The latest free reading from Roundabout’s new Refocus Project, “I Gotta Home,” is a 1940 play about a financially challenged preacher, his large rambunctious family, and his long-lost sister, who has inherited the fortune of the Hollywood star for whom she long served as maid and companion.
If somewhat undercut by some awkward, fanciful plotting to get to a happy ending, the play at its best serves splendidly as both a charming domestic comedy, and as an affectionate but sharp-eyed glimpse into what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “talented tenth” – the educated African American professionals and intellectuals whom he saw as the leaders of the community.
One of these was the playwright of “I Gotta Home” herself, Shirley Graham Du Bois — W.E.B.’s wife. But her marriage to one of the great thinkers and activists of the twentieth century doesn’t get at the half of this remarkable woman.
Born in 1896, Shirley Graham was one of five children of an African Methodist Episcopal preacher who served in parishes throughout America (There are five children in the fictional Rev. Cobb’s family, one of the clues that her own family was the source for her play.) She studied music at the Sorbonne in Paris, the first of a series of prestigious academies of higher learning in which she was either a student or a professor.
She wrote “Tom-Tom,” which was mounted in 1932, reportedly the first all-Black opera to be professionally produced in the United States, set over three acts in three locales, using three different styles of music — Africa; in the U.S. during slavery times; in Harlem in the 1930s.
She became the director of the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, which (like the entire Federal Theatre Project) was short-lived, but gave her work more attention, which led to a scholarship to study at Yale University. At Yale, she wrote a radio comedy and three plays, one of which was “I Gotta Home.”
It is easy to see “I Gotta Home” in the same vein as such lighthearted plays about families of the period as “Life with Father” and “You Can’t Take It With You.” Unlike those commercial hits, “I Gotta Home” never made it to Broadway, premiering in Cleveland in a production by the Gilpin Players, and disappearing from view until recently.
Which is a shame, because even as a Zoom reading, I found it a delightful entertainment, aided immeasurably by a huge, splendid cast that humorously but credibly portrays the playwright’s vividly etched characters. Both Rev. Elijah J. Cobb (Wendell B. Franklin) and his eldest daughter Mirah (Adrianna Mitchell) are what you might call the straight roles — kind, decent — but even they get their idiosyncrasies, and the other four children have distinct, quirky personalities: Ben-Hur (Kaden Amari Anderson) always means well but tends to break things and steal things and insult his resented baby sister Lilacs (Emery Jones) who herself resents having to practice the piano when she wants to be a dancer; Toussaint (Roman Banks) fancies himself a future politician and is always practicing his speechifying; E.J. (Toney Goins) who resents all the holy hangers-on who force him to sleep on the couch when they come to visit. The playwright is pointedly satiric in her depictions of such prominent members of the church as the “Presiding Elder” Dr. Caleb Green (Keith Randolph Smith), a fortune-hunter wearing a cloak of piety and Sister Saboy (Kierra Bunch), who fancies herself a woman of class and discernment, but whom we can clearly see as a snob, a gossip and a bigot.
Of the preacher’s sister, Maddie Cobb, I dare say little, for fear of spoiling, except to say her first appearance is the highlight of the play – a highlight of my year of virtual theatergoing so far this year — and Latrice Royale has gained a new fan.
After writing “I Gotta Home,” Shirley Graham DuBois went on to new achievements, new adventures – of which there is much to say, some of which the Refocus Project says on its website.
Indeed, one of the strengths of the Refocus Project is all the context it provides. Its main weakness is how brief the runs of these discoveries: “I Gotta Home” ends Monday, May 10.
Next up in The Refocus Project:
Spunk, written in 1935 by Zora Neale Hurston, May 14-May 17
Wine in the Wilderness, written in 1969 by Alice Childress, May 21-24