Heyward, Dorothy (1890–1961)

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Heyward, Dorothy (1890–1961)

American playwright who, with her husband DuBose Heyward, co-authored the folk dramas Porgy (1927) and Mamba's Daughter (1939). Born Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns in Wooster, Ohio, on June 6, 1890; died on November 19, 1961; attended National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C.; studied playwriting with George Pierce Baker at Harvard University; married (Edwin) DuBose Heyward (1885–1940, author and playwright), on September 22, 1923; children: one daughter Jenifer DuBose Heyward .

Selected plays:

Nancy Ann (1924); (with DuBose Heyward) Porgy (1927); (with Moss Hart) Jonica (1930); (with Dorothy DeJagers) Cinderelative (1930); (with DuBose Heyward) Mamba's Daughters (1939); (with Howard Rigsby) South Pacific (1943); Set My People Free (1948). Selected books: Love in a Cupboard: A Comedy in One Act (1926); Nancy Ann (1927); Three-a-Day (1930); (with Dorothy DeJagers) Little Girl Blue (1931); The Pulitzer Prize Murders (1932).

Dorothy and DuBose Heyward are best remembered for the folk play Porgy, which was adapted from DuBose's novel Porgy (1925) and first produced in 1927. The play later evolved into the legendary opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which DuBose wrote with George and Ira Gershwin. Through their plays Porgy, and the later Mamba's Daughters (1939), the Heywards are also credited with providing the first serious dramas for African-American performers.

Heyward was born Dorothy Hartzell Kuhns in 1890 in Wooster, Ohio, but as a child lived in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and New York. After high school, determined to become a playwright, she entered George Pierce Baker's Workshop 47, at Harvard University. Her first play, Nancy Ann, an autobiographical account of a young debutante who escapes a manipulative family by attempting to break into the theater, won the Harvard Prize for 1924. During these early years, Heyward also spent some time as a chorus girl in a traveling show in order to experience backstage life firsthand.

Dorothy first met DuBose in 1921, at an art colony in New Hampshire. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, DuBose made his living in insurance but spent whatever time he could writing. His early short stories and poetry, though of little modern-day interest, reveal his profound talent for depicting African-Americans that inhabited Charleston and the South Carolina Low Country. The couple married in 1923, and Heyward encouraged her young husband to leave the insurance business and write full time. Dubose's novel Porgy (1925), a love story about a crippled black man and the fallen woman who transforms his life, was praised for its sensitive, non-patronizing characterizations and became an instant hit. It was Dorothy, however, who saw the dramatic potential in the story and convinced her husband to help rework the novel into a play. They then began a close collaboration, she contributing her knowledge and experience in the theater, and he providing the strong story line and local color.

The play Porgy, which the Heywards insisted be cast with black actors instead of the usual white actors in blackface, was an unqualified success, playing in New York for 217 performances before embarking on a successful tour. Interestingly, the later operatic version of the play, Porgy and Bess (1935), was not an instant success, running only 124 performances during its first production. A later revival in 1942, which departed from strict operatic structure, substituting spoken language for musical dialogue, enjoyed a longer run. (Producers of this revival did not even list DuBose Heyward among the credits, until Dorothy complained to the Dramatists Guild.) A major production in the early 1950s led to a worldwide tour and a 1977 revival won a Tony Award. The play, though overshadowed by its more famous successor, is still read by drama students as an example of the theatrical experimentation of the 1920s. Writes Holly Mims Westcott :

[T]he depiction of a minority subculture, the serious treatment given its emotions, the use of black performers, the attempt to suggest the Low Country blacks' Gullah dialect, the use of folk music—is not experimentation for the sake of novelty, but experimentation which grows out of the subject matter of the play itself, experimentation of the most valid kind.

In 1930, Dorothy Heyward collaborated with Moss Hart on Jonica, and with Dorothy DeJagers on Cinderelative, both disasters. She teamed up with her husband once more for the play Mamba's Daughters (1939), adapted from DuBose's novel of the same name and written for the actress Ethel Waters . The story, concerning three generations of black women, enjoyed moderate success and was the first serious Broadway play to transport an African-American woman to stardom. Waters was set to perform in a musical adaptation of another DuBose novel, Star Spangled Virgin (1939), but DuBose died before the collaboration with Arthur Schwartz could get under way.

After her husband's death, Dorothy Heyward attempted two more plays about blacks, but neither was successful. The first, South Pacific (1943), about a black man who finds unprejudiced acceptance on a Pacific island during wartime, closed after five performances. (Rodgers and Hammerstein later achieved success with a musical under the same name based on the short stories of James Michener.) The second play, Set My People Free (1948), about a Charleston slave, closed after 29 performances.


Westcott, Holly Mims. "Dorothy Heyward," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. Cambridge, England and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Heyward, Dorothy (1890–1961)

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