MULE BONE had its opening night a little late. Sixty years late, to be precise. Although this comedy with music about life in an all-African-American Florida town was written in 1930, the play had never been produced before Lincoln Center Theater produced it in the winter of 1991. Co-writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, two of the most gifted black writers of the 20th century, were great friends when they began working together on this comic tale, but as Hughes put it, "this play was never done because the authors fell out." Happily, the executors of the two authors' estates have unearthed this treasure and allowed Lincoln Center Theater to present MULE BONE's long-awaited debt at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in January of 1991. Hughes and Hurston wrote the play—adapted from Hurston's story, "The Bone of Contention," about her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, during a period when images of African-Americans in popular American culture were still shaped by primitive, exotic and minstrel-show stereotypes.
MULE BONE is a landmark play because it was the first to depict African-Americans in a non-stereotypical way. Unlike the contrived images of African-Americans in popular plays of the era (such as The Emperor Jones, Porgy, and Green Pastures), its portrayal of African-Americans was authentic, filled with the rich language and laughter that southern African-Americans had developed as a way of coping with life under Jim Crow. Hughes and Hurston made deliberate use of laughter and broad humor in the play, and the characters strut, tell tall tales, put each other down, and generally have a good time in the process. But beneath the buffoonery is recognition of the diverse and complex ways in which African-Americans responded to segregated life in Florida. The plot is simple: two best friends come to blows over the affection of a young woman. When one attacks the other with a mule bone, he is arrested and brought to trial—a riotous scene, where the whole town takes sides: family against family, men against women, Baptists against Methodists. Lincoln Center Theater's production of MULE BONE was awarded a major grant from the Fund for American Plays, a project of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with support from American Express, in cooperation with the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.