New Welsh Review

Green in Black

As a tribute to the late, great Cicely Tyson, Daniel G Williams writes about the African-American attraction to Emlyn Williams' film The Corn is Green, in which Ms Tyson appeared as Miss Moffat in a 1983 NYC revival

PUBLISHED ON: 03/02/21

CATEGORY: Essays

TAGS: African-American, Miles Davis, New York City, The Corn is Green, artistic interpretation, class, diversity, education, film, homage, hybrid identity, innovation, jazz, photography, social mobility, theatre

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As a tribute to Cecily Tyson, who died on 28 January 2021, we re-publish this article from New Welsh Review 86, winter 2009.

The year 2009 has seen a slew of concerts, radio programmes and articles celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ seminal album Kind of Blue – not the least of which was a magnificent concert at the Hay Literary Festival with the last remaining member of the band, drummer Jimmy Cobb. These retrospectives sent me back to Jack Chambers’ detailed study of the man and his music, Milestones (1985). I bought the book shortly after seeing Miles Davis at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall in 1989, by which time the modal masterpieces of Kind of Blue had long been replaced by Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ in the band’s set list. But while (Welsh-American) pianist Bill Evans’ impressionistic chordal clusters on compositions such as Kind of Blue’s ‘Blue in Green’ had given way to the bombastic rock guitar of ‘Heavy Metal Prelude’, the sound of Miles’ characteristically muted trumpet was as pure and intimate in 1989 as it had been thirty years earlier. As he recounts in his autobiography, Davis had to work on retrieving his sound after five years of inactivity from 1975 to 1980. Having been at the forefront of innovations in jazz since 1945 – from be-bop, to hard bop, to modal jazz through to electric fusion – Miles Davis disappeared from the public gaze in 1975 to live (if we are to believe his own account) a life of drink, drugs and sex, rarely leaving a rodent-infested apartment where the TV would be blaring day and night. Much of the credit for Davis’ rehabilitation in the 1980s lies with his friend and future wife Cicely Tyson, who drove out the pimps, whores and drug dealers from his life, and introduced a strict regime of healthy eating, exercise and acupuncture.

Jack Chambers’ Milestones contains a rare photograph of Miles with Cicely Tyson, which always struck me as being slightly strange. It’s an image that’s clearly meant to represent the pair’s relationship. Davis, ever seeking to keep up with the latest fashion and resisting the ageing process, is attired in shiny, garish, 1980s designer wear, complete with ridiculous shades. Tyson seems dressed as a Victorian schoolteacher, dedicated to keeping her talented, wayward pupil in check. This article, an inadvertent product of my recent research project on correspondences between African American and Welsh literature and culture, aims to trace – via a circuitous route – an intellectual journey which concludes by revealing this photograph’s unlikely Welsh subtext.

My project, which has developed into a forthcoming book [Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales, 1845–1945 (Cardiff:University of Wales Press, 2012)], was initiated by a throwaway reference to Swansea in African American novelist Ralph Ellison’s introduction to the 1981 reprint of his seminal novel Invisible Man (1952). Ellison described the way in which his celebrated account of the African American predicament had grown out of ‘a story in which a young Afro-American seaman, ashore in Swansea, south Wales, was forced to grapple with the troublesome “American” aspects of his identity’. The story being referred to was published in 1944 as ‘In a Strange Country’ and was reprinted in the posthumous collection, Flying Home and Other Stories (1996). The Ralph Ellison papers at the Library of Congress contain two other wartime stories in which Ellison’s sensitivity to the diverse cultural strands that constitute Welsh culture in the 1940s is striking. His unpublished ‘The Red Cross in Morriston, South Wales’, describes an African American GI heading out to the interracial Red Cross Club ‘held in Lebannon [sic] Church Hall’, Morriston, a ‘structure erected in the early Eighteenth Century’. The narrator comments both on Welsh cultural distinctiveness, and on the palpable familiarity of what the sociologist Alfred Zimmern had famously described in 1921 as ‘American Wales’:

 

Hayes’ reference to a church hall completely disarmed me for the loud Count Basie recording I heard as we reached the building. Suddenly it was like coming home. We passed through a small vestibule into a large, bright, room alive with some of the most expert, international, interracial, Lindyhopping I’d ever seen […] I asked Hayes why the stage and learned that Welsh drama had developed out of the nonconformist religious movement, which instituted amature [sic] dramatics; thus the stage; thus, at longer range, such contemporary Welsh dramatists as Emlyn Williams and Richard Llewellyn. Even so, I was sure that the hall’s original builders would have been more than mildly surprised at the Lindy.

In the room where we went to check our coats two girls were making a last-minute inspection of their makeup. Another girl came in behind us, who, judging from her rapid breathing, had just finished a dance.

‘Why hello, Iris,’ one of the girls greeted her. ‘Hello Dylis! [sic] You just coming?’ she called. ‘Oh sure,’ Dylis said, ‘What are you putting down tonight, Iris?’
 ‘Nothing,’ said Iris disgustedly. ‘Nothing but shoe leather.’
‘So don’t y’worry, darling. Stick around a while, you’ll get a play.’

Which, said with full appreciation for subtleties of shading and meaning, was ample evidence that the extent of the boys’ cultural contribution to Wales was not limited to American dances. But for the accent – incidentally, they do speak the way you heard in The Corn Is Green – I might have been in Harlem, on Broadway, or, for the matter, in Brooklyn.

 

If the 
narrator is struck by the familiarity of the Pepsis and the Lindyhoppers, he also comments on the culturally distinctive development of Welsh drama and the emergence of Anglophone Welsh literature. Richard Llewellyn would have been familiar to Ellison, probably as a result of John Ford’s Hollywood version of How Green Was My Valley, which had won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941, creating a hugely influential exportable version of Welshness – populated by singing miners, faithful mothers and stern Nonconformist deacons – in the process. The references to The Corn is Green (1938) and Emlyn Williams are more intriguing. In stating that ‘they do speak in the way you heard in The Corn is Green’, Ellison is clearly assuming that his readers are aware of Williams’ play. A successful Hollywood film version of the play, starring Bette Davis, was released in 1945, but Ellison had composed his story before then. A version of the play had opened in New York with Ethel Barrymore as Miss Moffat in November 1940, however, and went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for the ‘best play of foreign authorship presented in New York during the season 1940–41’. Ellison was living in New York and moving in literary and theatrical circles during the early forties, and was clearly aware of Williams’ play.

Williams’ play is a re-working of the Pygmalion story in which Miss Moffat, an ‘admirable member of the eccentric, philanthropic, programme of the English middle class’, educates the bright miner Morgan Evans out of the squalor and limitations of his Welsh life and prepares him to take up a place at Oxford University. In a chapter published in the volume of essays Beyond the Difference: Welsh Writing in Comparative Contexts (2004), I suggested that Ellison’s Invisible Man and Williams’ The Corn is Green share a concern with ‘uplift’ that dominated the thought of the Welsh and African American bourgeoisies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both The Corn is Green and the opening section of Invisible Man are centrally concerned with this process of social and racial uplift through education. The figures of the educationalists Miss Moffat and Miss Ronberry in The Corn is Green are paralleled in the figures of the African American educationalist Bledsoe and the white philanthropist Mr Norton in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Where Morgan Evans is presented as someone who may become ‘a great statesman of our country’ in The Corn is Green, the Invisible Man is believed to be ‘a potential Booker T Washington’. The rustic, virtually Welsh monoglot, Old Tom, who is often ‘carried away by the music’, finds his equivalent in the figure of Jim Trueblood, the performer of ‘primitive spirituals’ that embarrass the narrator of Invisible Man in their ‘earthly harmonies’. If Trueblood represents a ‘peasant’, he is also abhorred by the Invisible Man for breaking the incest taboo with both his mother and daughter. As the narrative develops, however, the Invisible Man comes to shed his earlier prejudices and to consider Trueblood an embodiment of a distinctive African American consciousness. A critique of the African American ideology of racial uplift is built into the narrative of Invisible Man, not least when the narrator sees in his mind’s eye:

 

The bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am […] unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly into place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.

 

While Williams’ Morgan Evans never comes to realise the alienating effects of his education in The Corn is Green, there are suggestions throughout the play that the results of Miss Moffat’s philanthropic efforts aren’t wholly positive. Morgan, for instance, laments the fact that he is increasingly regarded by his fellow miners as ‘[c]i bach yr ysgol! The schoolmistress’ little dog!’ and the play does not end with a final and triumphal farewell as Morgan leaves for Oxford. His departure takes place offstage, while the audience sees Miss Moffat holding Morgan and Bessie’s illegitimate child and noting that ‘you mustn’t be clumsy this time’. It seems that the Welsh future lies in English hands.

To foreground the critique of cultural imperialist assumptions implicit in The Corn is Greenis to read the play in a way that Emlyn Williams would never have condoned. Such a reading may, however, explain why the play should have made an impression on Ralph Ellison. In fact, what I’ve discovered since writing the chapter in Beyond the Difference, is that The Corn is Green has been a play of some significance in African American culture. In 1974, Dorian Harewood, who would play the lead role in the film The Jesse Owens Story (1984), began his career playing the role of Morgan Evans next to Bette Davis in an acclaimed musical version of The Corn is Green entitled Miss Moffat. This African Americanisation of the play had been preceded by James Baldwin’s lengthy description of the rehearsals and performance of The Corn is Green in his fourth novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). The novel tells the story of bisexual African American actor Leo Proudhammer, who gets his first break playing Morgan Evans in Williams’ play. Ray Fisher, a friend of the director, persuades Leo to take on the role by noting:

 

One of the things that’s most impressed me in this country is the struggle of black people to get an education. I always think it’s one of the great stories, and nobody knows anything about it. If there were a play on that subject, I’d probably do that. But I don’t know of any, so I thought I’d try this experiment with this play. I think you’ll see what I mean when you read it. I certainly hope you do. Very few of the elements in the play are really alien to American life. […] I thought I’d take this play, this mining town situation, with no comment, so to say, only making the miners and servants, people like that[,] black. It’s true that the play takes place in Wales, but I think we can make the audience forget that after the first few minutes, and hell, anyway, there are black people in Wales. And I figured we’d let the Negro kids improvise around the stretches of Welsh dialogue – dialect really – and of course we’ve got tremendous musical opportunities with this play.

 

 

Baldwin’s novel is similar to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in that it explores a man’s struggle to contain and make sense of the conflicting identities that make up his inherently plural self. Baldwin was profoundly aware of the state’s power to limit and oppress minorities, noting in an essay on ‘Black English’ that ‘much of the tension in the Basque country and in Wales is due to the Basques and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed.’

If political realities invariably condition the shape and form of Baldwin’s fictional worlds, Emlyn Williams’ decision to set The Corn is Green in the late nineteenth century detached the work from the challenge posed by an emergent Welsh nationalism, and from the radicalised working-class politics of 1930s Wales. Yet despite Williams’ best intentions, Ralph Ellison’s passing references to The Corn is Green and James Baldwin’s references to the play in a novel of 1968 draw our attention to the political implications of a drama that is centrally concerned with the question of identity, and the relationship between majority and minority cultures. The relationship between ‘Welsh’ and ‘British’ in Williams, like that between ‘Black’ and ‘American’ in Ellison and Baldwin, captures something of the inherent duality of belonging simultaneously to a minority group, and to a larger nation state. Indeed, Baldwin wasn’t the only author who sought to make sense of the social revolution taking place in 1960s America by turning to the Celtic nations. In the introduction to his controversial Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development (1975), the American sociologist Michael Hechter traced the gestation of his work to the realisation that the ‘ultimate goal’ of Black activism had generally been ‘the integration and assimilation of Blacks in American society’, but by ‘the middle of the 1960s a deep split had emerged in the Black community between those traditionalists clinging to assimilation as their ultimate goal, and a younger, more militant group who, instead, argued for a radical separation of Blacks from white society and culture. […] In examining the interaction of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic peoples over the long run, these alternative strategies for the liberation of oppressed minorities – assimilationism versus nationalism – can be elaborated and analyzed in some detail.’

The ways in which The Corn is Green proved a vehicle for exploring the relationship between assimilationist and nationalist strategies for African Americans became evident again when the play was revived on Broadway in 1983 by the Elizabeth Taylor Theatre Group, with the African American actress Cicely Tyson [pictured] playing the role of Miss Moffat. Emlyn Williams seems to have been somewhat unnerved by the African Americanisation of Miss Moffat, and suggested that efforts should be made to revise the play slightly so that Miss Moffat would become the black ancestor of a Welsh West Indian plantation owner. ‘The play is a realistic one, not a fantasy’ stated Williams in a letter to director Vivian Matalon, and therefore some explanation was needed of where ‘a black Miss Moffat has come from’. There is no evidence that the directors incorporated this rather convoluted amendment. Williams was initially ‘elated’ that Tyson and Matalon were going to revive his play, but the negative reviews that were sent to him from the United States led to some reservations. The New York Times review was typical of many:

 

The play’s old fashioned sentiments are almost entirely dependent on the strength of the actress playing the central role. As Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn proved in the film and television adaptations, a charismatic Miss Moffat can override the simplistic conventions of the plot and even the questionable conclusion that elevates an Oxford education over all considerations of personal liability and identity. The principal difficulty with Miss Tyson’s performance does not pertain to color – although admittedly in real life it would have been a severe shock for the narrow-minded village squire to encounter a black woman in these circumstances. The difficulty is in the actress’ stilted characterization.

 

Williams was further dismayed when he saw The Washington Post’s photograph of Cicely Tyson as Miss Moffat. He feared that his beloved schoolteacher had been transformed into ‘an embittered black activist glaring at a political audience, fighting not only for education but for the black cause – a fine cause, but not what this particular play is about. The idea of this woman having a sense of humour is inconceivable.’ In a letter intended for Tyson, Williams recalled the first production of the play and noted that:

 

Sybil [Thorndyke] was (like most of us in the 
theatre, thank God!) intensely liberal, a passionate champion of the under-privileged; and she tended,
at first, to emphasise too strongly the philanthropic essence of the character, making her sound too much the preaching ‘do gooder’ as if she was carrying a play ‘with a message’, which this play is not.

 

While Tyson seemed willing to go along with Williams’ reading of the play, telling Leslie Bennetts of The New York Times that ‘I don’t see The Corn is Green as an ethnic piece at all’, the debates surrounding the production foreground tensions inherent within the play itself. Williams was made uneasy by the fact that having an African American actress playing the role of Miss Moffat politicised his play. This was perhaps especially the case as Tyson’s reputation had been built on her performances of powerful African American women such as Kunta Kinte’s mother in Roots and the nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Having Miss Moffat played by an African American actress seemed to emphasise the ‘ethnic’ dimension of the play for commentators in 1983, with The New York Times reviewer noting that ‘Mr Williams’ semiautobiographical portrait […] is set in a highly specific milieu, in which ethnicity is of great importance; the uneducated Welsh don’t even speak the same language as the haughty English who condescend to them’.

M Wynn Thomas has noted that in the context of 1930s and 1940s Wales, The Corn is Green was seen to play an essentially placatory role. It would seem that Williams hoped that his highly autobiographical story of Morgan Evans’ rise from miner to Oxford scholar, and from Wales to England, through education, would foster links between classes and nations, suggesting that a common set of values exist which transcend the divisions of class and nationhood – a message that proved particularly congenial for wartime Britain and accounts for the play’s remarkable success in early 1940s New York. To read the play through African American eyes, however, highlights the truth of Dave Berry’s perceptive observation that while Emlyn Williams ‘was always at pains to profess his apolitical nature, his writing sometimes seems to betray him’.

I’ll conclude by returning to the photograph with which I began. Cicely Tyson is indeed dressed as a Victorian schoolteacher for, while Jack Chambers doesn’t say so in his biography of Miles Davis, she has just finished playing Miss Moffat in the opening performance of the 1983 Broadway revival of The Corn is Green. Unfortunately, the revival was not a success, and folded in less than two weeks.

 

Notes

Ralph Ellison is quoted with the permission of Professor John F Callahan, Literary Executor of the Ralph Ellison estate. ‘The Red Cross at Morriston’ exists in several drafts in the Ralph Ellison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC. The materials relating to Emlyn Williams come from the Emlyn Williams Papers, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Readings of Williams on which I’ve drawn include: Dave Berry, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994); M Wynn Thomas, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992); Daniel Williams, ‘For Old Tom read Uncle Tom’ in Alyce von Rothkirch and D Williams (eds), Beyond the Difference: Welsh Writing in Comparative Contexts(Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2004).

 

 

Daniel G Williams holds a Personal Chair in English Literature & Creative Writing at Swansea University and co-director of CREW (Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales). He is the author of Ethnicity and Cultural Authority: from Matthew Arnold to W.E.B. Du Bois (2006) and Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales, 1845–1945 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012). This article was originally published in New Welsh Review 86, winter 2009.

 

 

Cicely Tyson was born in East Harlem, New York City, on 19 December, 1924, and died on 28 January, 2021, at the age of ninety-six.

 

Photograph: Cicely Tyson with her husband, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis backstage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after the opening of her new show, The Corn is Green, in New York City, 22 August, 1983. © The Canadian Press/STF.