Mule Bone

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Zora Neale Hurston (1891—1960)

Langston Hughes (1902—1967) American writer


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In 1931 Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes began to collaborate on a comedy called Mule Bone. They worked in secret because their patron, Charlotte Mason, disapproved of theatrical ventures. Hughes and Hurston were exploring a new concept of theater, free of the distortions of minstrelsy, to be based on daily rituals of life in African American communities and performed with music and dance. The collaboration produced bitter recriminations and charges of plagiarism but no play. Hurston and Hughes never spoke again, and their dream of a “real Negro theatre” was stillborn.

Based on a folktale, “The Bone of Contention”, which Hurston had collected and Hughes adapted, Mule Bone was a series of oral and musical performances connected by the slenderest of plots. Guitar-playing Jim and dancing Dave are rivals for a woman, Daisy. When their musical and verbal dueling turns physical, Jim hits Dave with a mule bone. In the second act a trial divides the loyalties of the Eatonville townspeople: the Baptists versus the Methodists. The Baptist pastor demonstrates Jim's guilt by proving, according to scriptural citation, that a mule bone is a lethal weapon. Jim is expelled from Eatonville. In the final act Jim, Dave, and Daisy meet outside of town, and the two men reaffirm their friendship.Mule Bone was finally produced by New York City's Lincoln Center in 1991, featuring veteran black performers and directed by Michael Schultz. A Hurston figure, dressed in the coat, hat, and fur skins familiar to many from an often reproduced photograph by Carl Van Vechten, provided a new prologue and coda. Crafted by editor George Bass, these monologues echo the introduction to Hurston's book of folklore, Mules and Men. Blues musician Taj Mahal composed the score, with most of the lyrics taken from Hughes's poetry. Reviews were mixed.

— Cheryl A. Wall

Subjects: Literature.

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