By FREDI WASHINGTON PV's Theatre Editor March 2, 1946 p. 22
ROBERT ARDREY'S new play, Jeb, which was presented by Herman Shumlin at the Martin Beck Theatre last Thursday night, brings to the legitimate theatre a subject--jobs for Negroes, in this case, a job for a southern Negro veteran--which up to now has only been lightly touched upon over the footlights. This fact in itself, makes Jeb an important play, notwithstanding some uneven writing and lack of understanding of one or two characters by the author.
Mr. Shumlin has given the play a handsome production, though I am not too sure that I am in complete agreement with Jo Mielziner's beautifully wrought modern sets for this particular show. The large cast headed by Ossie Davis, has been moulded skillfully under Shumlin's knowing direction and there are several highly dramatic scenes that are gripping and which left few eyes dry in the first night overflow audience.
The play deals with "Jeb", a Louisiana lad who lost a leg while serving four years in the Pacific theatre, and who wants more than anything else on his return home, to ply the trade he learned in the Army, of running and adding machine. It is this ambition and the belief that "if a poor Negro like me learned something from this war, surely the quality white folks learned something too." This theory begets Jeb a severe beating. He is run out of town while the "poor whites" behave in the good 'ole southern manner of burning the homes of Negroes, his mother's included. Jeb not only has to battle the ignorance and bigotry of the south but he finds his own folks are not to be trusted either. Before taking a train for his beloved south, he gets rolled for his dough and honor medals when a brassy harlot and con man slip him a mickey finn in a northern cafe where he and his Army side kick have stopped for a parting drink.
Once Jeb is back home in Louisiana with his mother, brothers, sisters, the girl he has dreamed of marrying and his friends, he thinks there is little left to do but ask the manager of the mill he formerly worked for as field hand for a job running an adding machine. The manager is sympathetic and would like to see Jeb have such a job alas, he does not own the mill. He tries to discourage Jeb's ambition by attempting to convince him that a Negro's mind cannot retain the necessary knowledge it takes for such a job.
Confused but determined to prove to himself his capability, Jeb is caught with his thoroughly frightened sweetheart in the old drunken white timekeeper's shack, while Jeb is proving his skill on his adding machine. The old man believes Jeb is after his job and tells him off in some pretty rough language, strikes the girl and starts the age old lie that Jeb had a white girl in the shack.
The hunt for the harrassed [sic] vet and his family is started by the whites who would put a Negro who has the audacity to want a white man's job where he belongs. Jeb's girl is so frightened that she runs out on him leaving him pretty discouraged but still with enough faith to try once again to appeal to the quality 'white folks'--this time in their own church directly following their recital of the 23 Psalm. It is then that Jeb is caught, beaten and run out of town.
Back in the cafe up north where he has been robbed, his girl shows up and wants him to stay north but Jeb decides to return to Louisiana and search for those 'quality white folks' he believes will help him win better jobs for Negroes.
Ossie Davis as Jeb, made an eloquent plea for the returned vet--northern as well as southern--by his superb portrayal. His honest sincerity and deep understanding of the character, never failed to hit its mark. Laura Bowman as the mother, is an experienced actress who has had little opportunity in the Broadway theatre to show her ability. Her role here is sketchy, and in the hands of one less capable, it would have not come to fruition. Ruby Dee as the sweetheart, gets her first break as a professional and while opening night jitters caused some overplaying, she made Libby an honest to goodness frightened child of southern injustice.
The large cast generally can be credited with giving good account of their histrionics. Santos Ortega did an especially good job in the difficult role of the mill manager, while Maurice Ellis, Rudolph Whitaker, Reri Grist, Christopher Bennett, Frank M. Thomas, Wardell Saunders, P. J. Sidney, Morris McKenney, Carolyn Hill Stewart, Percy Verwayne and other members of the cast, all contributed to Mr. Ardrey's sincere effort to openly discuss in dramatic form, the basic question facing America today. Are we going to give the Negro the opportnuity to do the job he has been trained to do? (Ed. According to the vote on the FEPC, it was shelved in the Senate, and "Jeb" is "hot copy")
You owe it to yourself to see "Jeb" and understand better why it is important to the daily life of the Negro, the Jew and all minorities who are discriminated against, to write your Congressmen and ask him to sign the discharge petition for the FEPC bill in order that it be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate. There FEPC stands a chance.