KAREN JONES MEADOWS
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Karen Jones Meadows's play Henrietta (1985) emphasizes several of the social issues of the 1980s, including homelessness and lack of aid for people who have mental health and drug problems. Henrietta, the main character of the drama, makes a very minimal amount of money selling fruit. She spends most of her days sitting on a crate on a busy sidewalk criticizing people who pass by. Not all of the passers-by ignore her. Sheleeah, a twenty-something, somewhat successful accountant, notices Henrietta and wishes she would go away. Henrietta embarrasses Sheleeah. In spite of her frustration with the woman, there is something about Henrietta that Sheleeah is attracted to. Sheleeah believes Henrietta has found a way to beat the system. Henrietta does not have to spend her days in a downtown office with a boss applying constant pressure to get her work done. This makes Sheleeah think that Henrietta enjoys a freedom that Sheleeah does not have.
As the play progresses, the audience discovers the flaws in Sheleeah's conclusions as well as the flaws in Henrietta's personality. The play concludes on a less-than-happy note. However, the characters decide that no matter how much they might complain, they each like the paths they have chosen for themselves.
Henrietta made its debut at the Negro Ensemble Company stage in New York in 1985 and has since been staged on the East Coast, West Coast, and places in between, receiving mixed reviews. This was the playwright's first full-length stage play for adults.
Jones Meadows was born in 1953 and grew up in the Bronx in New York City. She attended Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. As an adult, she has lived, from time to time, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the state her parents were from. In an interview with Anthony C. Davis, a writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, Jones Meadows stated that it was in North Carolina that she first saw a different way in which "Black people lived." She added: "I hadn't experienced a situation where we had our own stores and properties until I went to North Carolina." Living in North Carolina may have enhanced her view of the lives of African Americans in the south.
In addition to Henrietta (1985), Jones Meadows has written Tapman (1988), which tells the story of a down-on-his-luck blues musician, and her most critically acclaimed play to date, Harriet's Return (1995 and significantly revised in 2003), which chronicles the life of Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to helping slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Jones Meadows has also written plays for youth, such as her Sala Cinderella (1996), which is based on the themes of self-identity, as in the classic fairytale "Cinderella," but with an African twist. This play has been popular for elementary schools' drama productions.
Besides writing plays, Jones Meadows also acted in a small role as an emergency room nurse in the 1987 movie Critical Condition. She has also appeared in many television commercials. Jones Meadows performed the one-woman role of Harriet Tubman in her own play Harriet's Return. She has produced shows for Comedy Central and Fox Television. In 1995, Jones Meadows was appointed the McGee Professor of writing at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. She has one son and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Act 1, Scene 1
Jones Meadows's stage play Henrietta opens with the title character, Henrietta, sitting on a crate outside an apartment building. The setting is somewhere in New York City. It is a weekday in late September. As Henrietta watches people passing by, she taunts them with insulting remarks. She comments on their clothes and the way they look as if she were talking to herself. However, she says everything out loud. She also criticizes people for not paying any attention to her. To gain more attention, Henrietta blows into small paper bags and then pops them.
Henrietta pays special attention to twenty-eight-year-old Sheleeah Hampton, who walks by. Henrietta tells Sheleeah that she does not have to stop and talk to her because Henrietta is used to being ignored. She says that it is better not to talk to people. She uses the example of Malcolm X, the African American human rights activist. Henrietta states that Malcolm talked to people, and she insinuates that he was killed because of this. Of course, Henrietta is contradicting herself because she is sitting out on the sidewalk attempting to start up conversations with the people who are walking past her.
Sheleeah is at first irritated. She asks Henrietta why she always bothers her. Sheleeah adds that she is tired of Henrietta's heckling. Henrietta defends herself, telling Sheleeah that her role is that of a teacher. She merely points out things that people should know about themselves. For example, Henrietta tells Sheleeah that the wild colors she is wearing that day do not look good on her. The bright colors make Sheleeah look like a showoff. Henrietta adds that by her wearing the bright colors, Sheleeah must be seeking attention. Henrietta then says that by her heckling, Sheleeah also gets more attention, if that is what she wants. Sheleeah walks away, and the first scene ends.
Act 1, Scene 2
It is Saturday evening when the second scene opens. In this very short scene, the audience sees Sheleeah walk by Henrietta. Sheleeah is dressed in black. Henrietta tells Sheleeah that black does not suit her at all. As a matter of fact, Henrietta states, black makes Sheleeah look like she is in mourning.
Act 1, Scene 3
Henrietta is again sitting on a crate on the sidewalk. She has a bowl pressed into her lap and is cutting fruit. Sheleeah appears and tells Henrietta that she wants to talk with her. Henrietta comments that because it is Sunday, Sheleeah must not be very busy. Henrietta takes the time to examine Sheleeah closely when the younger woman sits down next to her. Henrietta asks Sheleeah if she has been trying to bleach her Page 118 | Top of Article skin. Sheleeah quickly denies this. Henrietta points out that people do not like to admit that they do this nowadays. Then she changes the subject and asks Sheleeah where she works. Sheleeah attempts to answer, but Henrietta corrects her. She does not want to know what Sheleeah does, she wants to know the address. Henrietta is thinking of meeting Sheleeah for lunch. When she learns where Sheleeah works, Henrietta decides it is too far away.
Henrietta changes the topic again, this time asking Sheleeah about her boyfriends. Henrietta has noticed that one of the men who comes to visit Sheleeah drives a fancy car. Sheleeah responds by telling Henrietta that she is not used to discussing her private affairs with a stranger. Henrietta laughs at this comment. She points out the uselessness of this sentiment. After all, everyone in the neighborhood is talking about Sheleeah and her men friends, Henrietta tells Sheleeah. Henrietta continues to talk about Sheleeah's boyfriends. The one with the fancy car is too feminine, Henrietta tells Sheleeah. Sheleeah disagrees and describes him in masculine terms. Henrietta does not listen. Instead, she tells Sheleeah that she likes Sheleeah's other boyfriend better. Sheleeah tells Henrietta that the other man is too boring. Henrietta says Sheleeah could work on the second boyfriend and make him stronger. Henrietta asks which man has the most money. They both make a lot of money, Sheleeah replies.
Sheleeah says she has to leave. Henrietta tells Sheleeah that she needs some empty jars and Sheleeah can drop them by on Thursday. Sheleeah says she has no idea where to find empty jars. Henrietta pays no attention to her. Instead, she tells Sheleeah what size jars to look for. She adds that if Sheleeah cannot bring them to her, Henrietta will go over to Sheleeah's apartment and get them. Sheleeah does not want Henrietta coming to her place, so she tells her she will bring them on Thursday. Henrietta senses that Sheleeah is embarrassed by her, and her feelings are hurt. So she criticizes Sheleeah, calling the young woman a sinner for sleeping with two men.
Act 1, Scene 4
It is Sunday, one week later. Sheleeah arrives on the street with jars for Henrietta, later than she had promised. Henrietta admits that she has been shouting out obscenities directed at Sheleeah, hoping that the name-calling would embarrass her enough to bring Henrietta the jars. Sheleeah warns Henrietta that someone is going to hurt her one day for all the degrading remarks she makes. Sheleeah then refers to Henrietta as a derelict, a homeless person with no money. Henrietta disagrees. She points out that she does not fit the usual description of a derelict. She is clean and does not stink. Sheleeah defines a derelict as "a person who doesn't take care of themselves … and doesn't have the guts to face life … uh, is weak and preys on the emotions of others."
After hearing this, Henrietta says that Sheleeah might be right. "I am a derelict," she says. But she accuses Sheleeah of having the wrong definition. Henrietta believes a derelict is anyone who is down on his or her luck and has been discarded by society, "not necessarily by any fault of their own." Furthermore, Henrietta says that derelicts exist because of people like Sheleeah, "who call yourself better." Then Sheleeah leaves.
The character Thomas Boston is introduced as he brings Henrietta a copy of the Sunday newspaper. Sheleeah returns, and she and Thomas introduce themselves to one another. Thomas leaves to go to church, and Henrietta begs Sheleeah to sit down and talk with her. Henrietta says she is trying to be more humble but then she adds that being humble "Makes me want to throw up." She also tells Sheleeah that Thomas steals the Sunday paper for her every week. It makes him feel useful, Henrietta says.
Henrietta invites Sheleeah to come to her house. This surprises Sheleeah. It is insinuated that Sheleeah thought Henrietta lived on the street. Henrietta says she has a room she stays in. Then she asks Sheleeah if she wants to come for lunch. Sheleeah reminds Henrietta that she once said that she had no food. Henrietta responds, telling Sheleeah that she will have to bring the food.
Act 1, Scene 5
The last scene of Act One takes place inside the room Henrietta stays in. As Henrietta cooks some very old beans, Sheleeah looks around Henrietta's place. She sees photographs and asks who the people are. One is Henrietta's daughter. Sheleeah is surprised that Henrietta is a mother. Another photograph is Henrietta's son. Henrietta confesses that she has three children: one daughter, Tootie, and two sons, Keith and Frazier. Henrietta is reluctant to provide any details about her children, and she finally Page 119 | Top of Article tells Sheleeah that they are all dead. Henrietta points out the pictures of her two husbands, Henry and Laney.
Henrietta tells Sheleeah that the jars she asked for are to hold the fruit salad she makes and sells. That is how Henrietta makes money. Thomas shows up again, and Henrietta tells Sheleeah that Thomas is her landlord. When Henrietta tells Sheleeah that she does favors for Thomas, Sheleeah thinks Henrietta is referring to sexual favors. Henrietta says it is nothing like that. She does Thomas's laundry in exchange for cheap rent. Sheleeah admits that she once used sex to earn money, because there was a time when she had no other way of making a living.
Henrietta and Sheleeah proceed to get drunk on a bottle of very cheap and very old sherry. The more they drink, the more they open up to one another. In some ways, Sheleeah says she would like to be more like Henrietta. Sheleeah believes that Henrietta's lifestyle is attractive because Henrietta seems to have so much freedom to do whatever she wants. Sheleeah also thinks that Henrietta is very clever in the way she controls other people, making them do what she wants them to do. Sheleeah also insinuates that she believes Henrietta fakes being mentally unstable.
The conversation between Henrietta and Sheleeah becomes more irrational as the scene closes. Henrietta asks Sheleeah to be her friend, then tells her she does not need anyone. By the end, however, Henrietta admits that she would like to call Sheleeah "Tootie." As Sheleeah is about to leave, Henrietta suggests that if Sheleeah loves her, "This time I'll be better. I'll be so much better." It is through this statement that Henrietta lets the audience know that she believes Sheleeah is her daughter who has come back home to her.
Act 2, Scene 1
When act two opens, it is late October, a few weeks later. Thomas and Sheleeah are sitting outside the building in which Henrietta lives. Thomas is attempting to tell Sheleeah a story, but she is too distracted to sit still. Sheleeah wants to leave and asks Thomas to tell Henrietta that she has stopped by. As soon as Sheleeah leaves, Henrietta appears. She is carrying a big bag of fruit and is nicely dressed. Henrietta tells Thomas she is tired but insists that she must "get ready for Tootie."
Thomas tells Henrietta that he is thinking of inviting Sheleeah to a church function. Henrietta warns Thomas that he is not Sheleeah's type of date. Thomas says he would rather Sheleeah be like a sister. When Henrietta explains that she took down the clothes line inside her apartment but puts it back up when Sheleeah is not around, Thomas comments that Henrietta is not being totally honest. "Holding out on her, huh? Not like you and me—we trust each other."
After Thomas and Henrietta go inside the building, Sheleeah appears. She boasts of having gotten away with pretending she was "a little off." She says she has learned how to do this from watching Henrietta. Thomas takes offense at this statement, claiming that Henrietta is not crazy as Sheleeah has insinuated. Sheleeah defends herself, saying, "OFF was probably a poor choice of words, FREE. I was free instead of appropriate." As the conversation continues, Sheleeah brushes all of Thomas's comments to the side. Sheleeah makes it evident that she is there to talk only to Henrietta. However, Henrietta tells Sheleeah that they cannot talk in front of Thomas unless they include him in their conversation. Sheleeah becomes angry and leaves.
Act 2, Scene 2
The next scene takes place a month later. Sheleeah is trying to enter Henrietta's apartment, but Thomas is blocking her way. He has noticed how often Sheleeah has been coming by and wants to know what Sheleeah and Henrietta are doing. Thomas accuses Sheleeah of taking Henrietta away from him. He tries to scare Sheleeah by telling her that he was in jail once for killing someone. Sheleeah pays little attention to him, leaving him outside as she finally makes it to Henrietta's room.
Sheleeah has been making plans for Henrietta. She wants to turn Henrietta's fruit selling into a bigger business. She also wants Henrietta to move. Henrietta is reluctant about both ideas. She is not used to working with someone else, and Sheleeah definitely talks as if she is a business partner. Sheleeah is also very bossy, telling Henrietta she has to make big changes in her life. She has to dress better, write down her recipes, and make more money. Henrietta fights against those changes, but Sheleeah does not listen to her. Where once Sheleeah was trying to be more like Henrietta, she is now trying to make Henrietta more like her.
Henrietta asks Sheleeah to find her a man. Henrietta describes the man she wants: someone who has all his teeth, a car, a good job, and a decent place to live. Sheleeah is surprised that Page 120 | Top of Article Henrietta would consider a relationship with a man. But Henrietta has set her mind on it and tells Sheleeah to bring a man around in two weeks.
Thomas enters Henrietta's place and asks her not to leave. He accuses Sheleeah of wanting to take Henrietta away from him. The conversation among the three of them becomes very confused. Henrietta begins calling Sheleeah "Tootie" again and referring to her as her daughter. Sheleeah asks Henrietta to control herself. She wants Henrietta to go back to being as rational as she was a few minutes before. Then Sheleeah and Thomas shout at one another. Sheleeah calls Thomas "a moron." At this point Henrietta tells Thomas and Sheleeah to stop screaming. She also tells Sheleeah she should not call Thomas names. Sheleeah insists that Henrietta make a choice between her and Thomas. Henrietta tells Sheleeah that Thomas is family, and she could never leave him. With everyone yelling, Henrietta becomes very confused. The scene ends with Henrietta shouting "DON'T TAKE MY FAMILY!!!!!"
Act 2, Scene 3
Scene 3 takes place two weeks later. Thomas and Henrietta are talking outside of their building. Henrietta tells Thomas she has not seen Sheleeah (she calls her "Tootie") for two days. Thomas tells Henrietta that he saw her. He went by her apartment and found out that she was moving. Some men were there with a truck. Thomas helped Sheleeah pack. He has no idea where she is going. Henrietta accuses Thomas of lying to her. Henrietta cries because she feels Sheleeah has lied to her.
Act 2, Scene 4
The last scene of the play is very short. Henrietta is back on the street, sitting on her crate. She is calling out to strangers as they pass by. She criticizes how people look. Then she tells them that Sheleeah was too attached to her. She says Sheleeah "tried to get" her. She says Sheleeah had "lots of expectations and attachments. That's what messes you up," Henrietta says.
Henrietta Mabeline Barthalamew
Henrietta is the fifty-to-sixty-year-old protagonist of this play. It is around her that most of the action occurs. She is not homeless, but nearly so. She lives by her wits, begging for food and making enough money to supplement her diet. Most of her time is spent sitting on the sidewalk outside the building where she lives in a one-room apartment. Henrietta's favorite pastime is making comments to people who pass by, telling them how they look, criticizing the colors they are wearing, or otherwise making fun of them. She believes it is through her comments that she teaches others how to live.
Henrietta has been married twice and had three children. Both of her husbands and all three children are dead. This makes her feel very unlucky. She makes vile comments about her sister, whom Henrietta believes is not as good a person as she is. Henrietta admits that she is jealous of her sister, though, because her husband and children are still alive. Sometimes, Henrietta's thoughts can be very rational. She knows what she has to do every day to keep clean and fed, for example. However, if things happen too fast around her, she quickly becomes confused. She also often contradicts herself. At one moment she says she needs no one but herself. At other times, she acts very lonesome and dependent on others.
Though she attempts to hide her emotions, Henrietta has moments when her feelings are completely exposed. In particular, she misses having a family. She feels cursed for having lost her husbands, her sons, and her daughter. When Sheleeah befriends her, Henrietta imagines that Sheleeah is her daughter Tootie. Henrietta acts as if the presence of Sheleeah has given her a second chance to prove that she is a good mother. If she can open up to Sheleeah, then maybe the curse would be lifted, and she would be happy again. In the end, after Sheleeah abandons her, Henrietta comments that it is much better to be unattached to everything and everyone around her. It is better to keep her emotions to herself and to keep quiet.
Thomas owns the building in which Henrietta lives. Therefore Thomas is Henrietta's landlord. He inherited the building when his mother died. Thomas, a man in his forties, is rather slow-witted. Henrietta describes him like this: "He'd a been a hood, if he hadn't been so stupid." Sheleeah calls Thomas "a moron." Henrietta reprimands Sheleeah for saying this to Thomas's face, although Henrietta secretly agrees. Thomas, on the other hand, thinks of himself as a killer. It is not clear Page 121 | Top of Article whether Thomas really has a criminal record or he just claims to have murdered someone to make him sound powerful and mean. Sometimes Thomas likes to scare people so they will take him seriously.
Thomas takes care of Henrietta in small ways. He steals the Sunday newspaper for her each week. He gives her a special financial break on the rent and lets her use his bathroom. He also looks in on her to make sure that she has food and is feeling well. Thomas also needs Henrietta. She provides him with a sense of family. He becomes jealous and feels threatened when Sheleeah makes plans to take Henrietta away. He cannot stand the idea of Henrietta not living across the hall from him. He tells Henrietta, at the end of the play, that Sheleeah has moved away. He helped her move, he tells Henrietta. This is never verified, and at one point, Henrietta is concerned that Thomas might have killed Sheleeah to get rid of her. This issue is not resolved by the end of the last scene.
Frazier was Henrietta's oldest son. He appears in this play only through a photograph. Henrietta describes him as "hell on wheels." Henrietta insinuates that Frazier died while in the military. At one point, Henrietta says: "Frazier had fifty more days in active duty, then he would have been home."
Though Henrietta first calls her "Shelra" and later calls her "Tootie," her real name is Sheleeah. She is a twenty-eight-year-old businesswoman who lives near Henrietta. Henrietta sees Sheleeah walk by almost every day and taunts her with insults about the way she dresses and the men she dates. Eventually Sheleeah tries to make friends with Henrietta, hoping that will stop Henrietta from picking on her. The more Sheleeah learns about Henrietta the more she is attracted to her. Because Sheleeah believes that Henrietta has more freedom than she does, she wants to be more like her. So Sheleeah begins to practice being somewhat off, mentally, as she imagines Henrietta is. There are times throughout the play when Sheleeah believes Henrietta is only pretending to have mental issues in order to control the people around her.
At first, because Henrietta does not have to work, Sheleeah thinks Henrietta has a better life. However, Sheleeah turns things around once Henrietta starts calling her Tootie, Henrietta's dead daughter's name. As her relationship with Henrietta grows closer, Sheleeah wants to make Henrietta become more like her, a businesswoman with a lot of money. She wants to change Henrietta's life. When Henrietta understands what Sheleeah is attempting to do, she stops her. In response, Sheleeah runs away. She eventually leaves the neighborhood without telling Henrietta where she is going. The last time Sheleeah and Henrietta are together, Henrietta says that Sheleeah thinks she is better than Henrietta. "You want me to rise to your level. That's it! But I won't. It ain't up! It's even!" This observation by Henrietta might have been too difficult for Sheleeah to face. Immediately after this, Sheleeah disappears from Henrietta's life and two scenes later, the play ends.
Henrietta's sister is mentioned a few times in the play but she never makes an appearance. Henrietta describes her sister as being "hateful" and a "child abuser." Henrietta expresses jealousy caused by her sister's children still being alive, though Henrietta's children are all dead.
Henry is Henrietta's first husband. He is dead by the time of the play. Henrietta tells Sheleeah a little bit about him. Henry was "kind of firm and stiff" Henrietta says. He was also the father of Henrietta's three children.
Keith was Henrietta's second-born son. He does not appear in the play except through a photograph; he died without Henrietta knowing about it immediately. Henrietta describes Keith as being "sickly the whole time."
Laney was Henrietta's second husband, who is dead. Henrietta compares Laney to her first husband, finding Laney to be kinder and "a good time man." However, Henrietta also states that Laney "died of meanness." After Henrietta's first husband left her, Laney helped raise Henrietta's three children.
George is a man who works with Sheleeah. He never makes an appearance in this play, but Sheleeah mentions him when Henrietta begins to talk Page 122 | Top of Article about wanting a man in her life. Sheleeah believes George would make a perfect match for Henrietta.
Henrietta's daughter, Tootie, never makes an appearance in this play except through a photograph. Sheleeah asks questions about her when she visits Henrietta's apartment. Tootie's father was Henry, Henrietta's first husband. Tootie left home when she was a teen because she did not get along well with Henrietta's second husband, Laney. Henrietta feels responsible for her daughter's death. Later, Henrietta states that Tootie had a drug problem. She also says that Tootie was a "girl thug, with a knife and everything." Henrietta begins to call Sheleeah "Tootie" later on in the play. Henrietta imagines that Tootie has come back to give Henrietta a second chance at being a better mother.
One of the main themes of Jones Meadows's play Henrietta is freedom of choice. Although the character Sheleeah believes that Henrietta exemplifies this theme, both female characters exercise this freedom.
Henrietta sets her own pace throughout the day. She sits on her crate on the sidewalk when she wants to. She either reads the paper while she sits there, cuts up fruit to sell, or badgers people who walk by. Though she has some restraints in her life, she is the character who could easily be seen as the most free.
In the middle of the play, Sheleeah offers Henrietta a chance to change her life. Sheleeah buys new clothes for Henrietta and offers guidance in how Henrietta could improve her fruit-selling business so she can make more money. Sheleeah is also willing to help Henrietta find a better place to live and a new man-friend. But Henrietta chooses to turn these offers down. She realizes how much of her personal freedom she would have to sacrifice in order to improve her life, based on Sheleeah's interpretation of success. In the end, Henrietta decides that financial success is too confining. She exercises her freedom of choice by choosing not to change.
Sheleeah also has freedom of choice. Sheleeah has enough money to make her life more comfortable than Henrietta's. She has a nicer apartment, pretty clothes, and two boyfriends. By some definitions, Sheleeah is a success. But Sheleeah does not like the confinement of having to go to work each day and having to deal with people she does not like. For a while, Sheleeah thinks Henrietta is happier and luckier than she is. But the better Sheleeah comes to know Henrietta, the more she discovers the flaws in Henrietta's life. For Sheleeah, Henrietta is not much better off than a homeless person. She compares her life with Henrietta's and comes to the conclusion that she is much better off than she had originally thought.
When Henrietta realizes that Sheleeah is trying to change her, she challenges Sheleeah, telling her that they are equals. Sheleeah then uses her freedom of choice to turn her back on Henrietta and return to the world she had previously created.
The theme of jealousy plays out in three different instances. First, Henrietta admits she wants what her sister has. Henrietta says despite the fact that her sister is a mean-spirited woman, she has not lost her husband or any of her children. In contrast, Henrietta has lost everyone. Henrietta does not want to model her sister's behavior, but she does envy her sister's luck in keeping her family together.
Thomas displays jealousy about the budding relationship between Sheleeah and Henrietta. He is fearful that Sheleeah will replace him in Henrietta's life. For her part, Sheleeah is also jealous of Thomas. She makes Henrietta choose between her and Thomas, insinuating that Henrietta cannot maintain relationships with both of them. Through these acts of jealousy, the playwright suggests how devastating and limiting this negative emotion can be. In Henrietta's case, her jealousy can blind her to the beauty of her life and her memories of her family. Her jealousy might also be preventing her from seeing the positive aspects of her sister. Thomas's and Sheleeah's jealousy prevents them from gaining new friendships.
Henrietta believes she must have done something wrong in her life, and that is why she has lost both of her husbands and her three children. She thinks she is being punished. This causes her to reexamine her life, wondering what she did to Page 123 | Top of Article make her less fortunate than her sister, even though Henrietta believes she is better than her sister. Henrietta also tries to figure out why Tootie, her daughter, ran away and turned to drugs, which might have been what killed her. The issue of punishment drives Henrietta to want to call Sheleeah by her daughter's name. In the back of her mind, Henrietta wants to believe that Tootie has come back to her, giving her a second chance to be a better mother. If Henrietta can improve, maybe her wrongdoings (whatever they might be) will be forgiven and her life improve.
The idea of punishment implies a spiritual belief, faith in a higher power. Though Henrietta does not go to church on Sundays as Thomas does, her conviction of punishment insinuates that some power is watching over her, judging
her actions and providing punishments when she does wrong. In Henrietta's case, her punishment is to live with loneliness.
In any fictional art—plays, novels, short stories—authors use conflict to build interest and complexity in their work. Sometimes the conflict is external, such as when a character must confront a great sea storm or a competitor. However, another form of conflict is one that is found inside one or more of the main characters as they struggle with their own thoughts and feelings.
In Jones Meadows's play, all three characters have internal conflicts, some more subtle than others. One of Henrietta's conflicts involves the loss of her family. Throughout the play, she attempts to resolve the emotions she battles in having lost her husbands and her children. The greatest of these is the loss of her daughter, Tootie. More subtle internal conflict that Henrietta faces is her ambivalence about whether she is comfortable living alone, if she enjoys communicating with people, and whether she truly likes her somewhat deviant lifestyle.
Sheleeah and Thomas also have internal conflicts, such as jealousy and insecurities about their identities and their place in life. A playwright exposes internal conflicts through the characters' dialogues—what they say to one another, their tone of voice, their choice of words, and their body language. By bringing the conflicts to light, the characters are given more than one dimension. Thomas, for instance, is not just a dim-witted bungler. He also needs companionship. He wants to help Henrietta and also wants her to help him. Sheleeah is not just a meddling neighbor; she wants to bring Henrietta happiness and is in need of a mother's love. As the characters attempt to resolve their internal conflicts, the audience watches them develop, which makes the characters feel more real and allows the audience to identify with them.
Jones Meadows's play ends without an obvious resolution, a dramatic style that is called open ending. In fact, the play ends very similarly to how it began. Henrietta is sitting on her crate on the sidewalk, basically talking to herself. Though Henrietta has been on a journey, building a relationship with Sheleeah and then losing it, her life has not really changed. Thomas has been forced to expose his feelings toward Henrietta, but his life also remains much the same as it was in the beginning of the play.
The audience is left unsure about what has happened to Sheleeah. Thomas attempts to inform Henrietta, but Henrietta is unsure of Thomas's credibility. This leaves the audience to make conclusions of their own. Has Sheleeah really moved away? Is she going to make an appearance later? Did Thomas kill her to be rid of her? Audiences might also wonder if Henrietta or Thomas have been affected by Sheleeah's appearance in their lives. Though it appears that their lives are unchanged on the outside, what do they feel? Sheleeah stirred their emotions, but to what effect? None of these questions are answered by the playwright by the end of the play.
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
In Jones Meadows's play, Henrietta says: "I don't talk to nobody that listens. Get you in trouble. Look at Malcolm … how they shot him down. Know why don't you?—Cause he talked too much. To be smart, he was a ignorant sucker." In these statements, Henrietta is referring to Malcolm X.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken minister who encouraged his congregation to stand up for their civil rights. When Malcolm was six years old, his father's tortured body was found on the town's train tracks. Malcolm's mother had a mental breakdown after that, and Malcolm grew up in foster homes and orphanages. As a young adult, he spent seven years in jail, where he became interested in a Black Muslim religion referred to as the Nation of Islam. Upon his release from prison, it was through this organization that Malcolm began to encourage African Americans to band together and demand a separate state of their own, believing they would never get ahead in America as long as they allowed white people to dominate them. Malcolm was an eloquent speaker and had a charismatic personality. Crowds of people showed up wherever he spoke.
In 1964, Malcolm became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and left that organization and created his own, the Muslim Mosque. His earlier beliefs about blacks living separate from white people were tempered, and he began preaching the benefits of all races living in peace together. His comments irritated the members of the Nation of Islam, and according to FBI reports, Malcolm was marked for assassination. On February 21, 1965, three gunmen from the Nation of Islam rushed the stage where Malcolm was speaking at the Manhattan Audubon Ballroom and shot him to death.
History of Modern Social Welfare in the United States
The concept of the federal government assisting the poor did not really occur until the Great Depression. In the 1930s, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies, several programs, such as social security, unemployment insurance, and other relief programs were enacted to help U.S. citizens during very difficult economic times.
During the 1960s, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program and the War on Poverty, social welfare programs were
enhanced to help decrease poverty, homelessness, and hunger, and to help pay for treatments for people who suffered from physical and mental problems. Programs such as food stamps, which helped to eliminate hunger for the poor, and Medicaid and Medicare, which helped to pay for the medical needs of senior citizens as well as disadvantaged people, were established.
In the 1970s, though, critics of the welfare program became more vocal. By that time, the number of people on welfare increased dramatically. As the welfare programs expanded, critics of the program pointed out that neither unemployment nor poverty were being eradicated. They claimed that poor people were becoming dependent on welfare checks and had lost interest in improving their lives. So during the 1980s both the federal and state governments attempted to reform the welfare system. Programs were cut, leaving many homeless people and those with mental problems to fend for themselves.
By the 1990s, many of those who studied the welfare programs realized that the reforms that had been implemented in the 1980s were not working. Then in 1996, under President Bill Clinton, an overhaul of the system was created. On August 22, 1996, Clinton signed a reform bill that limited welfare benefits in many ways. One way was to limit the time a person could receive assistance and encouraged recipients to find work. In 1994, before the Clinton act, there were over five million families enlisted in welfare programs in the United States. Ten years after Clinton's reforms, that number had dropped to just a little under two million.
Henrietta was first produced in 1985 by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City. The play Page 127 | Top of Article has not garnered a lot of critical attention through the years, but overall, those who do comment offer favorable reflections. Frank Rich from the New York Times saw the first production of Henrietta in 1985, and begins his review with the words: "Any character actress in her right mind would probably kill to play the title role." Rich goes on to describe the lead character of this play as "the most unforgettable character anyone has ever met." However, Rich also points out that the play itself "is thin." Rich credits this to the playwright's lack of experience and her obvious "desire to say something trenchant about the values of contemporary black women."
In a more recent article, David Hannah, writing for the Philadelphia Tribune, after Jones Meadows's play was stage at the city's Bushfire Theatre, describes the drama as "a combination of good chemistry with well placed humor." Hannah adds that the play is "worth watching." Lynda Lane, also writing for the Philadelphia Tribune for the same 1995 production of Henrietta, states that Jones Meadows "directs a message through the three characters that speak of freedom of choice."
Elizabeth Maupin, writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2002, describes the protagonist of Jones Meadows's play like someone who "waddles in and out, talks a blue streak and laughs uproariously at her own aphorisms." For this particular production, Maupin faults the actress who had the lead role for dampening down the effect of Jones Meadows's work rather than faulting the writing. Another production of Henrietta was staged in Sacramento, California in 2006. In reviewing the play, Antonio R. Harvey, writing for the Sacramento Observer finds the drama to be "entertaining, humorous and compassionate."
Hart is a published author and creative writing teacher. In this essay, she captures a clear picture of Henrietta, the lead character in Jones Meadows's play Henrietta despite the contradictions the character presents.
The potency of Jones Meadows's drama Henrietta is played out in full through the play's leading character. Despite, or maybe because of, her ambiguities, Henrietta brings not only strength to the play but also humor, interest, complexity, and unity. Though the audience witnesses little change in the character of Henrietta from beginning to end of the play, this complicated woman offers multiple versions of herself throughout the play, sometimes changing her ideas of herself even in the middle of an utterance. It might make the audience wonder what message Jones Meadows is attempting to deliver in presenting such a baffling leading character.
Henrietta spends most of her time out on the sidewalk talking to no one in particular. She yells out comments as if she wants to be heard, but at the same time she tells the strangers who pass her that she does not like to talk to people who listen to her. She also declares that their lack of interest in her does not hurt her feelings. So from the beginning, Henrietta's statements are suspect. Why, for instance, would she even mention hurt feelings if she were not thinking about them? With this comment, the author signals that the audience needs to pay attention to what Henrietta says and weigh the veracity of her words, because Henrietta often says things she does not really mean. The truth of Henrietta is often found somewhere in the middle of what she says and how she contradicts herself.
This ambiguity continues in the next series of scenes, in which Henrietta insults the bright colors of Sheleeah's clothes. Sheleeah brushes Henrietta's comments off as if they meant nothing to her and walks away. Henrietta tells Sheleeah that she should listen to her. Other people, Henrietta insinuates, respect what she has to say. But as Sheleeah disappears, Henrietta alters her comment to: "Well, I use to command respect." Here Henrietta brings humor into the play as she off-handedly makes fun of herself. However, when Sheleeah next appears, instead of the bright colors she wore the day before, she is dressed in black. But Henrietta finds this drastic change just as ridiculous and tells Sheleeah what she thinks. Again Sheleeah appears to slough off
Henrietta's comments. But on the third day, when Sheleeah appears, she is dressed "very nicely" according to the stage directions. Through these scenes, the author points out that even though Henrietta might be delusional, she has influenced Sheleeah. So in part, Henrietta's opinions of Page 129 | Top of Article herself are at least partially correct. Though she might not command respect through her appearance and anti-social behavior, she has influenced Sheleeah. This signals that there is more to Henrietta than meets the eye.
In act one, scene three, Henrietta repeats a reference to someone hurting her feelings. Sheleeah is hesitant about finding empty jars for Henrietta, and Henrietta takes this personally. At least, that is what Henrietta wants Sheleeah to believe. When Henrietta senses that Sheleeah does not want to help her, she gives Sheleeah a lecture, one with confusing advice. First she tells Sheleeah that people are supposed to look out for one another by doing "all in your power to help them." But by the end of her short speech, Henrietta says that she is finished with "being nice to people. I know better." Here the audience has to look below the surface of her words and try to understand Henrietta, which is difficult to do. Is she merely manipulating Sheleeah, trying to make Sheleeah feel sorry for her and help her? Or was Henrietta hurt so profoundly in her past that she is afraid to be nice to other people because she does not want to be hurt again? Does Henrietta understand that it is good to be nice to others, or is she full of hot air, merely using the concept of social support so she can get sympathy and the jars she needs? The definition of who Henrietta truly is remains a mystery.
In act one, scene five, Henrietta makes another confusing statement. She talks about her insanity, describing her state of mind to Sheleeah. This happens as Sheleeah is looking at the photographs of Henrietta's family, making the surprising discovery that not only was Henrietta twice married but that she is also a mother. As Henrietta recalls the hardships of her marriages and the loss of her children, she stops and asks Sheleeah, "Know why I left my mind?" She does not give Sheleeah any time to speculate and immediately explains that she was forced out of her mind. It was too crowded because she had all those thoughts about the people she had lost. Henrietta then says, "you can separate your mind, you know that." She also declares that she is not really crazy, "just out of my mind." Trying to make sense of this is a challenge. If someone were out of their mind, would they know it? Could they explain it? Is Henrietta really out of her mind or is she just acting like that so she can slip into a world where she does not have to think? But she does think. She talks about her husbands and children, at least to Sheleeah. Can a person control their insanity, losing their mind when they want to? These are more questions that the author does not answer. She presents these questions through Henrietta but leaves her audience to answer them.
In scene two in act two, Henrietta describes how she learned to be a street person. For her, it was a charade. She says "I had to study months to learn how to get things free." She learned from three other street people while she apprenticed herself to them. She learned how to walk and talk like she was a derelict. She learned how to beg. She did not like the part of street life that included stealing or sleeping on sidewalks, so that was why she started selling fruit, to make enough money so she would not have to do that. But she did act out the role of looking broken down and destitute so others would feel sorry for her when she begged. She admits that she also knew how to manipulate the police so they would not arrest her. With this admission, Henrietta becomes more suspicious. She definitely has chosen this path, all the aspects of it—the mental breakdown, the poverty, the distance from those around her. She claims to love the life she has created, though she has moments when she blames others for her poverty. At one point she tells Sheleeah that it is people like her, who look down on Henrietta, that are at the root of the poor quality of her life.
By the end of the play, Henrietta is all over the place. She wants Sheleeah to come back. Then she convinces herself that Sheleeah has gone home to her family because Henrietta pushed her in that direction. Then she says she does not need Sheleeah. She also tries to push Thomas away and then panics when she thinks he has left her. In the closing moments, Henrietta is calmer, but that peace has come at a cost. Once again, she has closed herself off from the world. She claims she needs no one. She declares that Sheleeah is the one with a messed up mind, not her. And then Henrietta says she knows she is right because "I excel in being … correct." If the audience attempted to find one word that would describe Henrietta, it might be the word "confused."
The author might have used the theme of human perceptions to tie this play together. The first hint of this is Henrietta's perception that she is always correct, no matter what she says or how she contradicts herself. This comment could be
pointing out that other people's perceptions might be just as off kilter. What are people's perceptions of Henrietta? Is she a derelict as Sheleeah once thought of her? Is she mentally off, as Henrietta refers to herself? With the barrage of insults that Henrietta throws out at the crowds, is Henrietta a mean person? Or is she softhearted deep down, using the vile verbiage to throw people offtrack, to encourage people to keep their distance from her, despite the fact that some part of Henrietta wants to be close to them?
Most people would look at Henrietta and call her poor. But Henrietta says she does not want more money. She looks at Sheleeah, who has money, and feels sorry for her. Sheleeah's pursuit of money, Henrietta implies, makes her feel superior to those who do not have it. For most of time in this play, Henrietta does not want for anything; but Sheleeah's desires for more material things drive her life, always making her feel as if she does not have enough. So between Henrietta and Sheleeah, which of them is more at peace, or happier, or has a richer experience?
All these questions that Jones Meadows leaves unanswered are what provide depth to this play. The audience has to work through their own feelings and perceptions in order to understand Henrietta. By creating an ambiguous character to lead the play, the author could be saying that it is not good to pigeon-hole anyone. Stereotyping people is the easy way out. The play points out that Henrietta is not what she seems. Typical perceptions do not define her. With her doubts and confusion, Henrietta demonstrates that she is a complex being, like everyone else.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Henrietta, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following review, Hudson summarizes the role of Sheleeah in a local production of Henrietta.
Henrietta was first produced in New York about 21 years ago. The script by Karen Jones-Meadows introduces us to a spunky Harlem bag lady in her 50s, with a penchant for loudly announcing exactly what's on her mind. She is boldly assertive yet humorous and often warm. She has more than one screw loose, but sometimes her remarks cut close to the bone.
Like many derelicts, Henrietta has a touch of lunacy, and we gradually learn that she's endured losses that would test anyone's sanity. But Henrietta's madness (like Hamlet's) is deliberate to a degree. She appreciates that being "crazy" also allows her a degree of personal freedom, and even protection.
The play describes the arc of Henrietta's unlikely friendship with Sheleeah, a sexy, well-dressed, young professional woman. Henrietta and Sheleeah have utterly different lifestyles and goals, and yet, in a strange way, they need each other.
Henrietta, as produced locally by Celebration Arts, is at times effective but at other times quite uneven. Actress Coni Taylor (as Henrietta) does the street lady with aplomb, focusing her intense, unpredictable demands on Sheleeah and occasionally on members of the audience. Actress Cecily J. (as Sheleeah) develops a credible relationship with Henrietta. Gregory Jolivette rounds out the cast as Henrietta's landlord. But the production (directed by Linda Barton White) moves awkwardly, with pauses between scenes, occasional lapses of momentum and continuity, and glitches with sound and lighting.
Henrietta is an interesting piece, with some good acting, but this production comes up short in several areas. At the same time, Henrietta has more to say than several glossier, more mainstream shows about town. We recommend Henrietta, notwithstanding its shortcomings, while simultaneously hoping for more consistency and polish in the next effort from Celebration Arts.
Source: Jeff Hudson, Review of Henrietta, in Sacramento News & Review, Arts & Culture section, September 14, 2006.
In the following review of the Negro Ensemble Company's production of Henrietta, Beaufort discusses the poignancy of the work despite the forced dramatic action.
Henrietta sits astride a box in front of a dilapidated Harlem brownstone, heckling passers-by. "I don't talk to nobody that listens," she proclaims cheerfully. But Henrietta definitely wants to be heard. She is a bag lady with a difference. She blows up small paper bags and explodes them to punctuate her fusillades of words. Add to the foregoing that Henrietta is played with gusto and a gambit of emotions by the wonderful Frances Foster and you will get the general impression of the unpretentious new comedy being presented by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four.
Karen Jones-Meadows has written Henrietta with genuine affection for her scruffy monologuist. Henrietta's humor and irrepressible audacity are almost always a match for the dark demons that might drive her across the line that distinguishes harmless eccentricity from a more seriously disturbed mental state. "I'm not crazy," Henrietta tells her new friend Sheleeah, "just out of my mind." To Henrietta, the troubles she's seen eminently qualify her to deal with the problems of the world. "That's what I'm here for," she informs the skeptical Sheleeah (Elain Graham).
Having established the dimensions for her character portrait (with subordinate figures), the playwright unfolds a slender tale of a fragile relationship. After a few rounds of verbal hostilities, Henrietta and Sheleeah become friends. Admitted to Henrietta's riotously cluttered tenement room, Sheleeah learns about the men she married and the children she lost or from whom she has been estranged. Henrietta's account of a checkered past occasionally gives way to a momentary outburst of desperate inner rage.
Henrietta is in fact a study of loneliness and the human need for interdependent relationships. As the relationship between the two women develops, Henrietta assumes the role of surrogate mother and even begins imagining that Sheleeah is her daughter. For her part, the younger woman sees financial possibilities in Henrietta's fruit-salad concoction and wants to move her out of her shabby quarters. The latter project is furiously opposed by Henrietta's indulgent landlord-neighbor (William Jay). The confrontation ends predictably.
With Miss Foster to fill out all the dimensions of the central character, her depths as well as her surfaces, Henrietta comes off best as a beguiling and touching stage portrait. Miss Graham's crisp Sheleeah and Mr. Jay's bewildered landlord contribute to the development of what becomes a three-way relationship. The author's problem emerges in the development itself, the increasing sense of contrivance in the attempts to intensify the dramatic situation.
Samuel P. Barton's staging faithfully responds to the common humanity and the human comedy of the extending vignettes. Llewellyn Harrison's setting handily encompasses the three principal Page 132 | Top of Article sectors of action. The production was lighted by Sylvester N. Weaver and costumed by Karen Perry. The tender, incidental tones of "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child …" underscore the feeling of this poignant stage miniature.
Source: John Beaufort, "Gusto and Unpretentiousness from the Negro Ensemble Company: Henrietta," in Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 1985, p. 32.
Davis, Anthony C., "Play Examines the Philosophies of DuBois, Booker T.", in Philadelphia Tribune, April 4, 1997, Sect. C, p. 1.
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Hannah, David, Review of Henrietta, in Philadelphia Tribune, October 27, 1995, Sect. E, p. 9.
Harvey, Antonio R., Review of Henrietta, in Sacramento Observer, September 28-October 4, 2006, Sect. E, p. 2.
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X, Malcolm, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, edited by Alex Haley, Penguin Books, 1973.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America, Praeger Paperback, 1990.
This books offers an extensive background reading for anyone interested in the history of African American female playwrights, such as Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, and Ntozake Shange. Besides a review of the playwrights' works, a brief history of the African origins of African American theater is explored. The author offers her interpretation of the playwrights' major plays as well as an analysis of the theme and images that the dramatists offer.
Elam, Harry, Jr., The Fire This Time: African-American Plays for the 21st Century, Theatre Communications Group, 2002.
For a more contemporary experience of African American drama, this anthology offers plays by August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Robert O'Hara, Robert Alexander, Kamilah Forbes and the Hip Hop Junction, and Stephen Sapp, to name a few of the included writers.
Henderson, Mary, The City and the Theatre: The History of New York Playhouses: A 250 Year Journey from Bowling Green to Times Square, Back Stage Books, 2004.
Extensively researched, Henderson's book offers readers a comprehensive history of how the theater districts of New York were formed. The book begins in 1699, when the first petition was made for a license to perform plays in Manhattan, and ends with the end of the twentieth century and the making (and re-making) of Times Square. Photographs and a list of historic buildings are also included.
Krasner, David, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
The Harlem Renaissance refers to the first time that major publications paid serious attention to the writings of African Americans. Krasner focuses on this period but with an eye to some of the lesser-known artists from this period, such as Georgia Douglas Johnson and Willis Richardson. Krasner offers insights into this historic period, making this book a good reference for students interested in black theater and culture.
Nevius, Michelle, and James Nevius, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, Free Press, 2009.
This is more than a tourist guidebook of New York City. The authors provide a thorough history that extends back to the time of Page 133 | Top of Article glaciers and goes forward to the birth of gay rights. If a major event occurred in the city, there is a good chance readers will find a story about it in this book.
Perkins, Kathy A., ed., Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays before 1950, Indiana University Press, 1990.
The works of seven black playwrights are the focus of this publication. They include Georgia Douglas Johnson, Mary P. Burrill, Zora Neale Hurston, Eulalie Spence, May Miller, Marita Bonner, and Shirley Graham. The styles and themes of these playwrights are diverse, giving the reader a sense of the black experience during the turn of the twentieth century.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400017