Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life
is a play by celebrated American authors Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes and Hurston based the 1930 comedy on a folk tale entitled "The Bone of Contention." Though the play is now a landmark work of African American theatre, it didn't receive its first professional production until 1991. Mule Bone
charts the fallout of a fight between two men, Jim Weston and Dave Carter, who are vying for the affections of the same woman, Daisy Taylor.
Act I opens on a Saturday afternoon in front of Joe Clarke's store. A group of men are talking, laughing, and playing cards on the porch as women shop and children play. Several of the townspeople interact with one another, and the conversation between the men eventually comes around to the subject of a mule bone that somebody brought into Clarke's store. The bone is somewhat famous, having come from a mule that the men recall as unusually strong and willful.
Then, the conversation turns to the subject of Daisy, a beautiful young woman in town. The group on the porch discusses Jim and Dave and the affection the two men have for Daisy. Though they have been best friends all their lives, Jim and Dave are now both dating Daisy, and she is driving a wedge between them. When Daisy enters, one of the men on the porch asks her directly which of her suitors she prefers, Jim or Dave, but Daisy does not answer. After she leaves, the men's conversation moves on to another topic: religion. There is discord between the Baptist and Methodist residents of the town—a town so small that it doesn't even have a jail or a proper legal or justice system.
Having just earned some money from singing and playing guitar, Jim and Dave enter in good spirits. Daisy follows shortly afterward and asks them to entertain the crowd. At first, there is goodwill between the two men, but when Jim sees Dave dancing with Daisy, he stops playing his guitar and confronts his old friend. He and Dave argue, but Daisy pulls Dave into the store to buy soda. On the way out, Dave inadvertently steps on Jim's foot. That's all it takes to set Jim off, and the two men fight. Jim grabs the mule bone and knocks Dave unconscious with it. Joe Clarke comes out and has Jim arrested and held in a nearby barn.
Act II begins with townspeople on the street talking about Jim's upcoming trial, as well as all the religious strife in the community. The women onstage mention that Joe hates the Methodist minister, Elder Simms. Simms is one of the few people in town who will not back down from Joe; Joe often bullies and exerts his power over the community because of all the land he owns.
Joe enters. When a group of women asks him about arresting and trying Jim, he claims it is just a rational attempt to maintain law and order. This leads to a heated debate about religion, but the impending trial cuts the discussion short as the townspeople need to get ready for what they are sure will be a major event.
The local Baptist church serves as the makeshift courtroom for the town. Again, the townspeople in attendance quickly become locked in a heated disagreement about religion, with two women almost coming to blows over the issue. Once the courtroom quiets, virtually everyone tries to step forward as a witness, asserting that the Bible gives them the right to do so. Complicating the cases of both the prosecution and defense is the fact that Daisy's mother refuses to let the court speak her daughter's name. Daisy is not in attendance at the trial.
As the townspeople testify, it is clear that few saw anything at all, and no one really wants to testify against Jim. When Dave, at last, takes the stand, he explains what happened. Then, Elder Simms defends Jim by using the Bible as justification for the attack; because Jim did not use a weapon recognized as a weapon in the Bible, Elder Simms says, then Jim cannot be guilty. However, the Baptist minister, Elder Childers, quick refutes this theory. He argues that the Bible does indeed recognize a mule bone as a weapon. Joe agrees, finds Jim guilty, and banishes him from town.
In Act III, Jim is getting ready to leave. He is on his way out of town when he runs into Daisy, who is coming into town from the opposite direction to hear if a verdict has yet been reached in the case. When he tells her, she is upset and says she never wanted to come between Jim and Dave.
Dave enters, and an argument again ensues between him and Jim. Finally, they force Daisy to choose. After Jim makes a romantic declaration, she decides she wants to be with him, however, with one caveat: He must give up the guitar and get a job working as a handyman or groundskeeper for a white employer. Disgusted by the idea, Jim willingly gives Daisy to Dave, but her stipulation still stands, regardless of the man she is with. Dave, too, is disgusted and gives Daisy up, and she exits without either man.
Dave and Jim reconcile and plan to keep making music together. They decide to return to town, even though Jim has been exiled, vowing to stand up to Joe.