Past Times

‘Morality play’ drew capacity crowd in Depression-era Raleigh

The all-black cast of “Heaven Bound” played to a capacity crowd in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. It was only the third production of the new Raleigh Little Theatre.
The all-black cast of “Heaven Bound” played to a capacity crowd in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium. It was only the third production of the new Raleigh Little Theatre. Federal Theatre Project Photograph Collection, C0202, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

In 1936, the fledgling Raleigh Little Theatre partnered with the Federal Theatre Project to produce “Heaven Bound,” a program that originated in Atlanta’s Big Bethel A.M.E. Church and just marked its 86th year in November. The Raleigh version of the all-black “morality play,” was written by local actress Laura L. Edwards. The week before the play’s premier, The News & Observer spoke with Edwards.

Laura Edwards is jolly and quick-witted. She likes a joke, and she’s keen at mimicry. But she’s serious, completely about one thing: Her pageant, “Heaven Bound” – a Negro morality play, they’re calling it now – which will be presented with an all-Negro cast at Memorial Auditorium Sunday night, August 30.

When an audience at one of the out-of-town performances of “Heaven Bound” laughed so much that the curtain had to be drawn momentarily, she was hurt. She couldn’t understand how anybody could laugh at a poor soul being cast into Hell by Satan.

Sitting behind her desk in a cramped corner of the Union Station, where she serves as Traveler’s Aid representative for Negroes, she told about that paining experience, about her play and, reluctantly, about herself.

Born in Raleigh, she attended high school and Shaw University. With her mother, she went North to work, was situated first in the home of an astrologer at Amherst College, where she found the walls lined with books – all at her disposal.

Her next place was in the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Pitcher in East Hampton, Mass. H. K. Green Richmond, Mrs. Pitcher’s mother, arranged for Laura Edwards to attend the People’s Institute, a preparatory school for Smith College, where she studied household arts, at Northampton, Mass.

From 1918 to 1934, she directed the handicraft classes at the North Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind (Negro), winning prizes at fairs and building up a nationwide mail order business for her pupils. In 1930, she was selected by John Hayes of the American Foundation for the Blind to receive training among the blind in New York, the only person of her race to be chosen.

And though she enjoyed that period of her life, she believes she has found a greater opportunity for service with the Travelers’ Aid Society.

Her interest in the drama is incidental. She first became interested five years ago in producing and writing short plays for the St. Paul A.M.E. Church, where she is a steward.

She wrote “Heaven Bound” after a friend described the original production which was presented six years ago in Bethel A.M.E. Church in Atlanta, Ga. The Rev. B. G. Dawson, then pastor of that church, is now at St. Paul in Raleigh.

From the title “Heaven Bound” many pageants and plays have been produced. There are two in existence in this State and other versions have gone as far North as Philadelphia and Baltimore.…

The idea of the drama dates back to John Bunyan and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” she said. Her own version was written with prayer and meditation and is intended to be wholly reverent. “There can be no irreverence where none is intended,” she added.

And she hopes that people won’t laugh at “Heaven Bound….” She’d rather have 200 or 300 serious people at the performance than a house full of boisterous ones. The N&O Aug. 24, 1936

On the morning following the play’s opening, the front page of The News & Observer reported that indeed a large crowd had been in attendance.

The largest audience ever to attend a theatrical performance in Raleigh, and probably the largest ever to witness a home-talent production in any city of the State, last night crowded Memorial Auditorium to capacity for the Little Theatre’s production of “Heaven Bound,” an all-Negro morality play.

Sale of seats was stopped 15 minutes before curtain time, said Miss Sadie Root, president of the Little Theatre. At least 1,500 persons were turned away at the box office, estimated Lieut. H. E. Carroll of the Raleigh police.…

Though she had been ill, Laura L. Edwards, representative of the Travelers’ Aid Society here, who wrote the local version of “Heaven Bound,” took her place on the dais at the corner of the stage and read from a scroll the story of the play. The N&O Aug. 31,1936

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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