Green Pastures Recalled

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But I had more than one reason for writing the play, once I got into it. I wanted to find, as I wrote, some reason for the rejection of conventional liturgy that was spreading through my generation. We were all becoming agnostics. I wasn’t profound enough, in my own mind, to be able to recognize what I see now—that we simply wanted conscious escapes from tradition, from the childhood habits of religion. I was never obliged, as a kid, to go to church. My father was a renegade Catholic, and that undoubtedly helped me to my freedom. I was allowed to do as I pleased. I remember when I was little and didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I’d go down with some of my friends from Market Street School, and we’d go past the Catholic church screaming, “Ya dirty Micks, we’ll hit ya with bricks!” Well, we didn’t have any bricks, of course, but it was a nice thing to yell. You know, a battle cry—a good one—is frequently almost as enjoyable as being in a battle.

Anyhow, the play was finished by the summer of 1929, but nobody wanted to touch it. Literally everybody turned it down. I don’t know, I guess it was the idea of a black God that frightened them off. One producer said he liked it all right and would love to do it if only he could see how to, whatever he meant by that. One sent it back saying, “It’s got lots of laughs in it.” That really hurt. Anyhow, they all turned it down, so I just put the thing on the shelf.

In the late summer I went on a cruise in the Mediterranean. My hosts were John and Alice Garrett—he’d just been made ambassador to Italy. Well, they and the others aboard knew I’d just finished a play, and one lovely moonlit night, when we were in the harbor of Samos, they invited me to read it. That was the first public audience Green Pastures ever had, and the reaction was heartening.

Late that fall I met Rowland Stebbins, who’d been a Wall Street broker and who’d gotten out about five minutes before the crash. He wanted to produce on Broadway. Actually, he was talking with Kaufman, but George didn’t have a play just then. He said Connelly had one he hadn’t sold. We started to work right away.

I told Stebbins that I didn’t think the movies would ever be interested. I also told him the play might land us in jail. He just said, “Okay by me.” I guess we mounted it for around seventy-five thousand dollars. We didn’t “bring it in” for that, don’t forget: we never took it out . We had a cold opening, because we didn’t dare take it on the road. If we’d taken it to the hinterland, we might very well still be in jail someplace.

We did our casting at John Carey’s agency, up on 132nd Street. There was a pretty steady flow of applicants coming in—they’d queue up out on the sidewalks —because there just wasn’t much available for Negro actors at that point. This play gave some of them a chance to get out of broad comic roles and into serious theatre. At 131st and Seventh Avenue there was a plain little tree that everybody called the Tree of Hope. It was supposed to be pretty good at landing you work if you touched it and prayed. Well, that tree was pretty well rubbed clear of bark by the time we started rehearsals.

Yes, there was a little trouble during the rehearsal schedule. I remember one day when four different theatres refused to let us rehearse—they were empty and could have used the business, and it was obviously because we had an all-Negro cast, although they never gave us any reasons. They never said it, but you could tell they figured we probably were going to steal the fixtures from the dressing rooms.

But there was never any discrimination or nastiness within the company; quite the opposite. I recall one morning up in Engineers Hall in Harlem: the company was sitting around, maybe a hundred of them, and I was rehearsing the children in some scene. I made them do it over and over again. Finally they were all a little tired, and I said, “All right, go on back to your seats. You’re as bad as a bunch of white actors.” I said it for the benefit of the rest of the company. They had a good laugh and a good rehearsal.

Opening night was at the end of February—the twenty-sixth—of 1930. I’d worked very hard, and felt I had a professional production. I could sense the audience was liking it; otherwise there wouldn’t have been that sea of handkerchiefs during the Exodus scene. (I used to go to matinees just to see whether they were as thick in the afternoons.) But I’d overlooked one little thing. About five minutes before the play ended I realized we hadn’t organized any curtain calls! I got backstage and grabbed hold of an assistant. I said, “I think they’re going to like it, so when the curtain goes down just hold it through the applause, and I’ll go out.” Well, out I went, and when I came back in again—all hell was busting loose in the audience—I told the company, “We’ll have two curtains—up, down, up, down. Then I’ll rearrange you.” So that happened, and then I had to start breaking the cast up into little groups. Finally I had them going out there one at a time taking individual bows. It all kept up for half an hour.