A Play by Bill Harris
“born with ears, even now, packed with garbage. The stuff
of dead men. Wax, & elbows. Sewage. Seaweed, debris
of forgotten oceans, or shells…
— John Sinclair
SCENE: Living room of apartment in northern Negro section
SAM: Negro jazz musician, 25.
JOHN: White college student, 23.
NCNEAL: John’s white southern wife, with heavy accent, 21.
Copyright © by Bill Harris, 1965. Performance rights available from the author, c/o the Artists’ Workshop, 4825-27 John Lodge, Detroit 48201
(SAM is dozing over a book. shoes off. magazines, sheet music, instrument case, books, are spread around the room. sound of a knock at the door. it startles him, & he curses himself. obviously not expecting anyone, & not wanting to be bothered. looks at the door, deciding whether to answer it or not. sound of the knock again.)
SAM: O.K., just a minute. (slipping into his shoes) Who is it?
VOICE OF JOHN: John & McNeal.
(SAM doesn’t recognize the names. looks around the room & decides to hell with the way it looks & goes to the door & opens it. JOHN & MCNEAL stand facing him)
JOHN: Hi Sam. (pause) You remember us don’t you? John & McNeal. Eddie’s party last week. Last Saturday night.
SAM: (not sure if he remembers) Yeh, howyadoin?
JOHN: Fine, just fine. How are you?
SAM: Making it.
JOHN: You weren’t busy were you?
SAM: Well, no. (pause) Aaa, come on in.
(JOHN & MCNEAL enter past SAM. they stop inside the doorway, looking around)
SAM: (Undecided about whether to close the door or not. finally does) You can see I wasn’t expecting anybody. (moving inside to remove magazines and books from the sofa)
JOHN: It looks fine, doesn’t it honey?
MCNEAL: (not convincingly) Yes, just fine.
SAM: (still straightening around the room) Have a seat won’t you?
JOHN: (taking a reluctant MCNEAL by the elbow & seating her) Thank you.
SAM: (finishing & looking around) Now, aaa –
JOHN: We were out this way & we thought we’d drop by. You mentioned where you lived the other night.
SAM: (moving to the chair & sitting down) O, did I? Yeh, well –
JOHN: We had kind of a hard time finding your place, but here we are. (smile)
SAM: Yeh, well good. (pause) So, howrya?
JOHN: (laughing) A lot better than I was the other night.
SAM: (trying to match JOHN’s cheerfulness) I know what you mean. I was kinda out of it myself. (pause) Don’t remember much of what happened.
JOHN: (trying to get MCNEAL to join in) It really was some party, wasn’t it honey?
MCNEAL: (false smile) Yes it was.
SAM: I would offer you something to drink, but I don’t think there’s anything here but some beer.
JOHN: Beer’s fine.
SAM: (standing) How about you McLean?
SAM: Yeh, I meant McNeal. Man, I really got a thing about names, yaknow.
JOHN: (trying to be cheerful & help Sam) & mine’s John.
SAM: Yeh, right, I just couldn’t remember McNeals there for a minute. How about it McNeal, is beer ok?
MCNEAL: (without expression) Beer’s fine.
(SAM exits quickly eyeing MCNEAL suspiciously)
(MCNEAL looks around again, it is evident she does not want to be here)
JOHN: (calling after SAM) Have you seen Eddie since the party?
SAM: (from the kitchen) Nope. I don’t really know him too well. Judy, the chick I was with…
MCNEAL: (showing interest for the first time) The tall, dark-complexioned girl?
MCNEAL: She was very attractive. (accusing tone) Wasn’t she John?
JOHN: (missing her meaning) I’ll say she was. She looks like a model.
MCNEAL: (with admiration) Her skin was so clear, & she carried herself so well. (accusing again) & John just couldn’t take his eyes off her.
SAM: Yeh, well anyway, Judy knows Eddie & them people better than I do, & she hipped me to the party see.
(He appears in the doorway, opening a bottle of beer)
Like I say, I don’t know them too well, yaknow, but Judy digs that intellectual thing, so I just went along to keep her happy, yaknow.
(he disappears in the kitchen)
JOHN: (somewhat disappointed) O, I thought you knew them well –
SAM: (enters with three bottles of beer & glasses on a tray & sits them on the table & passes them out as he speaks) I see them, yaknow, they come into the club where I’m playing, but they’re really her crowd. I guess she knows most of them from school or that civil rights group she’s mixed up in. The one that gave the party. She’s the one that’s into the civil rights thing, not me.
JOHN: O –
SAM: Nope, sorry. (smile) – one man’s meat, yaknow. (shrugs, but not apologetic) they spend most of their time talking & trying to convince each other of how sincere they are, & I don’t think it really means anything to them except that it’s a “cause;” the hip thing to fight right now.
JOHN: (defensive) But don’t you think they’ve done a lot of good. Things are a lot different in the south than they used to be.
SAM: Yeh, right, don’t get me wrong, they’re doing a lot of good like you say, & I admire them for having the patience & nerve for their method.
MCNEAL: (accusing tone) John just thought you were a member of that bunch.
SAM: Just went because of Judy – not because of the party.
JOHN: (changing the subject) Want to hear something funny?
SAM: What’s that?
JOHN: McNeal just came up here from the south, & last Saturday night was the first time she had ever been to an integrated party.
SAM: (not surprised) O yeh?
MCNEAL: I mean, I knew a lot of colored people down home, but well, I just never had a chance to — well, socialize with any of them, that’s all.
JOHN: (taking her hand & holding it, consoling her) It’s the system down there honey, & you couldn’t fight it. (to SAM) & when I met her, McNeal was the unhappiest chick in the whole backward state of Alabama, let alone Osgood where she came from.
SAM: (matter-of-factly) I’ll bet –
JOHN: We met when I was down there with CORE, & I loved her the first time I saw her.
MCNEAL: (to SAM, irritated with JOHN) I keep telling him that’s silly –
JOHN: I told you about us the other night, you just probably don’t remember.
MCNEAL: Why should he remember John?
SAM: I remember. You just got married a couple weeks ago, right?
JOHN: (pleased) See honey, I told you he’d remember.
MCNEAL: Well, I never said he wouldn’t.
SAM: & you had to run away to get married because your parents didn’t dig it, or something –
JOHN: (slight anger) Especially her father.
(awkward pause. everybody drinks self-consciously)
SAM: (probing at her) Howdya like it up here so far McNeal?
MCNEAL: (giving him no satisfaction) O, just fine – (drawling final word)
JOHN: Now honey, you don’t have to tell stories to Sam, she doesn’t like it so much, she wants to go back home, because she can’t got used to things up here.
MCNEAL: (slightly angered at being revealed) Well, I keep telling you, it is the first time I’ve been away from home, & I don’t have no friends up here or anything, & Osgood is a real little town & everything, & I’m just not used to the way things are, that’s all. & as much as I wanted to get away, I still miss it now, just like daddy said.
JOHN: (controlling anger) Your daddy!…Up here, in the north, you’re getting a chance to see how things should be, & can be if democracy is given a chance to work. Where all man are equal. (calmer) See Sam, McNeal just can’t believe that up here Negroes are as free as white people.
SAM: (without, expression) Are we?
JOHN: (laughs at what he thinks is Sam’s joke)
SAM: (ibid) Do you think I’m as free as you are?
JOHN: Of course you are.
SAM: (his tone sharpens a little) & you’re trying to prove it to McNeal here?
JOHN: To show her the way things are.
SAM: & you really believe that black as I am I’m as free as you are—?
JOHN: Unless you’ve got some kind of complex.
SAM: About what?
JOHN: About being a Negro. & you’ve got to admit that there are a lot of Negroes that are self-conscious about being colored.
MCNEAL: (probing Sam) Thats true. I noticed it the other night at that party. Some of them are so sensitive that you have to watch almost everything you say around them.
JOHN: The law says you’re as free as any man up here.
SAM: (probing again) Is that the way you see it McNeal? That I’m a free man?
MCNEAL: (vaguely) I suppose you are, yes.
SAM: (controlled) Whatdya mean I am?
MCNEAL: (matter-of-factly) Well, you’re all right. I mean youre intelligent, I guess, & a professional musician & you keep yourself up & every thing —
SAM: (less controlled) So I’m all right, but there are some who aren’t?
MCNEAL: (sensing her advantage) Now you know that there are some of you who aren’t fully prepared.
SAM: (angered) Who ain’t ready?
JOHN: (peacemaker) I dont think she means exactly that Sam —¬
MCNEAL: (little-girlish) But John, some of them want everything & they haven’t done anything really to prepare themselves. I mean for such a long, long time, they didnt do anything. They could have been doing something, but they didn’t do anything, & now all of a sudden they’re demanding something for nothing, & I dont think its fair.
JOHN: (embarrassed & trying to quiet her) Now honey, you know they have a right, whether you & your daddy like it or not. This is America. (nervous laugh) See Sam, that old saying is true, you can take the girl out of the south, but you cant take the south out of the girl.
SAM: The way I heard it is, you can take the nigger out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the nigger. (a challenge) How did you hear it McNeal?
MCNEAL: (matching his tone) I heard it the same way you did.
SAM: (eyes narrow, voice hard) Yeh, I thought so!
JOHN: (as if to a child) See, now honey, you’ve made Sam mad. We came up here for a visit, & youve offended him. I’m sorry Sam, I’ll have to apologize for my wife, she —
SAM: (sharply) Man, what exactly do you think I am?
JOHN: (innocent) What do you mean?
SAM: (ibid) What the hell did I ask you? What do you think I am¬—
JOHN: You’re a man.
SAM: (ibid) What kind of a man?
JOHN: An American.
SAM: (laughs. stops suddenly) Am I a Negro?
JOHN: Yes, but that doesn’t matter any.
SAM: (off handedly) You treat me the same way you would one of your white buddies?
SAM: (rhetorically) & you don’t have none of them preconceptions about Negroes, do you, like I’m basically inferior, or my joint’s bigger than yours, or black people laugh all the time, or all niggers carry switch blades, — (sharply) Do you believe I’ve got a switch blade in my pocket right now?
JOHN: (cautious) No Sam, because you’re not that type —
SAM: (angry again) Naw, you dont believe it, cause youre a hip young liberal & you think I’m one of your white buddies.
JOHN: You’re imagining that…
SAM: (snapping) Would you want to be me?
JOHN: What do you mean?
SAM: (impatient) It’s a simple question. Would you want to be me? You said we’re equal because your laws say so. So if you had a chance, who would you rather be, you or me?
JOHN: (shrugging — not sure of whatis eapected of him) I’d be me.
SAM: (spitting word) Why!?
JOHN: (confused) I don’t understand. You’re mad & it isnt just what McNeal said, is it? You’re imagining that I feel certain ways because of your skin color. But you have no reason to feel that because this is the north…
SAM: Damn the north! (pause — calming himself to explain) We are different. Plain & simple. I don’t even know you man, & even if I did, I don’t want to be treated like one of your white buddies because I’m not one of your white white buddies. I’m black! (sharply) & I don’t want you to never forget it!
JOHN: But I don’t think of you that way.
SAM: Then start!
JOHN: (thoroughly confused, pleading for understanding) But why?
SAM: (firmly) Because that’s the way it is.
JOHN: (still not convinced) I can’t believe that you want me to treat you as an inferior.
SAM: (sharply, furious) That ain’t what I said! (softer) Why would remembering that I’m black make you treat me like an inferior?
JOHN: I didnt mean that —
MCNEAL: John! (pause, anger rising) Stop crawling! It makes me sick to see you do that. You’re a white man! Don’t let him talk to you with that tone. Tell him his place.
JOHN: (weary) Its not like that here.
MCNEAL: He said it, you’re a white man & he’s a nigger.
JOHN: (suddenly angry) Shut up Ann!
SAM: (suddenly alert) What? (laughing) What did he call you? Ann? (laughing) Like in MissAnn? & McNeal is your last name. Well I’ll be goddammed! Miss Ann, aint that —
MCNEAL: (rising suddenly, furious) Shut up laughing at me! You black sonofa¬bitch!
JOHN: (angry frustration) Shut up Ann!
MCNEAL: No you shut up John, just shut UP!
SAM: (smirking) That’s telling him baby.
MCNEAL: You make me sick to my stomach. If you were any kind of a man, like my daddy, you’d stand up & act like a man. Instead you’ve been sniveling around niggers ever since we’ve been up here. (vicious) You DISGUST me!
JOHN: (standing. wanting to reach out to her. softly) Ann —
MCNEAL: (to SAM) & you, you black bastard, I should beat you myself to teach you a lesson.
SAM: (toying with her — grinning) You’ve got soul Miss Ann, but I wonder if ol liberal John is going to let you talk to me like that —
JOHN: Whats happening here? I don’t understand this¬ —
SAM: (rising. angry again) You don’t understand nothin you dumb white fool! You bring this stupid hillbilly bitch into my house to show her how liberal & hip you are & how nice I am. What do you think this is, the goddammed zoo? This is where I live man!
JOHN: (shocked, defensive) Now wait a minute —
SAM: (furious) Naw, you wait a minute! You come down here to show me off didn’t you? Now just you let me show my black ass, or ain’t that what you come for?
MCNEAL: Thats right, show him nigger.
SAM: (to MCNEAL) I’m ‘bout tired of you now! (to JOHN) What was I suppose to do? Talk real quiet about art & civil rights & the same shit them assholes was talking about at that bullshit party the other night? Was I suppose to impress her about how white I could be so that she could got used to the way free Negroes are? Well I’m sorry.
JOHN: (hurt) I thought you were cool &….
MCNEAL: (disgusted) O for god sakes John —
SAM: I ain’t cool man, I ain’t nothin but me. Tryin to make it in your world. & cuz I didn’t say nothin the other night didn’t mean I was cool. I just get tight jawed & play like I’m what you call cool when I’m with them people man, that way they don’t bug me with all that one man’s family shit.
MCNEAL: Are you listening John.
SAM: I talked to you cuz I was high & bored & you was funny to me man. Plain & simple, you was funny! Cuz you was so anxious to kiss my black ass.
MCNEAL: (shouting) Did you hear that, he thought you were funny, & I thought you were a MAN!
JOHN: (slaps MCNEAL suddenly & it spins her around & away from him – knocking all the fight out of her) I told you to shut up. (turns to face SAM. after a pause) See what you did? That’s my wife! No, I don’t understand, but I just hit my wife because of you. For some reason she doesn’t think I’m a man & it’s because of you. (pause, considering) Because of you. (steps toward SAM, fists clenched)
SAM: Ok, be cool now! (runs his hand into his pocket.)
MCNEAL holds her hand out to JOHN
JOHN: (firm, but almost apologetic) Youre going to have to fight me. So that she can see — (another step) Black nigger! (talking himself into it)
SAM: Shut up white boy & back off me. (knife out & snapped open) Back up now!
MCNEAL: John! He’ll kill you, you fool.
JOHN: No. That knife doesnt scare me. YOU DUMB BLACK NIGGER. (slaps SAM. there is a slight pause during which the action is frozen)
(SAM stabs JOHN in the chest)
(MCNEAL screams & rushes forward, but JOHN clutching at his chest disbelievingly pushes her away)
JOHN: It doesn’t make sense¬ —
MCNEAL: WHAT DID YOU DO!
(JOHN falls face down on the couch)
MCNEAL: (hysterical) WHAT DID WE DO!!! WHAT DID WE DO!!!
SAM: (moves mechanically, grabs her by the throat with his left hand & holds her at arms length, the knife still at his side) SHUT UP!
MCNEAL: (softly) Are you going to rape me —
SAM stabs her quickly in the breast. Twice. & she falls at his feet. He stands for a moment then drops the knife & looks down at them. & starts to cry
Source: Bill Harris, Work 2, 1965
Tags: Bill Harris, Play, WORK 2