Mule Bone might well be termed the Great Lost (and Then Found) Play of the Harlem Renaissance. The work began as a collaboration at the height of that African-American artistic movement between two of its brightest stars, Langston Hughes and Nora Zeale Hurston. The two began working in 1930 on a dramatic adaptation of folktale known as “The Bone of Contention.” The result was a comedy which traded on the once highly popular black dialect genre. At the time of completion of the manuscript, the general consensus among their peers within the Harlem Renaissance was such an effort might initiative a negative image for the movement which had made such strides for African-American creative artists across all the entertainment disciplines.
In the meantime, Hurston filed a copyright on the play in her name only which not just to a rift in the friendship, but complicated legal battles over rights to royalties. The result of the tepid initial reaction and the legal wrangling effectively kept the play from being performed anywhere for the next six decades.
Since it could never be performed, the manuscript also effectively remained unread, unknown and forgotten about its rediscovery by Henry Louis Gates, noted African-American historian. His discovery sparked immediate interest in this “lost play” by two titans of American literature representing one of the most fecund literary movements of the 20th century. Finally, in 1991, more than 60 years after it was written, Mule Bone received its world premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater. Shortly thereafter Mule Bone opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, but closed after just 68 performances due to less than stellar reviews.