PAUL GREEN – WHITE DRESSES – THE DRAMA AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 1921 – PRODUCED BY THE STUDIO THEATRE,
BUFFALO, NEW YORK, 1923
One of the very first plays
written by Paul Green, when he was a student at the University
of North Carolina
under the guidance of Professor Frederick H. Koch.
It is supposed to draw its matter
from Paul Green’s immediate social and cultural environment. Having been raised
on a white farm he captures in this play the lot of some black farm workers. The
landlord is the farmer. The black characters are Candace McLean, the aunt of
the main character Mary McLean, the “nearly white” daughter of Candace’s sister
who yielded to the sexual advances of a white man who offered her – as we are
going to learn at the end – a white dress, the same way the landlord’s son has
just offered a white dress to Mary. There was of course no marriage afterwards
and there would be none for Mary if she yielded.
Mary is confronted to the same
sexual advances from the son of the landlord. Mary is under the illusion that
since she is “nearly white” she could – and should – be treated “like” or even “as”
a white girl.
The father of the young man and
landlord knows better and he has decided either to get rid of Candace and Mary
McLean because Mary does not produce enough work to pay for her rent and to
take care of herself and her aunt, or to have Mary married to Jim, a black
young man who would be a second worker in the rented house, and that would
solve the problem of the son who could not then go against such an important
The girl resists this solution,
due to her illusion about her color but in the end she yields and marries Jim over
night and accepts to lose her racial illusion.
The idea is of course not so bad
though Mary yields to prevent some hurtful situation for her old and ailing aunt.
But the play is very schematic, nearly caricatural, when in about five minutes
Mary, under the landlord’s blackmail, shifts from
almost white? . . . He’s black and I hate him. I can’t marry no nigger. . . “
“Yes, yes, I’ll marry him. I’ll
marry him. They ain’t no way to be white. I got to be a nigger. . . He’s a
nigger and …yes …I’m a nigger too.”
That caricature is saved by the
revelation from the aunt that Mary’s mother fell to the trick of the white
dress and by her burning the two white dresses that are symbolical of a fake
promise from the white man (you’ll be my wife and you’ll be treated like a
white woman) and of the total illusion that what you see is what you get (white
on the surface means white in depth).
In fact the play then supports
the theory of racial purity defended at the time by Marcus Garvey and his
popular black nationalist movement. Marcus Garvey in that perspective will come
to support the theory that one drop of black blood is enough to make you black and
even some time later to go and meet the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and to
sign a declaration with him supporting racial purity for both white and black
This play is a good testimony
about the early 1920s in the South of the USA, though the picture is deeply
racist and one-sided, slightly too superficial in the way the girl yields to
that racist vision of her society.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU