- Langston Hughes and Performing Transnational Presence:Scottsboro Limited and Harvest
Theatre revealed shifts between movements in black modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Langston Hughes recalls in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940) “the 1920’s were the years of Manhattan’s black Renaissance…. [T]he musical revue, Shuffle Along…gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929, the crash that sent…all rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration.”1 Hughes wrote Scottsboro Limited (1931) just before visiting the Soviet Union. Hughes co-authored Harvest with Ella Winter and Ann Hawkins shortly after returning to the United States but left the play unfinished in 1934. Both scripts provoke politically while experimenting in theatrical forms to aestheticize narratives of recent upheaval in the United States. Following Hughes’s markers for what he calls “that Negro vogue,” Scottsboro Limited and [End Page 259] Harvest fall chronologically between Shuffle Along (1921) and the plays of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (1935–39). These plays remain powerful indicators of a transitional cultural moment in which Soviet drama was also in vogue. Attending to these plays reasserts theatre as a ubiquitous and influential medium in 1930s cultures of the United States. Analysis of these plays participates in debates on the status of the transnational in modernism at large, while clarifying a crucial element of Hughes’s exchange with Soviet culture missing from recent literary studies.
Internationally renowned as a poet, Langston Hughes has received renewed critical attention in recent years with valuable research on the transnational characteristics of his life, poetry, autobiography, and short stories.2 Theatre, however, has received relatively little attention in this critical revival, despite its centrality to Hughes’s broad cultural consumption and to his literary work (as is evident from the assessments of his biographers and from his correspondence with Carl Van Vechten). This essay reads Hughes’s plays Scottsboro Limited and Harvest as theatrical representations of prisoners and workers specific to US contexts that mirror Soviet-dominated internationalist film, journalistic theatre, and pageants. Hughes’s 1930s participation in a transnational aesthetic community of theatrical innovation devoted to developing proletarian theatre remains under-researched. His plays from that period embody collaboration and emotional commitment across national lines. Hughes’s travel supported the circulation and translation of his works in journals such as the Soviet International Literature (with publications in multiple languages) and in many Spanish-language journals such as Contemporáneos, Sur, Revista de La Habana, El Diario de la Marina, Crístol, and El Mono Azul.3 I argue that Hughes’s work revises Soviet cinematic and theatrical conventions, and that these aesthetic choices affirm internationalism. Hughes modifies Soviet forms in an act of international exchange, echoing Soviet calls for revolution, while challenging the Comintern’s Black Belt Nation Thesis and its implications for his poetics.4
Hughes ends the article “Negroes in Moscow: In a Land Where There Is No Jim Crow” for International Literature with an English translation of the Russian poem “KINSHIP.”5 For Hughes, Julian Anisimov’s poem claims kinship “in art” between “The Russian and the Negro” through “the blood of Pushkin” with a vision of unity between cultural nationalities “in [End Page 260] the International.”6 Hughes’s work and travel enacted an internationalism in dialogue with Anisimov’s vision, but Hughes resisted Moscow’s authority within the ideology of Soviet Internationalism as worldwide communist revolution. Still, Hughes celebrates the impression that in “Moscow there are no color bars, and the very nature of the Soviet system can never admit any sort of discriminatory racial separation, or the setting apart from the general worker’s life of Negroes or any other minority group.”7 Scottsboro Limited and Harvest allude to Soviet internationalist theatre, revising the form to push audiences toward a new system that might eliminate racialized discrimination in the United States, even as shifts in diction in the plays push back against Moscow’s cultural program within the Black Belt Thesis.
Hughes’s boundary crossing in such revisions might be labelled “transnational presence” because the phrase identifies multiple aspects of the...