Realism and Melodrama in Stevedore

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with The Journal of Civil and Human Rights on Kate Dossett’s Radical Black Theatre in The New Deal organized by Say Burgin.

Photograph of a scene from the Federal Theatre Project production of One-Act Plays of the Sea—the Eugene O’Neill cycle now commonly called S.S. Glencairn—at the Lafayette Theatre (Federal Theater Project-Wikimedia Commons)

Reading Dossett’s production history of the 1934 play Stevedore, I was struck by how many of the debates that it provoked can be applied to more recent ethical controversies and questions in African-American theater and film. Does dramatic writing by/about Black people need to be “realistic”? Who is the intended audience for the work? How do production choices shape the reception of the work? 

Much of Chapter One of Radical Black Theater in the New Deal is a close reading of a scene at the end of Stevedore where white dock workers join their Black colleagues onstage to fight a Black lynch mob. In her discussion of the archive surrounding Stevedore, Dossett argues that white critics of the era argued that the scene was not realistic.  But does the scene need to be realistic? It might sound like wish fulfillment, but authors George Sklar and Paul Peters had the courage to imagine a world beyond the confines of realism.

In Melina Matsoukas’ 2019 film Queen and Slim, the titular protagonists go on the run after killing a police officer during a traffic stop (the officer shoots Queen first, and is killed by Slim in the ensuing scuffle). By the end of the film, both Queen and Slim have been killed, which was intended to be a powerful statement on the persistence of anti-Black violence and death, even in the face of gestures of resistance. But the killings of these fictional protagonists – and screenwriter Lena Waithe’s grasping towards realism – results in a foreclosure of the Black creative imagination, especially when there are real-life examples of Black revolutionaries like Assata Shakur who have eluded the grasp of the carceral state. 

Dossett’s invocation of melodrama in her discussion of the white critical gaze was also fascinating for me to read. (As someone who recently completed a dissertation on melodrama, I feel like I see it everywhere). A critic from Time argued that the New York audience’s excitement at the finale was “had more to do with the effect of melodrama than interracial solidarity” and that audiences cheered not for “the symbolism of a workers’ united front, but simply for a thrilling rescue” (43). But this deus ex machina – this melodramatic reversal of fortune for the Black workers – is not separate from the socialist message of the play. Melodrama is used as a tool to teach moral lessons, which in this case, is the articulation of a politics of interracial solidarity.

Dossett alludes to the power of melodrama when discussing a comment made by Joe Staton, an actor, in the Seattle Negro Unit’s discussion of Stevedore. The greatest difference between the Seattle and New York productions is the directors’ treatment of that final, ethically knotty scene. In Seattle, the “white rescue party “doesn’t show up at all”” and the Black workers are shown fighting “when the curtain comes down” (71). 

Despite this, Staton recalls that the audience became so invested in that final, controversial scene that they leapt onstage to help the actors build a barricade against the white lynch mob. Staton said “That was really something! Really something!” (70). The thrill of the final scene was not only felt by the audience, but by the actors themselves. Melodrama – and the affective exchange that occurs between actor and audience after the breaking of the fourth wall – is a galvanizing and radicalizing force. Theater is a space through which interracial solidarity can be cultivated (ironically achieving the playwrights’ original vision for the production, as Dossett notes), and the audience members who jumped onstage can hopefully bring that same energy to real-world coalition building.

Another observation of Dossett’s that struck me was how work was received differently across the Black diaspora. Stevedore was a hit in New York, but it was received more coolly abroad. Black Londoners objected to the use of the word “nigger,” and Marcus Garvey believed that Stevedore “pandered to white bigots” (62). It is always interesting to see what lurks beneath the archive, and I found myself wondering if Black Londoners’ discomfort with the play’s language was due to a particular set of respectability politics shaped by some aspect of their unique diasporic experience. Garvey’s critique lumped Stevedore in with other early 20th century “plays about race” by white authors (like Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones) that were intended for white audiences. This question of audience – traced by Dossett – was also shaped by the various production changes that were made during Stevedore’s run. The mixed reception of Stevedore by Black people abroad also reveals that Black people and Black audiences (obviously) are not a monolith.

Dossett’s discussion of the Seattle Negro Unit production of Stevedore also includes a discussion of a previous “race play,” In Abraham’s Bosom, which was “larded” with an “authentic” gospel song, a device that Dossett argues was “a favorite and profitable device for white producers” (65). This observation made me want to hear those “authentic” songs. However, I also thought of the gospel plays that are staples of for-profit Black theater today, particularly work by Je’Caryous Johnson and Tyler Perry. Though I am not disputing Dossett’s observation – and it is difficult, of course, to compare the events of the 1930s to the present day – I invoke Johnson and Perry to argue that there is a Black audience for gospel theater

As I write this piece, there are rebellions erupting in seemingly every major city in the United States (and a number of other places abroad). These rebellions are about the lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. But they are also about the continued lynchings of Black people by the police and white civilians. There is a white supremacist president who tweets about “Law and Order!” and liberal white media figures who attempt to resuscitate Nixon-era canards about “outside agitators” to suppress expressions of righteous Black pain. But there are also white protestors who are physically shielding their Black comrades from the police. I see Stevedore’s controversial ending less as a pie in the sky fantasy, and more like a call to arms. Are you with us, or are you against us?

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Kristen Wright

Kristen Wright is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Humanities Scholars Program at Cornell University's Society for the Humanities. She previously earned a PhD and MA in Africana Studies from Cornell University, an MA in African-American Studies from Columbia University, and a BA in Theater Studies and Political Science from Yale University. Her work exists at the intersections of African-American drama (from the 19th century to the present), Black performance studies, and critical theory. She was a co-author of an article published in Theatre Topics, and also contributed a chapter on Adrienne Kennedy to the Gale Researcher's American Literature volume and a performance review to Texas Theatre Journal. Dr. Wright has been a Member-at-Large for the Performance Studies Focus Group of the Association for Theatre In Higher Education (ATHE) since 2017, and also served on the Graduate Student Caucus of the American Society For Theatre Research (ASTR). She won the 2018 Information Literacy Prize from Cornell's Knight Institute for her teaching, and Dr. Wright's article "'The Killing of My Mother I Claim Myself': Adrienne Kennedy's Electra and Orestes, Aeschylus' Oresteia, and the Question of Justice," won the 2016 Marvin Carlson Award for Best Student Essay in Theatre and Performance from Cornell's Department of Performing and Media Arts. Dr. Wright is also a playwright and dramaturg, and her plays APPLE CORE, MISS ANNE, THE SHIRT (CIVILITY), and JAMAL FROM EMPIRE were produced as a part of Cornell's 10 Minute Play Festival. Her new play JODECI FOR WHITE GIRLS will be featured in the 10 Minute Play Festival this fall.