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New Documentary and Essay Collection About North Carolina Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright Paul Green Coming Soon

NCWN Board Member Georgann Eubanks Gives Us the Scoop

On Saturday, April 27, audiences at the River Run Film Festival in Winston-Salem will have a chance to see a new documentary about the life of North Carolina’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paul Green (1894-1981). Hannah Bowman, a 32-year-old filmmaker from Kentucky, has spent the last decade getting to know the playwright’s work and the challenges he faced as an artist and as a progressive activist in the Jim Crow era. The Playmaker is Bowman’s first feature length film. It offers a clear chronology of Green’s artistic development as a white, Harnett County farm boy—from service in World War I, to studying philosophy at the university in Chapel Hill, to receiving national acclaim for plays produced on Broadway and movie scripts written in Hollywood. Today Green is best known for his outdoor symphonic dramas, notably The Lost Colony, still produced annually in Manteo, North Carolina.

The Playmaker, a film by Hannah Bowman
 
River Run Film Festival
Saturday, April 27, 2024
4:30 pm Marketplace Theater #2
2095 Peters Creek Pkwy, Winston-Salem, NC 27127

Purchase tickets in advance here.
OR
Purchase tickets for the virtual screening, April 29 – May 6, in advance here.

As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in the early 1920s, Green studied with the master of the folk play, Professor Frederick Koch. Using his own experiences as the son of a cotton and tobacco farmer, Green focused his early work on the brutal racial inequities he witnessed daily as a youth. One of his first one-act plays, White Dresses, tackled the taboo topic of sexual relations between whites and people of color. The production, scheduled to coincide with his graduation in 1921, was cancelled by campus officials, though it did not stop Green from eventually earning a position on the UNC faculty in 1923, following graduate school at Cornell and UNC. Green would tangle with university officials many more times during his storied career in Chapel Hill. As Bowman points out in her film, Green sought to end segregation at the university 20 years before the Supreme Court forced UNC to admit students of color in 1955.

Only four years after joining the faculty, Green earned the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking play In Abraham’s Bosom, depicting the tragic lives of a formerly enslaved family in rural North Carolina. The play challenged white audiences to reckon with violent stories of the old South that had not been portrayed on the stage.

Green’s Pulitzer play and others that followed created rare parts for Black actors on Broadway, but the characters portrayed often carried stereotypes that white audiences expected. The distinguished African American actor Paul Robeson was invited to audition for a role in one of Green’s Broadway offerings and he declined, refusing to be beaten on stage as the story required.

The quandary for Green was that he was writing for audiences whose world views had not yet been challenged by the era of Civil Rights. Green’s advocacy for racial justice was a central motivation in his art. In addition to his plays, novels, poetry, and short stories, Green wrote countless letters over the years to public officials arguing for clemency for individuals facing the death penalty. He spoke out against North Carolina’s history of lynchings, its deployment of chain gains, and other cases he saw as racially-motivated miscarriages of justice. Today Green retains the title of North Carolina’s dramatist laureate. The Playmaker’s Theatre on the UNC campus also bears his name.

The Paul Green Foundation, established in 1983 after the playwright’s death, makes grants to support the causes Green championed and has provided major support for Hannah Bowman in the making of her biographical documentary. The Foundation has also commissioned the creation of a new anthology of essays about the playwright to be released this summer from Blair—a nonprofit press based in Durham. In the collection, thirteen North Carolina writers—Black, white, and Native American—engage with Green’s work in a contemporary context. The aim is to create new conversations about Green’s legacy.

Bowman also gives new life to archival footage of the playwright, reflecting on his long career—his heady ambitions and his many disappointments. Born and raised in Bardstown, Kentucky, Hannah Bowman grew up visiting the amphitheater built in 1959 for the express purpose of presenting The Stephen Foster Story—one of Green’s symphonic dramas—the theatre genre he invented in 1937. This genre brings chorale singing, elaborate dances, historic costumes, and energetic acting to transform a slice of history into a theatrical experience.

Green understood that the power of this storytelling technique was amplified by its presentation on or near the actual site of the events portrayed. It was also a reliable draw for tourists visiting historic sites. For Green, producing plays about the common folk was a return to his roots and a welcome break from his frustrations with the crass commercialism of Hollywood and Broadway. For second half of his life Green worked to create these outdoor productions at sites mostly across the South—17 in all. Four productions are still running today.

The Lost Colony, the first of his outdoor symphonic dramas, was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, with no expectation that the show might continue for subsequent summers. However, the play drew 2,500 theatre goers to Manteo for the first season, including President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Bardstown amphitheater was built on the grounds of the 1812 home that was considered to be the inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!” This sentimental anthem was written in 1853 by Pennsylvania native Stephen Foster. It was adopted as Kentucky’s state song in 1928. As a child, Hannah Bowman loved the spectacle of Green’s production in Bardstown—especially the costumes and choral singing.  She always wanted to audition for a role in the production.

Ultimately, Bowman earned a degree in film at Western Kentucky University and then landed a film editing job in California in her early twenties. “I was trying to come up with a documentary project that I wanted to work on,” she explains. “They always say write about what you know, and I thought Bardstown is what I know, and The Stephen Foster Story was synonymous with the town.” As she began her research on the play, Bowman found herself especially drawn to the progressive North Carolina playwright. “I don’t think the people in Bardstown really knew who Paul Green was as a person, his beliefs,” Bowman says.

At its launch, the presence of racial stereotypes of African Americans in The Stephen Foster Story was perfectly acceptable and even amusing to white audiences who often missed what Bowman sees as the playwright’s intention to shine a light on the harsh dehumanization of the 19th century theater’s minstrel movement. Minstrelsy–the practice of white actors wearing blackface makeup and portraying racial stereotypes–perpetuated horrific myths around the Black experience. Green loosely based his story on the actual life of Stephen Foster, and he was apparently intrigued by the composer’s ultimate ruin as a washed-up and sold-out songwriter who died at age 37, supposedly with only 38 cents in his pocket. At the same time Foster is often called “the father of the popular American song.”

In her 2022 book, My Old Kentucky Home: The Astonishing Life and Reckoning of an Iconic American Song, the Kentucky-based historian Emily Bingham, a master’s graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and the descendent of a North Carolina slaveholding family, took a deep dive into Foster’s song and the insensitive marketing that propelled it into the mainstream. As Bingham puts it, the Stephen Foster composition “is a spy hole into one of America’s deftest and most destructive creations: the ‘singing enslaved person’ whose song assured hearers that the plantation was happy and a place where Black people belong.” The Paul Green Foundation sold the rights to the book to the Bardstown production years ago and receives no royalties from the play.

Though few would contest the power of Foster’s memorable melody, a controversy continues around the lyrics and the ongoing practice of singing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the start of the annual Kentucky Derby. Advocates for the song cite the sentiments expressed in lesser known, later verses in the song that gave a nod to the abolitionist movement fostered by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writings. In 1995, the presenters of The Stephen Foster Story stopping using the black fabric masks worn by cast members to simulate blackface. Nearly 50 songs from the prolific songwriter are part of the production.

In recent years, The Lost Colony has also ceased the practice of using red makeup on white actors to portray the Native American roles in the cast. Instead, the production has hired the descendants of several Indigenous tribes to play the Native roles and celebrate the cultural heritage of First Nation peoples on an equal footing with the English colonists in the story.  

For filmmaker Hannah Bowman, the full recognition of Green’s progressive stance in his time and the mixed outcomes of his work became clearer through her interviews with Green’s children and with Professor Margaret Bauer, the Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University. Bauer is a board member of the Paul Green Foundation and co-editor of the forthcoming essay collection from Blair.

In Bowman’s film Bauer recounts the story of the relationship between the African American novelist Richard Wright and Green, after Wright had asked the playwright to help with the Broadway adaptation of his bestselling book, Native Son. The collaboration ended in a disagreement over the final scene of the play. This rift between the writers is depicted in a fictional dramatization by North Carolina playwright Ian Finley which was in turn adapted for a dramatic film. The Problem of the Hero screened to positive reviews at last year’s River Run and a host of other festivals across the country.

As Green explains in footage that Bowman includes in her documentary, Green wanted the ending of Wright’s play to demonstrate the central character’s agency as a human being, even as he was on his way to the electric chair. By contrast, Richard Wright understood Bigger Thomas to be the ultimate victim of a rigged justice system. Their disagreement haunted Green for the rest of his life.

Revisiting the work of North Carolina’s dramatist laureate will continue across the state this year. Beyond its Winston-Salem screening, Bowman’s film has been contracted for statewide broadcast on PBS NC this summer. For Bowman it has been a long journey, but she explains that after seven years of research and interviews, she took a break during Covid, and the film benefitted in a surprising way during that hiatus.  

“During the pandemic,” she explains, “libraries shut down. When the patrons weren’t there, the librarians began digitizing materials. There is so much in The Playmaker that wasn’t available online before 2020. I had been searching for years, and suddenly all this new stuff was popping up about Paul Green.”

“What I hope people see in the film,” Bowman adds, “is a portrait of Paul Green as a human. He created a lot of incredible things and knew a lot of really influential people in his lifetime. He was a successful white man from his time period. In my community of Bardstown, he was trying to illustrate that the minstrel show was not an acceptable form of entertainment and that it denigrated a whole group of people. He did that by using blackface–a meme that was still alive in the 1950s.”

Bowman wanted to show Green’s successes as well as his struggles. “He had some success on Broadway. He had success inventing this new genre, but it was not ever easy for him. He just kept revising plays and trying to do the best he could, but he was never satisfied.”

In his later years, Green was famous for showing up during rehearsals of The Lost Colony, still hoping to make improvements to the production. In Bowman’s documentary, Green underscores his own ambivalence and humility about his work in an interview conducted toward the end of his life:

“Man, a human being, is faced with the burden of his own sense of duty, his sense of what he has to do, and if he’s a fool—I’ve been a foolish enough on plenty of things—but if he’s deep down a fool, he’ll mistake some good happening as a kind of ultimate recognition of something accomplished, and that his job is done. But no. All those things are only encouragement to persist in your endeavor…”

With the addition of the essay collection forthcoming from Blair, the spirit and struggles of Paul Green may once more inform fresh conversations around race and class in North Carolina—a development that would likely please the playwright who was never satisfied.

Georgann Eubanks is a board member of the NC Writers Network, Executive Director of the Paul Green Foundation, and co-editor of the new essay collection on Paul Green.