Eugene O'Neill’s play All God's Chillun Got Wings
(1924), named after a traditional Negro spiritual of the same name, was purportedly inspired by it. The play is about an interracial marriage between Jim, a would-be black lawyer, and Ella, his fraught, emotionally abusive white wife. The play famously debuted with famed American bass-baritone Paul Robeson in the role of Jim, and Mary Blair as Ella. Some very mild physical affection between the main characters during the play caused an uproar at the time. For instance, W.J. Arnold, one of the Daughters of the Confederacy wrote, “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 colored 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.”
The play begins in a “corner in lower Manhattan” in the early 1910s, at a spot where three roads meet. Self-segregated, only white families live on one side of the road, and only black on the other. A mixed-race group of children, including the young Jim and Ella, are playing marbles. As the sun begins to set, the children rise to go home—except for Jim and Ella, who have taken a liking to one another. The children begin to tease them, but Jim chases them off. They bond over both having been teased about their skin (Jim has been called “Crow,” and Ella “Painty Face”). Jim confesses to Ella that he has been drinking chalk and water in a bid to whiten his skin. He asks Ella to be his girl, and she agrees, blowing him a kiss.
The next scene takes place nine years later. Jim and Ella are not together—Ella is involved, it comes out, with Mickey, one of the boys from the first scene. Jim and Ella are readying for graduation from high school. Jim’s black friends tease him for trying to deny his race by pursuing success in a typically white way. Ella no longer speaks to Jim, spurning his advances of friendship. Jim tries confronting Mickey about his treatment of women—including Ella—and is almost beaten up before, just in time, the police arrive.
Five years later, it is revealed that in the end, Ella succumbed to Mickey's seduction, became pregnant, lost the baby to diphtheria, and was subsequently abandoned by him. Shortly after, one of the original boys from the first scene, offers her a place on his roster of prostitutes, but Ella refuses. Jim, who has been studying law, appears and explains mournfully that he has failed the bar exam again. He hasn't failed because he lacks the knowledge to pass the test, he explains, but because he lacks the confidence to compete against white students. Jim and Ella rekindle their friendship, and Ella comforts him, lukewarmly, for failing the bar exam. They converse, and Jim eventually asks her to marry him. To his surprise, she agrees. In the final scene, they marry and then head off to a steamship, to sail away from America and its intolerance.
In Act II, Jim's mother, Mrs. Harris, and his sister, Hattie, are introduced. They await the arrival of Jim and Ella in their tackily furnished apartment. Opposed to miscegenation, they both think the marriage was a bad idea. Jim appears, and the women question him about the state of his relationship with Ella. He says Ella was lonely and feeling sick while they were in France; he has come back to make her better and to face the racism head-on. When Ella appears, she and Hattie have a difficult time being polite to one another. Hattie asks Ella what she had been doing in France; Ella responds that she was studying and taught at a school for black children. Noticing a tribal mask on display in Hattie and Mrs. Harris's home, Ella is appalled. Mrs. Harris and Hattie give the apartment to Jim and Ella as a gift.
In Scene II, six months later, Jim and Ella are home alone. Jim is deeply immersed in studying for the bar exam, as he still hasn't passed. Hattie arrives and asks how Ella is doing. He informs her that Ella has become sicker; Hattie counsels him to leave Ella, fearing that he will catch her illness himself. Ella, it turns out, has developed a mental condition—she is afraid that her skin is turning black. She insults Hattie, and Jim turns Hattie out, accusing her of trying to interfere in his marriage. Ella dramatically runs into the room carrying a knife and asks Jim to be Uncle Jim for her. Jim puts Ella to bed, and she calls him a slur.
In the play's final scene, another six months have passed, and Ella is even worse. She finally confronts Jim about her feelings about black people in general, and her lack of faith that he will ever pass the bar exam. Jim admits finally to no longer wanting to take the exam; Ella suddenly seems to change gears, wishing again that they were both children.All God's Chillun Got Wings
is hardly a subtle play. It approaches its concern for racism and race relations with a ham-fistedness that many critics have called into question. It is also true, however, that O'Neill foregrounds many of the most insidious and psychological aspects of racism in a way that had never been done before on an American stage. Indeed, for that reason, regardless of how sincere the intentions behind his controversy-courting drama may have been, O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings
is a valuable entry in the American theatrical canon.