chapter  4
10 Pages

Little Ham's Self-Invention: Teaching Langston Hughes

In the summer of 1994, I was invited to participate in an NEH Summer Institute on African American Poetry and Drama for high school teachers. My week of lectures took up the history of African American theater; I had assigned about fifteen plays for reading, and the stu­ dents were required, over the course of the week, to organize them­ selves into three groups and prepare a scene from any of the plays. I made no suggestions, so I was surprised and delighted to see that a large group had gravitated toward Langston Hughes. The biggest hit was two scenes from his 1936 comedy Little Ham: blind casted and using the flimsiest of props, it brought down the house. Particularly surprising was how little his comedy has aged. This play, which even in its own time was regarded by some as pandering to degrading comic

stereotypes, endured, one might even say triumphed, in a racially mixed group, whose members were not entirely comfortable with one another-which is to say, a group in which one would not expect the comedy of type to play well.