August 18, 1945 p. 22
THE MUCH DISCUSSED musical drama, St. Louis Woman, which was adapted from Arna Bontemps' novel, God Sends Sunday, by the poet Countee Cullen and Mr. Bontemps, is supposedly now set to go into rehearsal in early September with Lena Horne as its star. [...] Freed one of the top producers of MGM to whom Lena is under contract, is said to have dumped a boatload of money into the lap of Gross, who is producing which assures Lena of a lavish and spectacular production.
The lavish production with a scintillating star all well and good and almost any script which uses as its locale a race track and the 19th century era, automatically calls for lavishness. But, beautiful costumes and scenery are not the only ingredients needed for a good show. As a matter of fact, a show with a good script can get along far better without expensive costumes and scenery than the other way around. I could name several super musicals which opened and closed in record time last season for the want of a good script.
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IT WOULD GIVE ME a great deal of satisfaction if I could write with praise of St. Louis Woman. Unfortunately I cannot work up any enthusiasm over the adaption in its present form but rather, I am apprehensive as the impression it will create. This I have discussed with several people who know something of the theatre and they all agree that St Louis Woman is a faulty work both from the standpoint of good theatre and the position of the Negro in the theatre.
To tell you a little about the story as is told by Messrs. Cullen and Bontemps. Women, is laid in and around a St. Louis race track in the late 19th century with most of the interest centered around "Della" (a good looking gal, whose only aim in life is to have and be had by the guy who has the most money and prestige) and "Little Argy" (the jockey of the hour whose ambition it is to earn enough dough to take Della away from the town's biggest pimp and saloon owner). Built around this theme, is all of the vice, passion and killing which goes hand and hand with the double dealing race track touts and loose women. Literally, that just about sizes up the story.
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MY FIRST OBJECTION to the story is not the fact that it deals with whores and pimps primarily (they always make good theatre) but the fact that, running through the play, there is practically no conflict between the right and wrong way of life. A weak attempt is made by throwing in a church-going sister of Little Argy's, but she is not an integral part of the theme. Added to this, is the thickest dialect used by all characters that you've heard in the theatre for a long time.
In reading the script again (I read the novel when it was written ten years ago), I find that, fundamentally, its form and development has not been improved. In following the story, I found that I was not too interested nor did I care very much what happened to the characters. I found the dialogue long and tedious with a complete lack of vitality; situations lacking continuity; and nothing resolved.
You get the feeling that you have had a glimpse of a single phase of a by-gone era dealing with one or two colorful characters but that you have been shown but one side of those characters. You miss the conflict which beats in the breast of every human being. To paraphrase one of Ethel Waters' special songs, There's a Little Bit of Bad in the Best of Us and Little Bit of Good in the Worst of Us. This is what is completely lacking in Cullen's and Bontemps' characters.
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IT IS MY FEELING that St. Louis Woman can be revised so that a good play will emerge and also, that one of the worst elements of the race won't be put on display without any underlying social influence to qualify that element. It would seem to me that with a good rewrite job done by craftsmen of the theatre with the proper social attitudes, a fairly good play could be gotten out of what now is the germ of a good idea.
I have written my impressions of this coming production because I feel criticism prior to public showing is of far more value than it is after; also because we all are vitally interested in the Negro as a playwright; because of Miss Horne's contract with MGM, it is highly probable she may not be able to choose or reject the kind of movie or show she will play in: and finally because we want to see plays dealing with Negroes, showing both sides of the picture and not the kind which only harp on the good-for-nothing-lot who exist from day to day with apparently no knowledge of decency.