All God's Chillun Got Wings (play)
All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924) is an expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill about miscegenation inspired by the old Negro spiritual. He began developing ideas for the play in 1922, emphasizing its authenticity in his notes: "Base play on his experience as I have seen it intimately." O'Neill wrote the play in the fall of 1923 and revised the text only slightly for its 1924 publication. Arguably one of his most controversial of plays, it starred Paul Robeson in the premiere, in which he portrayed the black husband of an abusive white woman, who, resenting her husband's skin color, destroys his promising career as a lawyer.
- Jim Harris – Ella's husband. An African-American man attempting to pass the law school examinations, he is protective of Ella and submissive to her demands.
- Mrs. Harris – Jim and Hattie's mother. An older woman who doesn't think that the races should mix.
- Hattie – Jim's sister. Hattie doesn't approve of Jim and Ella's marriage and feels that Ella is abusing Jim.
- Ella Downey – Jim's wife. She is uncomfortable being Jim's wife and wants to control him throughout the play.
- Shorty – Ella's childhood friend. A white gangster who offers Ella work as a prostitute.
- Joe – Jim's childhood friend. An African-American gangster who is mad at Jim for trying to use education to escape from his life.
- Mickey – Ella's childhood friend. He is a boxer who leaves Ella after she becomes pregnant with his child.
The play is divided into two acts that are further broken up into seven scenes and it opens up on an integrated corner in the south of New York. There are three converging streets that form at the edge of a triangular building. Though integrated, the people separate themselves by race, black on one end, white on the other except for the kids that are playing marbles between one another in the center. Scene One begins with an introduction to the main and supporting characters: Jim, Ella, Mickey, Joe and Shorty. Jim and Ella are singled out as liking each other and they bond over being called "Painty Face" and "Crow".
In Scene Two, it is nine years later and takes place on the same corner with a showcases the technological advances—horse and buggy for automobiles. The relationship between Jim and Ella has changed. Jim is pining for Ella's recognition and Shorty and Joe questions his blackness because of his desire to graduate and pass the bar exam. It seems as if he has fallen prey to Shorty's degradation of his ability and potential. It is also revealed that Ella is in a relationship with Mickey.
In Scene Three, the setting is the same but five years later. The people on the streets appear even more tired. It starts out with Shorty and Ella discussing the break up with Mickey and reveals that she had a child only to lose it to diphtheria. The scene also goes on the show the somewhat mended relationship between Ella and Jim which in turn causes her to lose her relationship with her parents. When Jim enters the scene, he mentions how he failed the bar exam yet again. Jim explains that the reason behind him not passing is his feeling of inferiority to the other students and not his lack of knowledge. Ella does not appear to be upset over this and tried to encourage him by referring to him as "white". This portion ends with Jim asking her whether or not she would marry him and she replies with a yes.
In Scene Four, the scene has changed and is instead in front of a church a few weeks later. Jim and Ella have married and the fear inside Ella is obvious. The two of them are headed towards the steamer to leave New York and Joe is optimistic.
In Scene One, it is two years later and two new characters are introduced, his mother Mrs. Harris and his sister Hattie. They live in a nice place with decoration that gives an air of wealth but are obvious cheaply made. The two start out talking about the arrival of Jim and Ella and the mother mentions Hattie's defiance to the marriage between the two. Hattie and her mother both agree on that there should be any union between the two races. They continue to talk about the place where Jim and Ella move accept the interracial marriage and they argue over whether they should stay away or come back, Hattie thinking Jim should face the prejudice head on. Enter Jim who answers the question of why Ella wasn't seen beside him and he explains she was tired of the trip. According to Jim, Ella grew lonely and afraid being in France and Jim feels that it was because of him. Hattie prods for the truth of whether Ella loves him or not. Of course, that infuriates Jim but he reveals that they indeed move back so he could face everything that he believed that was making his wife sick in addition to taking the bar exam. Next enters Ella who runs to Jim with a distaste that upset Hattie but she keeps it in and they try to reminisce and remain civil with each other. Hattie is asked about what she has accomplished and she proudly admits that she has been studying and became a teacher of a colored school. Just like she was with Jim, Ella tried to degrade her accomplishments and used the failure of her husband to make her feel better about Hattie's success. The appearance of a tribal mask shocks Ella and she stresses how Jim isn't going to take the exam. This scene ends with Hattie and Mrs. Harris leaving the apartment and giving it to Ella and Jim as a gift.
In Scene Two, both Jim and Ella are still in the apartment but it is six months later. Jim is seen with law books stacked around him. Hattie enters the room with Jim and proceeds to ask him about Ella's condition, which has worsened. That leads his sister to suggest that he leave her because he is likely to get sick as well. It is revealed that she has developed mania that her skin was turning black and has sunk to calling Hattie derogatory words. Jim has in turn thrown Hattie out for trying to separate them. After Hattie is forced out Ella enters with a knife in hand and asks Jim to be Uncle Jim and for her to be the little girl. As she is almost coaxed into bed she calls Jim a nigger and the scene ends with Jim in emotional agony.
In Scene Three, it is six months later and Ella appears even more sick than before and approaches the tribal mask with a deranged demeanor. Ella exposes her true feelings towards Jim taking the bar exam and black people succeeding. Enters Jim with a letter that held his results of the examination which he failed. The play ends with a revelation that Jim decided to no longer take the exam and they came full circle with Ella wanting to go back to the time where she was referred to as "Painty Face" and Jim as "Crow".
Analysis of play
The main conflict in the story is the racism of the time. Jim is seen being threatened by the white characters throughout the play. Hattie gets into fights with Ella, defending her race from Ella's attacks. Not only does the play cover the tensions between white and black but the conflicts between those in their own race. Joe gets into a fight with Jim because of Jim's drive for success. Joe sees this as Jim trying to get away from his life as an African American. Ella is berated by Shorty when he discovers that she is having a relationship with Jim. She is called a "Nigger-lover" and his tone changes from friendly to confrontational.
Critics have claimed that, not unlike his other plays, O’Neill lived for controversy and instead of creating a social commentary, he was just feeding cultural stereotypes because of his ignorance to African-American culture. The inclusion of a W. E. B. Du Bois excerpt in the play's opening playbill was a testament to Eugene O’Neill's neutral stance on the issue of interracial relationships.
Other critics have mentioned that Ella and Jim are actually a depiction of Ella and James, O’Neill's parents. Because of the abusive relationship between Jim and Ella in the play, critics thought that it represented the relationship between his parents.
Themes and political context
As the last play of O’Neill that casts a black lead, All God’s Chillun Got Wings discussed the intraracial and interracial issues that plagued American society in the early 20th century. O’Neill gave glimpses of the struggle of being black in the time period and what the implications of being in a relationship with someone of the opposite race would entail.
W.J. Arnold, one of the founders of the Daughters of the Confederacy said about the play at the time:
“The scene where Miss Blair is called upon to kiss and fondle a Negro’s hand is going too far, even for the stage. The play may be produced above the Mason and Dixie [sic] line, but Mr. O’Neill will not get the friendly reception he had when he sent ‘Emperor Jones’ his other coloured play into the South. The play should be banned by the authorities, because it will be impossible for it to do otherwise than stir up ill feeling between the races.’’
In the book Black Manhattan, author James Weldon Johnson stated that the New York American and The Morning Telegraph newspapers published articles about the play in an attempt to stir up a violent reaction against the play in order to use public outrage to cause the play to be censored. Towards the end of the 1910s and the beginning of the 1920s "random and organized acts of violence" were raged against the African-American community. The twenties were also a time where the Ku Klux Klan was at its height and the talk of integration clashed with a culture practicing segregation.
Devin Haqq and Barbra Wengerd appeared in the 2013 production of the show in Brooklyn, New York.
- Dowling, Robert (2014). Eugene O'Neill: A Life in Four Acts. Yale: New Haven.
- Floyd, Virginia, ed. (1981). Eugene O'Neill at Work. New York: Frederick Ungar, p. 53. ISBN 0-8044-2205-2
- Bogard, Travis, ed. (1988) Eugene O'Neill, Complete Plays 1920-1931. New York: Library of America, p. 1079. ISBN 0-940450-49-6
- "American Experience - Eugene O'Neill - A Controversial Play - PBS".
- "All God's Chillun". Time. March 17, 1924. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
The dramatic miscegenation will shortly be enacted in the Provincetown Playhouse, Manhattan, by a brilliant Negro named Paul Robeson ...
- Weixlmann, Joe (1977-01-01). "Staged Segregation: Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie and O'Neill's all God's Chillun Got Wings". Black American Literature Forum. 11 (1): 35–36. doi:10.2307/3041537. JSTOR 3041537.
- "Provincetown Playbill". Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Retrieved November 16, 2016.
- "Tempest in Black and White: The 1924 Premiere of Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings". Resources for American Literary Study. 26.1.
- Johnson, James Weldon (1930). Black Manhattan.
- Johnson, James Weldon (1930). Black Manhattan.
- "Provincetown Playbill". Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Retrieved July 15, 2018.