in Strange Fruit, because she is educated and is willing to be a house servant in the south and carry on an affair with a white man of her own age. In the first place, I do not hold with the mythical idea that Negro womanhood is any more untouchable than white womanhood. There are good, in-between, and bad women of both races. Seems to me, we get pretty hot under the collar when our white brethren shout about white womanhood. Women are human beings and subject to all the good and bad influences of their background and environment just as any other human being. Any one in the theatre will tell you that it is the height of any actress' ambition to land a good bitchy role. They are the roles which carry a punch, and as we say in the theatre, have meat--you have something to sink your teeth into.
As an illustration, who ever thinks of the play Rain, without simultaneously thinking of Jean Eagles? The best role of Bette Davis' long career in pictures is thought to be that of the little bitch in Summerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. These of course, were characters that were finely drawn and so surrounded with logical situations which synchronized, that you found yourself disliking them intensely but at the same time, you had a perfect understanding as to what motivated their anti-social behavior. That is what is considered good playwrighting [sic].
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I disagree with the dissenters on Strange Fruit. So far as "Nonnie" is concerned, I feel the character itself will take on more intensity in the playing, than it did in the book. It is quite conceivable to me that such a girl educated though she be, might very well allow her love for a man to consume her, mind and soul, to the extent that she has no other personal ambitions. If there were not the sister, Bessie, or the doctor, Sam, to counteract the psychology of "Nonnie," then I would say, the character is wrong.
The whole plays points up the fact that the plight of the Negro in the south, is the direct result of the unhealthy culture and religion of the whites. It is this phoney background which warps the soul of the white boy and makes him mistreat and abandon "Nonnie" whom he really loves but is too much of a weakling to risk the scorn of his parents and friends by marrying her. To me, there is strong and logical motivation for "Nonnie's" actions.
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The same line of reasoning applies to Lena Horne playing the role of a kept gal in St. Louis Woman. This script was, as I have previously in this column, I have been in contact with one of the authors and the producers. I learned from them that they were in agreement with my criticisms of the script and have been assured that many changes have been made and more are being made. Also that the dialect will be dropped and actors will be allowed to read their lines naturally.
"Woman" is going to be a lavish production with a great deal of money being spent and I have the feeling that the boys who are spending the money are smart enough showmen to do all in their power to make the show right from the standpoint of good theatre and to do the things necessary to ward off further criticism by those people who are keenly aware of and who are working towards the promise of first class citizenship for the Negro.