When New York’s Provincetown Playhouse agreed to mount Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”, it probably knew what it was in for. The year was 1924 and, enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance notwithstanding, the subject of miscegenation was still largely taboo. Paul Robeson was cast as an aspiring black law student bound in a tender and rather twisted way to his childhood sweetheart – later bride – played by the white actress, Mary Blair. The play had been published in advance of production, so word circulated that it included “love scenes”. These boiled down to a simple gesture: Blair’s lips pressed to Robeson’s hand. (She’s rejoicing over his having failed the bar exam, hence allowing her to retain control over him.)
The Playhouse received bomb threats. O’Neill received hate mail. He wrote in his journal entry of February 23, “Threatening letter from K.K.K.” The Klan threatened to march on New York. New York’s mayor, whipped into a moral frenzy by William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, threatened to disallow the production on various legal grounds. Shady maneuvering and the strain on the cast delayed the opening for weeks. When the curtain finally rose on May 15, the theater was encircled by police, deployed ostensibly to put down a race riot. The Playhouse’s managers, in turn, hired unemployed steelworkers whom they stationed outside dressing rooms to protect the cast from an angry mob and/or the police.
Despite the fiery run-up, the play opened to a full house. There was apparently cheering and whistling, but no violence. It ran for a month at the Provincetown and through the fall in other New York venues with no disturbance of the peace.
“Chillun” is not remembered as O’Neill’s best play, but it did go a significant distance in expanding leading roles for black actors. And its success, coming on the eve of the l924 Democratic Convention in NYC, dealt Hearst and the KKK a high-profile political defeat.
Photo of Robeson and Blair (Wikimedia Commons.) Though it was widely believed that he kissed her hand, she, in fact, kissed his.