February 1 to 18, 2001
The First Floor Theatre
Thursday - Sunday 8:00pm
Sunday Matinee at 2:30pm
A North Carolina prison's chain
gang and its cruel Warden are a microcosm of fate and American social justice
in "Hymn to the Rising Sun" by Paul Green (1894-1981), the Pulitzer
Prize winning playwright from North Carolina. This suspenseful one-act, set on
the Fourth of July, depicts a stockade populated with a mixture of Black and White
convicts and run by a sadistic, whip-toting Captain. The convicts struggle against
their own helplessness as they face the impending death of a fellow inmate, a
black man named Runt, who has been locked eleven days in a sweatbox for "messing
with his private organs."
The men are a collection of the poor, the unlucky and the forgotten, compelled
to live on the end of a lash while the state sells their meager labor to build
a rail route. The misfortune of their ghastly situation pales before the apparent
cruelty of a society that values punishment over correction. The warped rectitude
of the powerful over the powerless is expressed in the Captain's bone-chilling
Fourth of July speech, an extended monologue which runs through the play. The
drama unfolds primarily through the eyes of a Black inmate named Pearly Gates,
and so becomes a Black Man's view of social justice in America. It is directed
by Barbara Montgomery and presented by La MaMa in honor of Black History month.Green
once wrote, "There
is no greater sin than to cause a man to miss his own life." In the 1930s,
when the playwright sent a copy of this play to every North Carolina legislator,
it was the beginning of the end of North Carolina chain gangs. The play has
not been produced for years, but its humanistic message is needed again today,
when our prison-happy society needs to be called to its senses. It is a reminder
to decent people that penal reform is a mainstream issue, not a radical one
(even though recently, some of the most visible activists
on the issue have been old radicals like Angela Davis).
Paul Green's works also include "Abraham's Bosom" (Pulitzer Prize,
1927), "The House of Connolly" (first play of the famed Group Theatre
of the 1930s) and "The Lost Colony" (his first symphonic outdoor drama,
1937). Altogether, Green wrote 16 symphonic outdoor dramas and established what
is now considered one of the two original genres of 20th century American theater
(the other being the American musical). Among his other noteworthy works are
the antiwar classic "Johnny Johnson," which had music by Kurt Weill.
Like most of America's most gifted writers, he wrote for a time for Hollywood
between the wars. His films include "State Fair" (the first version)
for Will Rogers and "Cabin in the Cotton," the first starring role
for Bette Davis, which contained her favorite line, "I'd like to kiss you,
but I just washed my hair." He collaborated with novelist Richard Wright
on the stage version of "Native Son." After he became established
on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he returned
to Hollywood only occasionally. One notable example was "Black Like Me"
(1963), John Griffith's true story about a white man who dyes himself black
in order to taste racial prejudice. He was Dramatist Laureate of North Carolina
and recipient of the
Frank Porter Graham Civil Liberties Award. In 1997, Barbara Montgomery
directed "Out of the South" at La MaMa, an evening of three one-acts
by Green depicting family conflicts and shamanism among rural blacks and whites.
At the time, Montgomery had just come home to New York after eight years in
TV land (two series, "Amen" and "Married People," plus
numerous movies-of-the week), deeming it a return to her creative touchstone.
Montgomery's family being from North Carolina (African, Blackfoot and Scots),
she feels deeply rooted in the Tar Heel State where Green was born and educated,
and where he created his broad range of writings.
Montgomery has acted at La MaMa steadily since 1969 in productions including
Lamar Alfred's "Thoughts," Jonas Jurasas' "Macbeth," Tom
O'Horgan's "Caligula," Ellen Stewart's "Cotton Club" and
Andrei Serban's "As You Like It." On Broadway, she has appeared in
"Kennedy's Children," "Raisin, the Musical," "My Sister,
My Sister," "Innocent Black," "First Breeze of Summer"
and "The Tap Dance Kid." She was co-founder and artistic director,
with Mary Alice, of Black Women in Theater, a company that originated at La
MaMa in 1983. The actors are: R. S. Call,
Dom Genon, Cary Grant, Robert Haber, Charley Hayward, Zeb Hollins, Stephan
Kolbert, Courtney Kopec, Kevin Lee, John Lisanti, Gian Marco Lo Forte, Lacy
Darryl Phillips, Steven Pizzano, David Robertson, Ryan Rossetto, Sean St. John,
Charles Weldon and Andrew Wright. Scenic and lighting designer is David Adams.