Jeb (1946)

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Jeb (1946)

Ardrey’s next major play was Jeb, a drama that dealt with race in post-WWII America. In it a black soldier returns from the Pacific with an aluminum leg. He is not perturbed by his disability, though, as to his great pride he has acquired the ability to run an adding machine. Back in his small southern town, where running an adding machine is a white man’s job, he struggles against personal and institutionalized racism. The end of the play finds Jeb, in Ardrey’s words, “ in northern Harlem, physically beaten yet undefeated, prepared to return to the South in a larger cause.”

Jeb was notable for its time for being one of the only Broadway plays to provide significant roles to black actors. The original production starred Ossie Davis, one of the most acclaimed black actors of his generation and a favorite of Spike Lee. It also starred Ruby Dee, who would go on to co-star in Raisin in the Sun. Davis and Dee met and fell in love during the production, and were eventually married.

Jeb met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Billboard wrote that “Robert Ardrey has scripted a drama that has the guts and the power to make you angry… Jeb is absorbing from curtain to curtain,“ and Howard Barnes of The New York Herald Tribune called it "A play which I would not have missed… Drama of high eloquence and indignation… Robert Ardrey has considered the subject squarely and savagely.” However, due in a large part to its pioneering social theme, Jeb closed after a short Broadway run. Albert Wertheim, reflecting on the play in 2004, gives this explanation:

“Indeed, Jeb shows how the participation of African Americans in World War II and the occupational training they received in the armed forces prepare them in the postwar period to dress for battle in a new war to end racial discrimination and oppression at home. This is heady and unsettling stuff in 1946 for Broadway audiences and for society trying to return to prewar ‘normalcy’ and to put returning white soldiers back into the work force. It is no small wonder that Jeb, with its incisive unveiling of racism’s economic underpinnings and with its militant ending, closed after six performances.”

“A more dynamic play than any recent exhibit dealing with the Negro’s difficulties in a country dominated by whites.”

George Nathan