Article Title

Staging the Color Line: Alice Dunbar Nelson’s Imagined Hawaiʻi as African-American Allegory


This essay analyzes the play An Hawaiian Idyll by African-American writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson, produced in 1916 at Howard High in Wilmington, Delaware. In Hawaiian Idyll, Dunbar-Nelson demonstrates connections between African-Americans and Hawaiians through a fictionalized tale inspired by the real-life story of Hawaiian Princess Kaʻiulani (1875-1899). While the play draws on elements of Kaʻiulani’s story, Dunbar-Nelson changes most names and invents characters to create a fictional tale. The production augmented the script with popular Hawaiian and Tin Pan Alley Hawaiian-themed tunes of the day, used as musical underscoring or to accompany native Hawaiian ceremonies or dances.

Without overtly commenting on what was known as the “color line,” theorized by W.E.B. Du Bois as the pan-nationalist oppression of dark peoples, Dunbar-Nelson uses its imagery of racial affinities to her advantage. She invites the audience to draw parallels between missionary opposition to Hawaiian traditional cultural practices and similar losses of African heritage. Even while it supports a version of Christianity, Hawaiian Idyll encourages a resistance to the forces of Westernization.

The essay first analyzes the historical accuracy of the piece, arguing that the play is more fable than history play. It then examines varied sources of inspiration from theatrical genres to musical influences. Finally, it explores Dunbar-Nelson’s purposes in writing Hawaiian Idyll, arguing that the play provided an entertaining means to portray the commonalities on one side of the color line and to underscore the need for cultural preservation and independence.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.