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`Mule Bone' Debuts After 60 Years

Rescued three years ago, the play delights '90s audiences

Mule Bone Play with music by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Prologue and epilogue by George Houston Bass. Music by Taj Mahal. Directed by Michael Schultz. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through March 17.

EXUBERANCE is busting out all over the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Cause of the to-do is the belated world premi`ere of ``Mule Bone,'' the long-lost 1930 collaboration between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The authors had a falling out after completing their work and ``Mule Bone'' was rescued from obscurity only three years ago by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. Mr. Gates has performed a signal service to the cause of African-American theater and, more immediately, for the delight of B roadway audiences.

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The folkish Hughes-Hurston tale occurs in Eatonville, Fla. in the 1920s. It is introduced with a brief prologue by Joy Lee in the cameo role of Miss Hurston. Thereafter, director Michael Schultz and his splendid company of singing and dancing actors get down to the serious-comic matters of ``Mule Bone.''

Although it is many things in the course of a leisurely evening, ``Mule Bone'' centers around the rivalry between dancer Dave Carter (Eric Ware) and musician Jim Weston (Kenny Neal) for the heart of plumply pleasing Daisy Taylor (Akosua Busia), who works as a domestic for white folks. Fortunately, the authors are just as concerned with the progress of daily life in Eatonville. The men play checkers and cards, chew on sugar cane, and exchange tall stories on the porch in front of Mayor Joe Clark's (Samue l E. Wright) general store. The women gossip and shop at the emporium. The children get delightfully underfoot.

But plots must run their course even in this relaxed milieu. Dave and Jim's rivalry reaches the point at which the two friends become enemies. Jim strikes Dave with the mule bone (of the title) and, after a climactic second-act trial which pits Baptists against Methodists, the offender is banished from the town for two years.

How the authors resolve the situation can be left for the members of the splendid Lincoln Center Theater company to unfold. But resolve it they do - to the satisfaction not only of the two friends but of the independent-minded Daisy.

Under Mr. Schultz's direction, ``Mule Bone'' pursues a smooth course through its animated dialogue scenes and appealing Taj Mahal musical numbers (with Hughes verses). In addition to the aforementioned players - especially Messrs. Ware and Neal in their double capacities - the principals include Sonny Jim Gaines, Leonard Jackson, and Arthur French as pastors to obstreperous flocks, and Reggie Montgomery as Eatonville's timorous marshall. Besides their work as actors, the cast members assemble and reasse mble the paraphernalia of Edward Burbridge's sets (lighted by Allen Lee Hughes). Lewis Brown's '20s-style costumes are smart but folksy. Dianne McIntyre choreographed the lively dances.

`MULE Bone'' occupies a unique place in the history of African-American theater. To signal its significance, Harper Perennial has published a comprehensive paperback containing Hurston's original short story, a 1931 draft of the play, accounts of the ``Mule Bone'' controversy by Langston Hughes and other writers, and relevant correspondence. ``Mule Bone'' is thus a publishing as well as a theatrical event.

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