The Lesson of Corbin Teal: A Full Review of “Things of Dry Hours”

August 1, 2009
A full review of Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours by Rhone Fraser

In a three hour, two act play, all of which takes place within the home of an Alabama Communist Sunday school teacher named Tice Hogan, playwright Naomi Wallace manages to invert traditional Western power structure in the United States. She presents a setting that is reversed from the world we have come to allow and accept, where whiteness means weakness instead of power; where lust is subdued instead of overindulged; and most important, where the question of whether human nature can change is engaged instead of ignored. Tice (Delroy Lindo) is a recently laid off steel mill worker who actively attempts to change human nature through his Communist teachings, as a dues paying member “and unit leader of the Communist party of Alabama.” To be Black and Communist in Alabama was a dangerous thing to be, especially during the Great Depression. Tice is both at this time and seeks to expand Communist membership. He opens this play detailing how industry and the state can unite to crush labor organization:

“It is 1932. In Birmingham, Alabama. And the world is a furnace. For a while the fat of fire drips down the monstrous chains of a few small pale gods, iron ore workers, steel workers, coal miners, black and white, are out of work, out of world. National Guard shoots diamonds into the backs of strikers in the park. The Red Cross waves cold pistols over angels on relief as the Share Cropper Union smokes in gun battles with police. Bollweevils grow so fat they use them for tires and judases bloom. And all the while, T.C.I., Tennessee Coal and Iron, cathedral of steel and smoke, leans down over the city’s crib from all directions and smothers her in her sleep… I, Tice Hogan, have two books. And I am alive to all things that bind us.”

Wallace’s poetic language shows how people who lived in this time relied on nature and used it to understand the world they lived in. Tice’s description of T.C.I. as one that “smothers” a city exposes the ways that business interests persistently tried to undermine or destroy organized labor. The “two books” that Tice relies on to be “alive” are the Bible and the Communist Manifesto. He uses knowledge from both to fight the “things that bind us.” From Tice we learn not only the power of private industry, but the need to choose specific causes to fight for. One of the fights Tice wages is the fight to be paid actual wages rather than in scrip, which was a document that could easily be manipulated by industry to deprive workers of their earnings. We are introduced to his daughter Cali (Roslyn Ruff) who works as a washerwoman for the Alabama elite. She seeks female companionship for a father who busies himself in book learning, telling him: “that’s what reading a book so long does to a man: thins the muscle. A bird could land on your arm just like a wire.” Tice urges his daughter to socialize and seek a husband. Yet like her father, Cali also dodges a romantic relationship: “I just want to be left alone.” She however secretly longs for the kind of relationship her father had. While he’s sleeping in scene three, she asks how it feels to be loved up “’til you couldn’t stand it anymore.” Both father and daughter have lost their spouses and have resigned to focusing on their work: Tice to his teaching and Cali to supporting the two of them. In order to provide the money required for Tice’s teaching, Cali endures the predatory behavior of her white male bosses. Wallace portrays her dealing with this in a very sensitive way. She role plays her bosses molesting her by using shoes as puppets, imitating the voice of her sexual predator boss: “Touch my seams, they’re so hot they’re burnin’…Kiss it, you whore.” Wallace credits several academics for providing the historical information “crucial” to the making of this play, one of them being Tera Hunter, author of To Joy My Freedom, who in it writes that “Black women were the victims of sexual abuse in their workplaces, yet accused of being their aggressors” (106). Cali deals with such abuse by role playing, to Tice’s disapproval. We see here the helplessness of Black men at this time in being unable to protect their daughters because of their unemployment; Cali depends on her income to help support her and her father’s teachings, despite her bosses’ sexual abuse.
Wallace provides the catalyst of this plot through the actions of a white runaway foundry worker, Corbin Teal, who arrives one night, claiming he’s running from the police for striking a foreman and needs a place to stay. From the moment Tice meets him, he is extraordinarily suspicious, questioning everything about him, refusing to divulge even the smallest bit of information, and demanding he leave immediately for his own daughter’s safety. Corbin (Garret Dillahunt) is convinced that Tice is a ‘dirty Red,’ and threatens to leak his Communist work to the police if he does not let him stay. Tice lets him stay, but only on the condition that he leaves by the end of the week. Tice takes the opportunity in these days to teach Corbin, despite his illiteracy, Biblical and Communist principles. He teaches Corbin that “Jesus Christ says the poor…are brothers;” that our minds are broken, and the Communist Manifesto puts it together. More importantly however, Tice teaches Corbin the need to resist labor exploitation by uniting across race: “We’re a party of black and white. And black and white must unite.” This is a similar lesson that Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters was trying to teach, and unlike the film, Wallace’s play ultimately shows how fidelity to the white race destroys potential for labor organization and can ultimately kill working class whites like Corbin. Tice uses the metaphor from nature of the apple to illustrate the importance of uniting across race:

“TCI and work relief want us to shrink up so small we forget we’re apples and think we’re just the…shriveled sum of our seeds…”We’re the apple, branch and the whole damn tree as well. We will not be divided in to our parts. We will be whole or nothing…Therefore, we jobless…apples got to demand a minimum work relief of ten dollars a week, paid in cash, not scrip, and free car fare, free coal. So we’re going down to city hall at dusk and we’re going down together, as a…bushel to get what we need.”

Corbin defiantly says to Tice: “You want to make us believe that we’re equal, me and you.” Tice replies: “I’m not here to teach you to see me as an equal, to behold my humanity. You’re here to learn why you’re so small..all squashed up in the back of your nex, your eyes, your big blue eyes, like two assholes holding their breath.” He tells Corbin of the “smothering” of T.C.I. when he tells the fate of Clyde Johnson who had his fingers broken, J.W. Davis who was lynched, and Ralph Grey who was shot to death, all due to T.C.I’s intimidation of labor organizers. Tice says to Corbin: “That’s where the bosses want us to be, face to face, rather than…” Corbin interrupts: “side by side.” By this time, Cali has noticed Corbin by himself, rehearsing a plan to cut Tice’s throat, saying “Think you’re smart?” Here we see how Corbin as a white man is threatened not only by Tice’s intelligence as a Black man, but his fidelity to Communist principles. In the first scene that Corbin appears, he begins spouting ignorant slogans, about Communists being anarchist, that Tice grammatically corrects in a belittling way. Earlier Corbin asks Cali to call him “sir” twice for the simple fact that he liked it. Wallace shows how Corbin depends on his privilege of whiteness as basically one of the few shreds of dignity left in the refuge of Tice’s household. He tells Tice: “you will teach me to read. And that way I’ll know everything you know.” When Corbin is alone with Cali and tries to convince her of his decency, she tests whether Corbin is the good citizen he claims to be by taking her role playing to a whole new level. She wraps one of her bed sheets around him, rubs soot on his face in order to make him play her, while she rubs porridge on her face in order to play her sexual predator. She then taunts him, saying: “You want it all. I see the lust in your eyes, bitch. I smell the sex on your breath. You’re just waiting for me to take it, aren’t you? You ought to be ashamed. Wet as you are. I could turn you inside out.” Wallace’s stage directions read after this point: “Corbin violently frees himself from the sheet, he pins Cali to the floor and kneels over her. He unbuckles his belt. It seems he is ready to force her. Cali strikes him in the face. He freezes.” Cali says, vindicated: “I see you clear: a decent man.” Cali’s slap represents the serious inversion of power within Tice’s household: a place where Corbin is forced to subdue his own lust in order to prove his decency; a place where a white man can earnestly apologize for his sexual assault of a Black woman; a place Black women are able to have agency over their own body. Cali tells Corbin: “you will not dream on my body” and mean it. This act frees Cali and for the first time she seems able to perceive sex with a white man as one that is not oppressive but potentially loving. Cali’s slap also frees Corbin because it teaches him other meaningful modes of communication besides aggression. Corbin’s later dialogue with Tice proves this when he says that all Tice knows how to do is talk: “I think a man’s natural state is to bleed not to talk.” Before this line, he takes out a razor and cuts his own arm. Tice replies “you’ve got it backwards. We talk so we don’t have to bleed.” Tice sees the importance of diplomatic negotiation whereas Corbin questions its use by cutting himself, expressing his comfort in his language of aggression. Tice proceeds to make extra clear Corbin’s privilege of whiteness, a concept popularized by academic David Roediger in his work The Wages of Whiteness. Whiteness becomes a barrier that prevents many workers like Corbin from uniting across racial lines. When Tice teaches Corbin that whiteness is a matter of “seeing,” a mere social construction, Corbin goes to extraordinary lengths to renounce this privilege by planning to take off all his clothes in front of Tice and Cali. Tice calls this “a test to see what lengths” Corbin will go through “to make himself a new man.” Corbin undresses entirely in an attempt to reconcile, but in a symbolic and not substantive way. He tells Cali: “I’ll stop being what I am. Your father says its possible.” Later, Corbin’s persistence pays off and he develops an obvious physical attraction for Cali who lets him kiss only the hand that she holds up to her lips. When Cali tells Tice that Corbin wants her, Tice tells her “there’s no meanin’ to it.” He is convinced however that what does have meaning is his effect on Corbin: “he’s going out of this house a changed man.” When Tice says he thinks him and Corbin could work together, Corbin resorts to the same level of racism he had before entering Tice’s household: “I don’t want to work with you. I don’t want anything to do with you. I just want to walk out of this house and forget it all.” Tice tells him that he is “no longer the same man,” because he is aware of the way the race struggle is used to perpetuate the class struggle of rich over poor. Corbin in frustration, resorting to his comfortable racism, grabs Tice by the neck and pulls a razor on Tice in what is the climax of this play. Corbin demands that Tice leak the names of the core of the party. Tice gives him three names. Cali suddenly arrives and threatens to kill him with her axe unless he releases her father. He retreats when she gives him three pages that she says are the “inner workings of the Party.” When Corbin leaves, Tice tells Cali that the names he gave were those of T.C.I. board members, and Cali reveals that T.C.I. has in fact killed Corbin. Cali tells Tice that the pages she gave him were pages of his Bible, knowing Corbin could not read.
Corbin serves as a catalyst for both Tice and Cali to get in touch with their emotional sides. After Corbin arrives and leaves his household, Tice renounces his book knowledge and decides not to return the party. After Corbin has lit a flame in Cali, she finally takes her father up on his plea to socialize and she joins the Joy Boy Club. She also starts seeing the world more like her father, when she sees the crack in their ceiling as a map, which was how Tice saw the Manifesto. Wallace reverts the racist theory spouted by France’s prized colonist, former Senegalese president Leopold Senghor who said “to feel is African, to reason is Greek.” Corbin is a white man who admittedly is more carnal than Tice and Cali and who in their company starts to reason in a way he’s never done before. Conversely, Corbin and motivates Tice and Cali to become more carnal in their own way. Tice changed Corbin while Corbin changed both Tice and Cali. However Tice, by changing Corbin made him as a working class whiteman unable to maximize the privileges of his whiteness, for the simple reason that he thwarted Corbin’s function as a scab or Communist spy. Corbin was too vested in and blinded by his own contempt of Tice, his own racism, to notice how T.C.I. was using him to further his own exploitation. He leaves his house arming himself with the racism he needs to wear and claim in order to report the names to T.C.I., except he reported fake names resulting in his death at the hands of T.C.I. Private industry has successfully used the issue of race to divide labor organization, and plays on Corbin’s allegiance to the cause of demoralizing labor instead of strengthening labor. Tice concludes through Corbin’s ultimate betrayal that human nature cannot be changed, and is ultimately limited by its own defection. In Corbin’s case, his own whiteness. Ultimately the kind of human nature that Wallace is suggesting we challenge is the human nature specifically of exploitative business leaders that will do anything at all costs for maximum profit. Corbin has proven that his fidelity to those business interests are more important than his fidelity to the friend in Tice he’s gained over the past few days. This, according to Eric Williams, was the engine of the European slave trade.
The issues presented in this play are relevant to issues today, particularly two: issues regarding the current debate in the Congress over the American Clean Energy and Security Bill and the Employee Free Choice Act. Forces derived from those such as T.C.I. represent the coal industry in Alabama which diligently lobbied to heavily weaken the American Clean Energy and Security Bill earlier this year. In his talk with Amy Goodman, Tyson Slocum from Public Citizen reported that there were several closed door meetings between House Representatives and coal industry lobbyists to make the bill more favorable to coal industry emissions that add to our global warming crisis. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of global warming pollution in the U.S. The closed door meetings that were not visible to the public are similar to the closed door meetings, away from the audience’s view, that went on between Wallace’s Corbin and other spies like him whom T.C.I. used to weaken labor. T.C.I. succeeded in using Corbin the way that the coal industry uses some elected officials in the U.S. House to insert incredibly weak targets in this “Clean Energy” bill. According to Carroll Muffett of Greenpeace, “These weak targets are made even worse by 2 billion tons per year of allowable offsets. Offsets allow polluters to put off for more than a decade of real cuts in their emissions. The offsets are so high that they will exceed the actual pollution reductions required until at least 2026. That’s time we don’t have!” U.S. Representative Artur Davis in a June 26, 2009, C-SPAN interview that the bill would “wreak havoc” on the coal industry because of the cap and trade provisions that he claims would cost jobs in the short term. This short term “loss” would hurt maximum short term profit for the coal industry, which Davis as a congressman is fighting for. He is not considering long term advantages of cutting carbon emissions that could ultimately restore jobs. It allows a domestic manufacturing market for more green jobs, besides the decades-old coal burning-energy. Davis’ stated reasons for opposing this bill favors pollution over economic and environmental progress. The loyalty to big business, despite its destructive effects, that Corbin represents is still present in the twenty first century. Very much like the “Clean Energy” bill, the Employee Free Choice Act was weakened behind closed doors for the benefit of industry. Perhaps the most important provision of this bill was the “card check” that would have required employers to recognize unions if a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted a union. Steven Greenhouse reported in The New York Times that “moderate” Democratic Senators such as Blanche Lincoln said were swayed by business’s vigorous campaign. How exactly were they swayed? By only money? Do we know exactly how Corbin was swayed to serve the interests of T.C.I.? By money? His whiteness? Both? Was it by the belief that people of color cannot be allowed to “cheat the system” at all costs? What we learn from Wallace’s play is that despite these sways or campaigns, industry has the power to crush and silence oppressed people by playing on their most illogical fears, fears rooted in a fundamental racism or irrational concern for “cheating the system.” American government’s laissez-faire, hands-off regulation free policy towards private industry has been the biggest cheater. Such open influence of industry on lawmakers will only further industry’s ability to keep organized labor under their thumb. This same issue is seen in the current healthcare debate. Private insurance uses money, lies and racist fears to stoke some of America’s suburban or rural residents to deny healthcare and voice opposition at the Health care town hall meetings that have been going on in the country over the past month. Most importantly, Wallace’s character of Corbin Teal suggests that white Americans will be killed by the business interests they serve unless they resist identification as a pre-sixties privileged white person (as Corbin couldn’t in his wanting Cali to call him sir, and in his calling Tice arrogant) or a post-sixties taxpaying citizen. The latter identification is merely a mutation of the former. Americans engage in the same racist politics as Corbin Teal, that benefit the coal industry and the private insurance industry in their protest against cap and trade and the public healthcare option. Like Corbin, they will be prematurely killed because they will be unable to think of themselves other than the taxpaying citizens whose issues of concern must be chosen by the mainstream media. Private insurance has learned how to restrict health coverage along racial lines, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s July 21st entry shows, and today’s vocal opponents of the public option are basically present day manifestations of Corbin Teal that work to deny healthcare against other racial groups(http://earlofarihutchinson.blogspot.com/2009/07/blacks-and-hispanics-biggest-losers-if.html). These vocal opponents are used in a cynical way by private insurance the way that Corbin Teal was used by TCI. Even if the public option were made available, there would be less people who could afford to pay for it due to the deepening recession. But private insurance uses money which they could actually use to do what they claim do, provide coverage, to instead pay people to disrupt town hall meetings and advance racism. This play suggests we think outside the box. Corbin Teal represents this inability to do so. However up until he leaves the Hogan household, he is at least offered an alternative way of thinking and being, where people suppress their feelings and work together to accomplish serious gains against oppressive business interests. Robin D.G. Kelley in Hammer and Hoe writes that “like their enslaved ancestors of the antebellum South, black Alabama Communists understood the terrain of struggle and relied primarily on evasive, cunning forms of resistance” (101). Wallace shows how both Cali and Tice resorted to cunning forms of resistance. Cali plays on Corbin’s illiteracy to save her father and Party members; Tice resists divulging the names of Party members and decides to leave the Party in an effort to ultimately save it and help maintain its force for serious change in Depression Alabama. Kelley writes that by the 1940s, the Alabama Communist Party had become a kind of loosely organized think tank whose individual members exercised considerable influence in local labor, liberal, and civil rights organizations such as the SNYC (Southern Negro Youth Congress), Alabama Committee for Human Welfare, the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), the AFU (Alabama Farmers’ Union). The kind of work that Tice and Cali did laid the ground for influential events and organizations in Alabama that led to even more influential events such as the Montgomery bus boycott. In about three hours, we learn from Naomi Wallace how the work, the cunning resistance of Tice and Cali Hogan has helped us get closer to these organizations, trying to achieve “a nonracist, democratic South.” Wallace shows change can most reliably come by categorically reversing the status quo of power structure in the United States to the point where whiteness and sexual abuse is renounced, where feelings are subdued for the purpose of fighting for a greater, more important cause. Wallace suggests that one must not only engage the oppressive ways of human nature, but do as much as within you to unite with those who are as concerned.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.