April 24, 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 and are available to researchers at the Library of Congress.
Between 1925 and 1944, the author deposited these carbon typescripts for copyright protection as unpublished dramas, and the Library retained them.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 nonbook 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The sketches and three of the full-length plays appear to be unpublished and not widely known.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. A bibliographical list (published in 1989 by Kathy Perkins) 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. The complete works of Zora Neale Hurston (HarperCollins, seven volumes; Henry Louis Gates, general editor) are scheduled to include a volume of her plays.
One of the short works is an 11-page dialect sketch called Woofing. It depicts a 1931 Georgia street scene with lively and witty dialogue illustrating African American rural life of the period. The other, even shorter, 1931 sketches 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 the 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. 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 and 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 was born Jan. 7, 1891, not 1903, as mistakenly listed in several other sources, and she died Jan. 28, 1960. Eatonville, Fla., 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 in 1935-1939. Although she is best known 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 that Hurston wrote at least 20 plays between 1930 and 1935, and Linda Marion Hill (Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale, Howard University Press, 1996) considers the drama and performing arts to be Hurston's favored vehicle for transmitting cultural knowledge.
In the 1930s Hurston aimed at commercial Broadway success with her plays and saw short runs of some of her revues and skits in New York City and Chicago and in Orlando and Winter Park, Fla. 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 African Americans 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 Library of Congress 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; the University of Florida; the Schomburg Center of New York Public Library; 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; WPA Federal Writers Project; Carter Woodson (microfilm); Countee Cullen (microfilm); and Franz Boas (microfilm). The Librarys Archive of Folk Culture holds Hurston sound recordings, correspondence and clipping files. Prints and Photographs Division holds Hurston images in the Lomax and Carl Van Vechten collections, as well as in their biographical files (an image of Hurston is available on-line from the Librarys Web site at http://www.loc.gov. It is in the American Memory collection called Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten). 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." The Library of Congress Copyright deposit dramas recently identified provide access to intriguing additions to the Hurston cannon that will yield material for theater producers, literature and folklore scholars, and for students of African American cultural history.