Live Bait Theater

Glenda Starr Kelley’s adaptation of Wallace Thurman’s 1932 novel Infants of the Spring opens with flappers kicking up their heels before a purple, pink, and red set, and ends with the play’s protagonist, Raymond–the leader of an artists’ colony in 1920s Harlem–on a darkened stage, describing his commune crumbling under blinding “white beams of light.” Sustaining a gin-party energy, interrupted occasionally by soap-opera drama and Raymond’s increasingly caustic remarks, the play comes off mostly as a fluffy story about freethinking blacks who draw the attention of white liberals. But looking back on it from the perspective of the grim ending, it paints a sad picture of black creativity conforming to white society.

During the 20s and 30s, Harlem was the spiritual home for the black literary and artistic movement that included Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent, some of whom provided models for characters in Thurman’s novel. This Harlem Renaissance offered the chance for African Americans to prove themselves with poetry, stories, and novels set in the black world–in Harlem’s streets and cabarets. Carl Van Vechten’s characterization of Harlem as lusty and exotic in his bestseller Nigger Heaven drew hundreds of white thrill seekers there. Perpetuating the myth of Harlem as a playground, Thurman’s fictitious Niggerati Manor–a re-creation of the real “267 House” the author lived in–is populated by black artists who seem more interested in a good party than in their art and who come dangerously close to existing for the amusement and approval of whites.

For reasons unknown, Ray allows a white do-gooder free access to the house he shares with Eustace, a classical singer; Paul, a painter; and Pelham, a simpleton who aspires to greatness but mostly cleans up after the others. But though Ray merely tolerates the self-satisfied white liberal Sam, he declares a true kinship with Steve, the white college student Sam brings with him on one of his visits. Steve, who is fascinated by Paul’s obscene art, moves into the “manor” and has an affair with Aline, a black flapper. Ray concludes disgustedly, “Every Negro woman will go horizontal for him just ’cause he’s white.” Yet Ray has also had a white lover, Barbara, a frumpy Brooklynite who brags that she has been “enthroned like a queen” by black men. It seems that Sam, Steve, and Barbara have all discovered in Harlem a small pond where they can be big fish.

When Thurman’s novel came out the New York Times described it as “a pretty inept book,” calling the theme “capital” but saying the dialogue ranged from “elephantine witticisms to ponderous philosophizing.” Kelley’s play is also weighted by self-conscious language in which characters expound upon racial issues. Steve and Ray sound stiff when, having just met, they discuss the potency of Harlem’s environment. Steve: “Where I was the only white, I was ready to bolt.” Ray: “I’ve lived here for three years and I’m still afraid.” Sam’s contribution is to categorize Ray’s roommates for Steve: stopping just short of labeling them “good black” or “bad black,” Sam says the domestic Pelham is “the only decent man in the house,” while Paul’s pictures “undermine the Negro’s role in history.” As if they believe someone is recording their words, blacks and whites alike discuss Harlem’s artistic community as if it were an experiment–an academic rather than a personal issue. Ray and his platonic friend Lucille come closest to a genuine relationship. And when she accuses him of manipulating his friends, finally we learn something personal, something that isn’t part of Ray’s “angry young black man” facade.

Most of the performers in this Live Bait Theater production–also directed by Kelley–are excellent, but Karl T. Wright as Paul and John Crowley as Eustace deserve mention for exuding “artistic” flamboyance while making their characters seem unique. Michael Quaintance, who plays Ray, is undoubtedly a strong performer, but the role is mostly uninteresting pontificating, except for scenes with the savvy Lucille, given real spark by Michelle Wilson.

Both the opening Charleston scene and David Csicsko’s garish set–which decorates Ray’s studio with Paul’s cartoon pictures of genitalia, multicolored stripes and plaids, and an oversize face painted on the back wall–ready us for a continuous party and outrageous guests. Costume designer McKinley Johnson continues the excess with flowing fabrics, matching Aline and Lucille’s handkerchief-style skirts with a collarless blouse for Paul and a gossamer floral robe for the large Eustace.

It has been said that the laughter and gaiety outsiders perceived in the black urban culture of the 20s and 30s veiled blacks’ everyday misery. Though its language is awkward and didactic, Infants of the Spring succeeds in reflecting that phenomenon. To all appearances the residents of Niggerati Manor are living it up, but beneath the frivolity is a frustrated submission to the white world.