April 16, 1997 Zora Neale Hurston Playscripts Found in the Library of Congress
Contact: Guy Lamolinara (202) 707-9217
Little known copies of typescripts of four sketches and six plays by Zora Neale Hurston have been identified through a recent search of old copyright records. Between 1925 and 1944 the author deposited these carbon typescripts for copyright protection as unpublished dramas, and the Library retained them. A 1992 finding aid for non-book Hurston materials in the Library of Congress had not included the copyright deposit drama collection as a source for extant Hurston scripts.
The sketches and three of the full length plays appear to be unpublished and not widely known. The three other full length plays are either known from other copies in outside repositories or were published or adapted in 1991. Kathy Perkins' bibliographical list (published in 1989) of known Hurston plays included all of the titles, but did not identify the copyright deposit copies and the Library of Congress location for their texts. It should be noted that the complete works of Zora Neale Hurston (Harper-Collins, 7 volumes, Gen. Ed., Henry Louis Gates) is scheduled to include a volume of Hurston plays.
One of the short 1931 sketches was the subject of an unrehearsed lunchtime public reading and workshop in the Library March 25, 1997. This program was sponsored by the Library of Congress Professional Association's Performing Arts Information Forum--a staff organization coordinated by the Library's American Literature Manuscript Specialist, Dr. Alice Birney. The eleven page dialect sketch presented, Woofing, depicts a 1931 Georgia street scene with lively and witty dialogue illustrating Afro-American rural life of the period.
In keeping with Hurston's production ideas for Afro- American theater, Birney used traditional casting to find an all black cast of Library employees. The readers were Ida Eustis, Norman Middleton, Gwen Bailey, Al Smith, Joe Brooks, Darlene Foster and Ardie Myers. Only Eustis had professional status, being a member of both Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity. "Woofing" is still a term for a kind of good-natured tirade of insults, and the unrehearsed cast had great fun with the script's heavy dialect, slang, and sassy tone. Commentators in addition to Birney were Camila Bryce-Laporte and Joe Hickerson (who played a short tape of Hurston's voice), of Folklife; Ardie Myers of Humanities and Social Sciences; John Wayne (retired from Copyright Office), and several members of the overflow audience.
The other, even shorter, 1931 sketches found after Wayne suggested the project are: Poker, Forty Yards and Lawing and Jawing. Two of the full length plays found were registered for copyright in 1930: Cold Keener, a revue, and De Turkey and de Law, a comedy in three acts. Both of these and the sketches are in custody of the Manuscript Division. A third script, Meet the Mamma, is a 1925 libretto for a musical play and is in custody of the Music Division. The computerized record for this work does not show Hurston as librettist, but that identification is verified in the Copyright manual card file. None of the copyrights for the above works had been renewed during the appropriate year.
Other Hurston plays perhaps known in some form to scholars but recorded as deposited in typescript with the Library are: Polk County (1944) in custody of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division; Spunk (1935), adapted and published in 1991; and Mule-bone (1931), registered by co- author Langston Hughes and published in 1991 with a record of his collaboration with Hurston.
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
The 1900 census records have established that Hurston indubitably was born Jan. 7, 1891, not 1903, as mistakenly listed in several other sources, and she died Jan. 28, 1960. Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in America, was her home and provided the inspiration to preserve her culture in many forms. Eventually she became a novelist, folklorist, dramatist and teacher and is only recently coming into her own light.
She won a scholarship to Barnard College and studied with the anthropologist Franz Boas and Carter G. Woodson, earning her A.B. degree from Columbia University. She did folklore studies in the South in the late 1920s and made folk-recordings there with Alan Lomax, 1935-1939. Although she is known most for her novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939), she also published the folklore collections, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). One scholar, however, has estimated Hurston wrote at least twenty plays between 1930 and 1935, and Linda Marion Hill (Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale, Howard Univ. Pr., 1996) considers the drama and performing arts to be Hurston's favored vehicle for transmitting cultural knowledge.
For a period in the 1930s Hurston aimed at commercial Broadway success with her plays, and did see short runs of some of her revues and skits in New York City, Chicago, Orlando and Winter Park, Florida. Her production of In the Beginning, The Great Day (later titled The Great Day) opened on Broadway and was performed at the New School. Like several of the plays in the Library of Congress group, this was a performance of vignettes depicting the songs, dances, and lore of negroes and showcased her folklore collecting. The several other titles and versions of this revue suggest that some of the Library of Congress plays may have been used as components in later productions under other names. For example, her skit, The Court Room, which appeared in a 1931 New York City commercial venture, Fast and Furious, may be related to the L.C. script for the sketch titled Lawing and Jawing which is about a corrupt judge. Similarly, the "Jook" section of the revue Cold Keener is known to scholars in other forms. Unable to earn a living as playwright or director, Hurston eventually turned to college teaching at North Carolina Central where she pursued her interests in black theater and collaborated with Paul Green among others.
The major repositories for Zora Neale Hurston manuscript materials are the Beinecke Library, Yale University; University of Florida; Schomburg Center, New York Public; the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Texas. The Library of Congress Manuscript Division also holds Hurston materials in the following collections: Margaret Mead; NAACP; Lawrence Spivak; W.P.A. Federal Writers Project; Carter Woodson (microfilm); Countee Cullen (microfilm); and Franz Boas (microfilm). The Archive of Folk Culture holds sound recordings, correspondence, and clipping files. Prints and Photographs Division holds images in the Lomax and Carl Van Vechten collections, as well as in their biographical files. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and recorded Sound Division holds Hurston films as well as at least one video and a sound recording. When the Library's Hurston finding aid is updated, it will also include newly identified Zora Neale Hurston related film footage from the Margaret Mead and Norman Chalfin collections.
In a December interview for The Washington Post, Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway said, "There are probably more Zora Neale Hurston works out there that remain to be discovered" [12-17-96]. The Library of Congress Copyright Deposit Dramas recently identified provide access to intriguing additions to the Hurston cannon which will yield material for theater producers, literature and folklore scholars, and for students of Afro-American cultural history.