|A Controversial Play
The play opens in an interracial New York neighborhood. Jim Harris, an African American boy, and Ella Downey, a white girl, are drawn to each other.
Years later, Jim still loves Ella. However, she has adopted racist attitudes of the era, telling Jim that he's "forgetting [his] place" and that he should "go to the devil."
Jim struggles through high school but graduates hoping to pursue law. Meanwhile, Ella is abandoned by a lover and has an illegitimate child that dies.
The two former friends reconnect and Ella pledges her love to Jim. He proposes, they marry and travel to France.
Two years later, Jim and Ella return to their old neighborhood, to move into Jim's boyhood home. Ella has withdrawn from Jim and seems to be going mad.
Over the next year, Ella sinks deeper into her sickness. She feels threatened by an African mask hanging in the apartment. Her attitude sways between meanness -- calling Jim a "dirty nigger" -- and simple, childlike sweetness.
Jim fails the bar exam, to Ella's delight. She stabs the mask, explaining to a horrified Jim that she's "killed the devil," and says that if he'd passed the exam she would have had to kill him.
At the play's close, Ella longs for the innocence of their childhood and asks Jim to "come and play." Jim assures her that he'll "play right up to the Gates of Heaven" with her.
Even before its May 1924 premiere, the play made headlines. Reporting that a white actress would appear alongside a black actor -- and that she would kiss his hand --newspapers warned of race riots.
Love between people of different races was taboo in 1920s America. Dozens of states prohibited interracial marriage and enforced racial discrimination with harsh Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise in the South. Over four decades would pass before the Supreme Court would rule that state laws against interracial marriages were unconstitutional.
Those who objected to what they heard about O'Neill's new drama flooded the Provincetown Players with threats and letters of protest. Sensationalist newspapers like the New York American reported that the Mayor's office might stop the production for fear of "race strife". But the city couldn't force a cancellation in a subscription theater, which was a private club.
O'Neill defended his play, asking people to read it and not the newspapers. He also published an article by the well-known black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois; the full text of the Negro spiritual that he used for the play's title; and a poem by one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, among other things, in the playbill.
Despite the newspapers' predictions, the play ran without incident. Critics gave it mostly lukewarm reviews.