As The Purple Flower (1928) opens, we are told that we are in “The Middle-of-Things-as-They-are”, in an unusual setting: “Might be here, there or anywhere—or even nowhere”. A thin board divides the stage horizontally into two sections, upper and lower. The main action takes place on the upper stage, and sometimes it is duplicated on the lower section. Occasionally, the characters on the upper stage fall through the board: “The Skin-of-Civilization must be very thin. A thought can drop you through it”.
We are on an open plain, faced by a hill in the distance called Somewhere, bounded on the other side by Nowhere. On the top of the hill, grows the Purple Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest, guarded by the White Devils, who live on the hill. They are “artful little things with soft wide eyes such as you would expect to find in an angel. Soft hair that flops around their horns. Their horns glow red all the time—now with blood—now with eternal fire—now with deceit—now with unholy desire. (…) Sometimes they dance as if they were snakes. They are artful dancers on the ThinSkinofCivilization.”
In the valley between Nowhere and Somewhere, live the Us. They have built all of the roads and houses on the hill, but are forced by the White Devils to live in the valley – an image of prosperity built by slavery and low-wage labour. “The Us’s (They can be as white as the White Devils, as brown as the earth, as black as the center of a poppy. They may look as if they were something or nothing.)” The White Devils are intent on preventing the Us from reaching the hill and having access to the Purple Flower.
When the story begins, the White Devils’ song is echoing through the valley: “You stay where you are! We don’t want you up here!”. Although the White Devils make themselves felt by the power they exert over Us, they have no lines, no dialogue: they are a mass of people kept apart from the main action going on the stage.
We follow a group of Us, “with their backs toward Nowhere and their faces toward Somewhere”, as they discuss their prospects of ever reaching the Purple Flower. The members of the Us group are referred to by type, as A Young Us, An Old Us, Another Young Us, An Old Woman, Finest Blood, Average. Each of them personifies different attitudes about racism and oppression, as well as different stances on how to achieve equality.
The Us recall their failed efforts to get to the flower at the top of the hill: first, they asked permission, cultivated their valley, built roads and houses for the White Devils. The Us were told that, if they worked hard to get “Somewhere”, they would be allowed to reach the hill; but, despite being allowed to go there to work for the White Devils, the Us were always knocked back down afterwards. Work has led them “Nowhere”.
Then, they tried education, but remained stuck Nowhere with a bunch of books written by the White Devils:
“YOUNG MAN. I’m through I tell you! There isn’t anything in one of these books that tells Black Us how to get around White Devils.
OLD MAN. (softly—sadly) I thought the books would tell us how!
YOUNG MAN. No! The White Devils wrote the books themselves. You know they aren’t going to put anything like that in there!”
They turned to God to “tell us how to get Somewhere!”, and He was silent. Politics also didn’t work:
“OLD LADY. (addressing the Older Man) Evenin’, Average. I was just saying we ain’t never going to make that hill.
AVERAGE. The Us will if they get the right leaders.
THE MIDDLEAGED WOMAN—CORNERSTONE. Leaders! Leaders! They’ve had good ones looks like to me.
AVERAGE. But they ain’t led us anywhere!
CORNERSTONE. But that is not their fault! If one of them gets up and says, “Do this,” one of the Us will sneak up behind him and knock him down and stand up
and holler, “Do that,” and then he himself gets knocked down and we still sit in the valley and knock down and drag out!
A YOUNG US. (aside) Yeah! Drag Us out, but not White Devils.
OLD LADY. It’s the truth, Cornerstone. They say they going to meet this evening to talk about what we ought to do.
AVERAGE. What is the need of so much talking?”
Average argues that it is better for them to be content with having food and shelter and stay where they are.
“AVERAGE. Listen to that young fool! Better stay safe and sound where he is! At least he got somewhere to eat and somewhere to lay his head.
FINEST BLOOD. Yes, I can lay my head on the rocks of Nowhere.”
A Newcomer approaches with two heavy bags of gold, and says that his money has taken him Nowhere, because the White Devils do not allow him to buy anything to get Somewhere.
Work, Politics, God, Education, Money have taken Us Nowhere, so you leave your characters on the threshold of a revolution. The Old Man calls upon the Us and their ancestors, and throws a handful of dust, books, and gold into an iron pot. Then, he asks for blood.
“OLD WOMAN. I believe you. Don’t pay any attention to that simpleton! What God told you to do?
OLD MAN. He told me take a handful of dust—dust from which all things came and put it in a hard iron pot. Put it in a hard iron pot. Things shape best in hard
molds!! Put in books that Men learn by. Gold that Men live by. Blood that lets Men live.
YOUNG US. What you supposed to be shaping? A man?
OLD US. I’m the servant. I can do nothing. If I do this, God will shape a new man Himself.
YOUNG MAN. What’s the things in the pot for?
OLD MAN. To show I can do what I’m told.
OLD WOMAN. Why does He want blood?
OLD MAN. You got to give blood! Blood has to be let for births, to give life.”
Old Man is seeking retribution:
“OLD MAN. Blood will be given!
FINEST BLOOD. Can there be no other way—cannot this cup pass?
OLD MAN. No other way. It cannot pass. They always take blood. They built up half their land on our bones. They ripened crops of cotton, watering them with our
blood. Finest Blood, this is God’s decree: “You take blood—you give blood. Full measure—flooding full—over—over!”
The curtain closes with a question hanging in the air: “Is it time?” It reads like an invitation, a sacrificial offer, and a call to arms. I love how unapologetically radical your play is, how unapologetically angry.
I also like the way you play with symbols and ideas. As Finest Blood walks away, “his voice lifted, young, sweet, brave and strong”, to fight against the White Devil, the scene reads like an offering of a sacrificial lamb.
The reference to people falling in and out of the “Thin-Skin-of-Civilization” seems to point out to colourism and passing-as-white, as well as to the irrationality of associating skin colour to virtue (or lack thereof) or to any idea of “civilization” (or lack thereof).
I also find the flower, as the play’s central image, very rich in meaning. Purple is a liturgical colour, and it is also often associated with transformation. You had already made use of the image of the purple flower in your short-story “Nothing New” (The Crisis 33, 1926), where a black boy fights with a white one for the coveted flower. Alice Walker would also borrow the purple colour for her eponymous 1982 novel.
The image of the Purple Flower on the top of an unreachable hill nods to the quest for the American Dream, but also carries a questioning (and a sharp criticism) of what this Dream may represent. And you stretch the possibilities of this Flower far beyond the place where we have lost track of the Dream. Yours is like Novalis’ blue flower of striving for the unreachable, but with a tinge of blood.
“AVERAGE: Oh you all make me tired! Talk—talk—talk—talk! And the flower is still up on the hillside!” – Marita Bonner, The Purple Flower
About the play
- First published in The Crisis 35, Jan 1928.
- Collected in the book Frye Street & environs: the collected works of Marita Bonner, ed. Joyce Flynn and Joyce Occomy Stricklin (1987)
- Beacon Press, 1987, 286 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; The Classics Club; ReadSoulLit, hosted by Didi