In Abraham's Bosom (1926)
by Paul Green
The story of an ambitious and volatile black man in a strictly segregationist South, hovering around the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina. Abraham McCranie is the son of a slave called Caroline and plantation owner Colonel Mack (McCranie). Abe is physically powerful, but he wishes to lift himself and his people up through education. His dream is to build a school for African-American children, and he is chased from place to place around the state because of this vision coupled with his assertiveness and violent temper. Th other characters in the play are mostly African-American, including his wife, aunt and estranged son, as well as some workers. The two white characters are Colonel Mack and his son Lonnie. Eventually, trouble reaches a feverish pitch when Abe kills Lonnie in a blind rage and soon afterwards he is shot dead in his home by a white mob.
The play was produced on Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927. Seen in its historical context, it is indeed a milestone: a sympathetic portrayal of black lives and the severe poverty and disillusioning circumstances they faced. It was written by a southern white man who cared and who knew something of the details and circumstances of the lives he was striving to Chronicle. This is the most prominent of his “Negro plays" and part of his larger output of "Folk Drama."
The play is earnest, ambitious, and set down in painstaking and novelistic detail regarding place and person. Paul Green fully recreated these places and characters as he had seen them in his boyhood and adult life in both rural and urban North Carolina.
The underlying genre is melodrama — with its facile willingness to venture in a single scene from violent argument to song and dance, from the pits of despair to an inspirational silhouette. Villains are mainly kept off stage. Even the slothful, crude Lonnie is given some character complications. The African-American characters do unfortunately emerge from melodramatic types, except perhaps for Abe. This central character is complex, a dreamer and an agent in his surroundings. He's not simply a victim but a man capable of both benevolence and violence, often in surprising proximity. His character is a maelstrom of contrary desires and points of view, to the point of straining consistency.
The plot is episodic and consists of seven scenes over 20 or 30 years with only the final scenes feeling connected and climactic. Without a specific crisis, the story loses urgency and drags a bit. This is fairly representative of the plays of the time, so it’s not necessarily a direct criticism of Paul Green.
Sometimes the stage directions describing black behavior remind one of those racist cartoons from the early 20th century; it can even feel like we’re watching the source of the satirical "Chaos in Belleville" in Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind. But then signs of black agency pop up that would make white audiences uncomfortable. We just need to remind ourselves of the earnestness of the writer and the societal and theatrical status quo of the time.
The truth is Paul Green was striving to communicate the serious deprivation of the African-American community to the general society in an era of regular lynchings. He was striving to portray essentially dignified individuals burdened with an oppression both physical and mental. All his life, he worked for the alleviation of the suffering of injustice. This play may no longer be "playable," but it is a milestone of our collective dramatic past.
In concluding, it’s fascinating to hear some of back story to the play. In 1948, Paul Green described the incident that inspired him.