The full-length play Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South by Langston Hughes is an American tale set two generations beyond abolition on a plantation in Georgia. Colonel Thomas Norwood is an old man who never remarried after the death of his young wife. His servant, Cora Lewis, a black woman now in her forties lives in the house with him and she manages the house and cares for his every need. Cora and the Colonel have had five children together, four of whom survived to adulthood.
These mixed race children (called then “mulattoes”) have been educated and employed on the plantation, but are not acknowledged as family or heirs. Robert Lewis, the youngest at eighteen, worshipped his father until age eight when he was severely beaten for calling Colonel Thomas Norwood “Papa.” Since then he has been on a mission to get the Colonel to recognize him as a son.
Robert will not use the back door, he drives the car without permission, and he refuses to wait for a white customer to be served when he has been waiting longer. His actions inflame the local community who threaten to lynch him.
The action of the play culminates in a confrontation between the Colonel and Robert where the two men fight and Robert kills his father. The townsfolk come to lynch Robert, who runs, but circles back to the house with a gun. Cora tells her son that he is to hide upstairs and she'll distract the mob. Robert uses the last bullet in his gun to shoot himself before the mob can hang him.
History of Mulatto
Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South was performed in 1934 on Broadway. The fact that a man of color had any show produced on Broadway at that time was strikingly significant. The play, however, was heavily edited to sensationalize it with even more conflict than the original script contained. Langston Hughes was so angry about these unsanctioned changes that he boycotted the opening of the show.
The title includes the word “tragedy” and the original script was already rife with horrifying and violent events; the illegal changes only added more. Yet the real tragedy Langston Hughes wanted to communicate was the grim reality of generations of race mixing without recognition by white landowners. These children who lived in “limbo” between two races should be recognized and respected and that is one of the tragedies of the Deep South.
- Setting: Living room of a big plantation in Georgia
- Time: An afternoon in early fall in the 1930s
- Cast Size: This play can accommodate 13 speaking roles and a mob.
- Male characters: 11
- Female Characters: 2
- Characters that could be played by either male or female: 0
- Content Issues: Racism, language, violence, gunshots, abuse
- Colonel Thomas Norwood is an old plantation owner in his 60s. While somewhat liberal in his treatment of Cora and her children in the eyes of the town, he is very much a product of his times and won't stand to have Cora's children call him their father.
- Cora Lewis is an African American in her 40s who is devoted to the Colonel. She defends her children and tries to find safe places for them in the world.
- William Lewis is Cora's oldest child. He is easy-going and works on the plantation with his wife and children.
- Sallie Lewis is Cora's second daughter. She is fair-skinned and could pass for white.
- Robert Lewis is Cora's youngest boy. He strongly resembles the Colonel. He is angry the Colonel won't recognize him and he is unwilling to endure to mistreatment as a black man.
- Fred Higgins is a plantation-owning friend of the colonel.
- Sam is the personal servant of the Colonel.
- Billy is William Lewis's son.
Other Small Roles
- A Storekeeper
- An Undertaker
- Undertaker's Helper (Voiceover)
- The Mob
Resources and Further Reading
- Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South is part of the collection in the book Political Stages: Plays That Shaped a Century.
- A PowerPoint of in-depth information about the play from Rutgers Black Drama.