A Controversial Play
By 1924 Eugene O'Neill had penned over two dozen plays, garnering two Pulitzer Prizes and recognition as a major playwright. For a new play about an interracial marriage, O'Neill looked to a black spiritual for his title: "All God's Chillun Got Wings." Even before it premiered in a small New York theater in May 1924, the play caused controversy, because it depicted a relationship between a white woman and a black man.
O'Neill turned to a dynamic young African American actor, Paul Robeson, for the male lead. A college valedictorian and football star, Robeson had trained as a lawyer, but a love of public speaking drew him into acting. His dynamic presence and powerful singing voice would make him a star on stage and screen in the years to come.
In his later work, O'Neill would draw on his own family experience, but with "All God's Chillun Got Wings" he explored contemporary society. Learn more about this rarely performed play and why a depiction of physical affection between a white woman and an African American man caused such uproar in 1920s America.
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 Ella has withdrawn from Jim and seems to be going mad.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.
Act Two, Scene Three excerpt.
Ella:(starts and wheels about in her chair) What's that? You got -- you got a letter -- ?
Jim:(turning to close the door after him) From the Board of Examiners for admission to the Bar, State of New York — God's country! (He finishes up with a chuckle of ironic self-pity so spent as to be barely audible. )
Ella:( writhing out of her chair like some fierce animal, the knife held behind her -- with fear and hatred) You didn't — you didn't — you didn't pass, did you?
Jim:( looking at her wildly) Pass? Pass? (He begins to chuckle and laugh between sentences and phrases, rich, Negro laughter, but heart-breaking in its mocking grief.) Good Lord, child, how come you can ever imagine such a crazy idea? Pass? Me? Jim Crow Harris? Nigger Jim Harris — become a full-fledged Member of the Bar! Why the mere notion of it is enough to kill you with laughing! It'd be against all natural laws, all human right and justice. It'd be miraculous, there'd be earthquakes and catastrophes, the seven Plagues'd come again and locusts'd devour all the money in the banks, the second Flood'd come roaring and Noah'd fall overboard, the sun'd drop out of the sky like a ripe fig, and the Devil'd perform miracles, and God'd be tipped head first right out of the Judgment seat! (He laughs, maudlinly uproarious.)
Ella:(her face beginning to relax, to light up) Then you — you didn't pass?
Jim:(spent — giggling and gasping idiotically) Well, I should say not! I should certainly say not!
Ella:(With a cry of joy, pushes all the law books crashing to the floor — then with childish happiness she grabs Jim by both hands and dances up and down.) Oh, Jim, I knew it! I knew you couldn't! Oh, I'm so glad, Jim! I'm so happy! You're still my old Jim — and I'm so glad! (He looks at her dazedly, a fierce rage slowly gathering on his face. She dances away from him. His eyes follow her. His hands clench. She stands in front of the mask — triumphantly) There! What did I tell you? I told you I'd give you the laugh! (She begins to laugh with wild unrestraint, grabs the mask from its place, sets it in the middle of the table and plunging the knife down through it pins it to the table.) There! Who's got the laugh now?
Jim:(his eyes bulging — hoarsely) You devil! You white devil woman! (in a terrible roar, raising his fists above her head) You devil!
Play excerpt courtesy of Yale University.
"Judging by the criticism it is easy to see that the attacks are almost entirely based on ignorance of 'God's Chillun.' I admit that there is prejudice against the intermarriage of whites and blacks, but what has that to do with my play? ... The persons who have attacked my play have given the impression that I make Jim Harris a symbolic representative of this race and Ella of the white race — that by uniting them I urge intermarriage. Now Jim and Ella are special cases and represent no one but themselves. Of course, the struggle between them is primarily the result of the difference in their racial heritage. It is their characters, the gap between them and their struggle to bridge it which interests me as a dramatist, nothing else." — Eugene O'Neill in a May 11, 1924 New York Times interview
"In 'All God's Chillun' we have the struggle of a man and woman, both fine struggling human beings, against forces they could not control, — indeed, scarcely comprehend — accentuated by the almost Christ-like spiritual force of the Negro husband, — a play of great strength and beautiful spirit, mocking all petty prejudice, emphasizing the humanness, and in Mr. O'Neill's words, 'the oneness' of mankind." — Paul Robeson, in the December 1924 issue of Opportunity
"In retrospect all the excitement about 'All God's Chillun' seems rather amusing, but at the time of the play's production it caused many an anxious moment. All concerned were absolutely amazed at the ridiculous critical reaction. The play meant anything and everything from segregated schools to various phases of intermarriage... those who object most strenuously know mostly nothing of the play and in any event know little of the theatre and have no right to judge a playwright of O'Neill's talents." — Paul Robeson, in the December 1924 issue of Opportunity