5 Questions: Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. Raises “All God’s Chillun” Aloft

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Godfrey Simmons, at the helm of Eugene O'Neill's "All God's Chillun Got Wings"
Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., directing Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Photo: Kristin Hoebermann.

She kissed his hand. That’s all she did. Just kiss his hand. But the year was 1924 and she kissed his hand on the stage of the Provincetown Playhouse in a play by Eugene O’Neill called All God’s Chillun Got Wings, an ahead-of-its-time drama about miscegenation that is being revived by Civic Ensemble, co-produced with Above the Fold, and directed by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.

It was at that moment — when white actress Mary Blair kissed the hand of black actor Paul Robeson, just as the stage directions told her to do — that time stopped for some people and moved forward for others. Once again, the American theatre led the way forward for civil rights and social change.

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But for a play which stirred up so much controversy in its time — not just around race but also around class and religion — that New York City Mayor John Hylan personally intervened to try to stop its production, All God’s Chillun is rarely seen. Surely it isn’t just a question of the script itself, which was published (by theatre critic and O’Neill acolyte George Jean Nathan) before it was performed and was judged on its literary merits by the general press before it was judged purely on its dramatic merits by the critics. Indeed, most critics were highly critical of the play, and several castigated O’Neill for doing less with his theme — the white wife is abusive toward the success-driven black husband — than promised at the outset.

Maybe a better explanation for the lack of revivals of the play may be that it’s hard for enlightened 21st century Americans — particularly urbanites for whom multiracial relationships are not seen as unusual — to situate themselves in the mindset of a 1920s white or black person. The scathing, lacerating, hysterical editorials that were published across the country at the time are almost comical to read now, though still saddening. According to Stephen A. Black’s Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, the playwright received a note from the Ku Klux Klan threatening to kill him and his family if the production went ahead; O’Neill reportedly scrawled “Go fuck yourself” on the note and labeled it “return to sender.”

Certainly Simmons’ conceit is less directly offensive yet considerably more subversive. In this revival, running through Sept. 21 at JACK in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, the audience is forcibly divided in two: “black on one side, white on the other, and others are asked to choose a side” reads the press materials. You get the feeling that O’Neill would have loved that. Buy tickets here for the production.

And now, 5 questions Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I co-wrote a documentary play called Dispatches From (A)mended America about a journey to the South I took with a young white man (Brandt Adams, who is in Chillun) to interview Southerners about the election of President Obama. During one of the post-shows, someone asked, “How will this experience affect how you raise your mixed-race son?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked an idiotic question about my work. Aside from “How do you remember those lines?”

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Any question about black characters that begins with the words “Don’t you think it strains credulity that a black man would do…” Yeah. I get that all the time.

4) Based on research you’ve done or your own instincts, what do imagine it was like to see the original All God’s Chillun? What experience or feeling, 90-odd years later, can you imagine will be the same about seeing the play today and what will be different?
The sensation of even the possibility of a black man and white woman being married was so huge in the 1920s. The City threatened to shut down the Provincetown Playhouse production because a white woman kissed a black man’s hand. They thought a riot was going to break out. Miscegenation was still illegal in many states. So there won’t be that concern today. I expect there will be surprise about how thoroughly modern this play is, and I expect some serious debates on some of the gender issues of the play, including O’Neill’s predilection for writing “hysterical” women. Our production tries to work against that in some of our artistic choices, but the play’s the play.

Chillun PC Front5) Civic Ensemble’s mission includes “engaging the community in dialogue.” How do you draw the fine line between being theatre artists and doing the work involved in that and being activists and facilitators in your community? To what degree is your theatre work helpful or unhelpful in terms of engaging with regular, ordinary, everyday citizens?
The mere act of making theatre or any art makes us activists and facilitators. I like to think that we, as theatre artists, provide a shared experience and a safe space for communities to have difficult conversations. The challenge for me is that theatre has become less and less a fact of our lives. It’s not that important to young people anymore, which means it’s not seen as important by our society. So there goes the “everyday” part. Theatre becomes a special event for audiences, done once or three times a year and therefore my work must either be thrillingly entertaining or a watershed cultural moment. That’s a lot of pressure on a citizen artist.

Bonus question:

6) From the afterlife, Eugene O’Neill and Paul Robeson grant you the chance to ask one question each. What question would you ask? What answer (or kind of answer) would you most hope for?
O’Neill question: Did you actually know any real-life mixed race couples? What were they like? I’d hope he at least would say he knew some interracial couples. Robeson question: Some of those stage directions for All God’s Chillun seem pretty racist. Did you ever have a conversation with O’Neill about that? What did he have to say for himself?