Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South
is a play about race issues by Langston Hughes, an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. Produced on Broadway in 1935 by Martin Jones, it ran for eleven months and 373 performances. It is one of the earliest Broadway plays to combine father-son conflict with race issues.
The first act begins in the Big House on a Georgia plantation. Colonel Thomas Norwood, the white plantation owner is frustrated with his daughter, Sallie Lewis. Sallie is the youngest of his mulatto children by his African American housekeeper, Cora, and has not left yet to catch the train that will take her to school for the semester. He speaks with Sam, an African American and Norwood’s personal servant, about his frustrations with his daughter. Norwood’s son, Robert, whom Cora calls Bert, is supposed to be driving Sallie to the train station but instead, has gone into town to get some radio tubes without his father’s permission. Norwood says that Bert should be in the fields picking cotton rather than gallivanting around town, and he threatens to have him whipped.
Sallie is very light-skinned and could pass for white. She enters the scene to say goodbye to her father and thanks him for sending her to school. She expresses her desire to become a teacher, but Norwood dismisses the idea. He says that once she is finished school, he will probably send her north to live with one of her sisters whom he believes to be a cook. Robert returns from town to pick up Sallie. At the same time, Fred Higgins, a county politician arrives to warn Norwood that his son was causing problems in town, arguing with the white woman at the post office after his radio tubes arrived damaged and they refused to give him his money back. Higgins is concerned that Robert’s behavior will encourage other African Americans to think they are equal to whites.
Higgins encourages Norwood to marry again instead of just sleeping with Cora, claiming it would be more socially acceptable for him to have a white woman around the house and would prevent him from becoming too sympathetic with his African American plantation workers. Norwood leads Higgins outside to take a look at the cotton plantation while Cora and William, her eldest son by Norwood, discuss the first time that Norwood beat Robert when little Robert called him papa in front of a group of important white visitors. They talk about the fact that Robert is going to get himself and the rest of the African Americans on the plantation in trouble if he does not stop his brash behavior.
Robert refuses to act like a subordinate to whites, claiming that he is half-white and will act as though he is white. He tells his mother that not all African Americans have to yield to white people as they do on the plantation. She tells him to be respectful to Norwood when he returns and to act like the African American man that he is. Robert tells her that he is not going to work in the cotton fields anymore, and Cora notes that they all have to do things they don’t like, such as lying to the Colonel about the fact that Sallie is really studying typewriting, not cooking and sewing.
Later that evening, Norwood requests to have a private conversation with Robert, and Cora tells him to do as his father says. Norwood questions Robert for making problems in town and proceeds to tell him that he has to leave the plantation. Robert refuses, and Norwood pulls his pistol on him. Robert takes the gun from Norwood and chokes him to death. Cora enters to see what all the commotion is about and his horrified to find Norwood lying motionless on the floor. Two white men arrive, having planned a meeting with Norwood; when they see his corpse, they organize a mob to chase Robert.
Sam realizes that with Norwood dead, he is free, and leaves the plantation. It becomes clear that Cora has been driven insane, as she alludes to the fact that she is waiting for Norwood to return, and refuses to take orders from anyone else. All of the African Americans on the plantation seize the opportunity and flee the property. William says he is leaving and tries to take his mother with him, but Cora says she is waiting for Robert and Norwood to return. William is frightened at his mother’s crazy talk and leaves. Cora talks to the empty room, remembering how she became Norwood’s mistress when she was fifteen years old. The mob arrives outside looking for Robert; he runs into the house amidst gunfire. Robert runs upstairs and shoots himself before the white mob can capture and hang him.