Texts & Translation

An Excerpt from Mississippi

Leyb Malakh

Translation by Ellen Perecman

Edited by Alyssa Quint

INTRODUCTION

This is an excerpt from Leyb Malakh’s (né Leyb Zalts­man, 1894 – 1939) Yid­dish-lan­guage play enti­tled Mis­sis­sip­pi, which was writ­ten and per­formed for the first time in War­saw in 1935. Mis­sis­sip­pi was based on the tri­als of the Scotts­boro Boys,” nine African Amer­i­can young men false­ly accused of rap­ing two white women in 1931 in Scotts­boro, Alaba­ma. After an ini­tial tri­al, the Scotts­boro Boys” (ages 9 to 20) were sen­tenced to death. But the case was retried on numer­ous occa­sions through­out the 1930s, with the Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA and the Inter­na­tion­al Defense Alliance (also com­mu­nist) pro­vid­ing sup­port for the defense. By the time Mis­sis­sip­pi was on the boards, the young men had been in prison for more than four years, even after their case had gained con­sid­er­able inter­na­tion­al attention. 

Mis­sis­sip­pi emerged from the transna­tion­al reach of com­mu­nist and left-lean­ing polit­i­cal move­ments, as well as Inter­war Poland’s dynam­ic Yid­dish art the­ater scene. Both Malakh and his col­lab­o­ra­tor, avant-garde direc­tor Mikhl Vaykhert (18931967) iden­ti­fied with both of these com­mu­ni­ties. For more on the play and its first pro­duc­tions, see my Tablet Mag­a­zine arti­cle enti­tled Mis­sis­sip­pi in Yid­dish.” Mis­sis­sip­pi played at least one hun­dred times on a num­ber of stages through­out Poland, includ­ing War­saw, Kraków , and Lodź. It was also mount­ed in sep­a­rate pro­duc­tions in New York and Buenos Aires, and was trans­lat­ed into French, Hebrew, and Esperan­to before World War II

An excerpt from Act Two of the play, trans­lat­ed here by Ellen Perec­man, reflects the prac­tice of simul­ta­ne­ous the­ater” that Vaykhert had imple­ment­ed in a num­ber of his pro­duc­tions, which was sim­i­lar to what we know today as immer­sive the­ater. The first act takes place in the freight car where the Scotts­boro Boys” inter­act with each oth­er, meet the young women they are even­tu­al­ly accused of rap­ing, and clash with two white men. Much of the play is per­formed on mul­ti­ple sets simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Act Two’s scenes take place on a split stage. One set depicts the rur­al home of the poor African Amer­i­can fam­i­ly of Tom­my Boster, one of the boys who was arrest­ed. The sec­ond is set in the apart­ment of the two women, Anne and Grace, who were pressed into man­u­fac­tur­ing the accu­sa­tion of rape. The scenes cut back and forth briskly between the two sets. The scene in the Boster’s home ends with the arrival of the sher­iff who has come to tell Tommy’s moth­er, Mary, of his arrest. The scene in the girls’ apart­ment ends with the arrival of rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the anti-Black Lily White Move­ment, who have come to show their moral and finan­cial sup­port of the women. While the con­trast is evi­dent, the audi­ence is also meant to see sim­i­lar­i­ties in the two sce­nar­ios in that both par­ties strug­gle finan­cial­ly: the white girls are pros­ti­tutes, but dream of return­ing to polite soci­ety, while, in the oth­er, Mary shares her home with the sec­ond wife of her ex-hus­band after his death to make ends meet. Ear­li­er in the act, we also wit­ness the arrival at the Boster home of Tommy’s sis­ter, Mar­garet, with her new infant, whose father is a white man. This plot point may exist to high­light a dou­ble stan­dard, where the Black men in an inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ship face a pre­sump­tion that they are guilty of rape of a white woman.

As a final note, we would like to call your atten­tion to two issues regard­ing trans­la­tion. The first is the use of the n‑word on the part of the play­wright. In Yid­dish, the word נעגער is trans­lat­ed as negro” and the word ניגער is trans­lat­ed as nig­ger”; this is true in the play and in oth­er con­tem­po­rary sources, lit­er­ary and jour­nal­is­tic. That is, at the time Malakh wrote this play, Negro was con­sid­ered a neu­tral” word —a per­fect­ly respect­ful term — used to refer to Black peo­ple. We there­fore believe the appro­pri­ate Eng­lish trans­la­tion for נעגער in Mis­sis­sip­pi is negro’. In instances where Malakh has a char­ac­ter use the word ניגער, he does so to let us know that the speak­er means to degrade the char­ac­ter being addressed. It was very impor­tant to us to accu­rate­ly reflect Malakh’s inten­tion to empha­size the bit­ter hatred of some of the white char­ac­ters for the Black char­ac­ters in the play. Our deci­sion is con­sis­tent with the posi­tion tak­en by Win­fred Rem­bert , an African-Amer­i­can artist quot­ed in a recent piece in the New York­er Mag­a­zine called Hard Labor: Sur­viv­ing the Chain Gang”:

I under­stand that see­ing that word writ­ten flat out on the page may hurt some peo­ple. My hope is that they will come to under­stand why it’s there. As a young per­son, I was called a nig­ger so many times I answered to it like it was noth­ing… My sto­ry will not be as clear if I block out the word or even change a sin­gle let­ter. A sub­sti­tute doesn’t car­ry the same effect. To me, that means it isn’t the same word. I’ve got to use the word just like I’ve heard it said so many times in my life. I think about all the peo­ple who went to their graves because they didn’t want to be called a nig­ger. Some peo­ple died because they wouldn’t put up with it. They were killed. I want the read­er to under­stand the effect it car­ries when you use that word and how degrad­ing it is.

The sec­ond issue con­cerns Malakh’s deci­sion to use translit­er­at­ed Eng­lish words in the Yid­dish text of his play. Malakh appears to have inten­tion­al­ly avoid­ed using Yid­dish equiv­a­lents of cer­tain words and to replace them with Eng­lish words that he has translit­er­at­ed into Yid­dish. Some of the Eng­lish words Malakh uses effec­tive­ly pull his read­er or audi­ence into an Amer­i­can con­text. He seems to have want­ed to cap­ture a cer­tain ver­nac­u­lar qual­i­ty of speech. It is also con­ceiv­able that he intend­ed to cre­ate a kind of lin­guis­tic bridge between polit­i­cal activists in Amer­i­ca and Poland’s Yid­dish-speak­ing work­ing class. We believe it is use­ful for schol­ars and lay read­ers alike to know pre­cise­ly where in the Yid­dish text Malakh has cho­sen to use Eng­lish words. We will con­tin­ue to probe lin­guis­tic ques­tions as we con­tin­ue work­ing on our trans­la­tion and analy­sis of this play, in antic­i­pa­tion of pub­lish­ing a crit­i­cal edi­tion of our trans­la­tion of Mis­sis­sip­pi, which is in progress. 

-Alyssa Quint

* NOTE: Words transliterated from English are followed by asterisks.

Excerpt from ACT 2 of Leyb Malakh’s Mississippi

SETS 1 and 2


(The stage is split, two rooms. One belongs to KATY BOSTER, a typical little Negro- house, windows without glass panes, a rag as a curtain in the doorway.

The second room, the apartment of the two girls, ANNE and GRACE, pleasantly furnished. We recognize the signs of a wild previous night: overturned bottles, corks, cigarette butts, and candy. The two girls sleep in a wide bed beneath a silk blanket.

In the little Negro-house, KATY and MARY stand next to a large washbasin of laundry doing wash. MARGARET suddenly appears at the door of her mother’s house, dressed like a city dweller. There is something Madonna-like about her face, about her appearance. She is holding a child in her arms bundled in a swaddling cloth. Pause. She looks at the two women doing the laundry.)

MARGARET

Hello.

MARY

(Surprised) My little girl! (Runs to her with outstretched, wet hands. Lingers. Her work having been interrupted, there is a change in her) ... My little girl?...

KATY

(Dries the wet foam from her hands) Where did you come from out of the blue? A guest!

MARY

(Stammering) A guest...

KATY

Come closer, Margaret, sit down. (Pulls out a stool from under the washtub) Sit down, Marga.

MARGARET

Thank you, Aunt Katy.

KATY

(Notices the child) A child, Margaret?

MARGARET

A child. My child.

MARY

When, whose? (Approaches fearfully, takes a look.) A white child?!

KATY

(Just as fearfully) A... white…child???

MARGARET

Don’t ask, Auntie.

KATY

A cup of coffee, a little milk? (Fusses around in the kitchen).

MARY

How do you dare come back home, child?

MARGARET

I needed some peace and quiet.

MARY

Peace and quiet?... Here? Where both of your father’s wives sleep on a single plank of wood? (Points at a plank bed).

MARGARET

My father built this house. (Pause) Where’s Tommy?

KATY

My Tommy? Where could he be? He went to look for work. He left the house eight days ago and I don’t know where he is.

SET 2

(In the girls’ apartment. Someone rings the bell. ANNE wakes up first.)

ANNE

Who’s there?

CONDUCTOR

(From behind the door) It’s me, the conductor.

ANNE

Oh hell*... so early in the morning?

CONDUCTOR

It’s not early. It’s me, the conductor from yesterday, from the freight car.

ANNE

(Wakes GRACE) Grace, hey, you, it’s the conductor from yesterday. We gave him the address. Should I let him in?

GRACE:

(Turns over and pulls the cover over herself.) I want to sleep. (The bell rings again.)

ANNE

(Shouts). We’re still sleeping! (The bell rings again.)

GRACE

(Annoyed). Let him in and throw him out!...

(ANNE gets out of bed in silk pajamas*, puts on silk slippers, she is reluctant, but opens the door, and the CONDUCTOR comes in, happy, in a good mood.)

CONDUCTO R

Hello* good morning. How can you sleep so late?

ANNE

(Yawns, stretches out her arms) We went to bed late. A cigarette?

CONDUCTOR

(Awkwardly) Regrettably, I don’t smoke.

GRACE

(Under the blanket) Did the gentleman* bring anything with him?

ANNE

(Repeats) Did the gentleman* bring anything with him? We don’t have anything. Everything’s been eaten. (Shows him an empty bottle) Everything…

GRACE

(Under the blanket) He should bring something for us to smoke.

ANNE

(Explains to him) How does someone come to see girls without bringing anything? Downstairs, on the corner, there is a cigarette store, bring us the ones that have a Turkish scent, a hundred to a box.

CONDUCTOR

(Hesitates.) Yes…but I don’t have time. My train is leaving. I …. I had wanted to offer myself as a witness that those disgusting niggers are not to blame, but they didn’t let me come near them. So I thought: Why butt in and risk losing my job?

GRACE

(Sits up, interested) Who told you that we were in the freight car?

CONDUCTOR

Told me? About you? It has nothing to do with you. Someone telephoned from a nearby station that niggers and white girls were together in the freight car.

ANNE

It must have been the two boys*.

GRACE

It would have served them right. They should not have thrown them off. Almost killed them. And were the niggers arrested?

CONDUCTOR

They put them in chains. Thank goodness. If they hadn’t, they would have been ripped apart. They would have been lynched*.

(Set 2 goes black)

SET 1

(In the Negro’s house. MICKEY a young Negro in the uniform of someone who works in a pullman car. Enters)

MICKEY

Hello* everyone. (Sees MARGA) Hello* Marga!

MARGA

(Upset but proud) Hello* Mickey. How are you?

MICKEY

Did you come see your mother, Marga? Very nice. There are still Negroes outside of Harlem, huh?

MARGA

Are you insulting me, Mickey?

MICKEY

(Steps back) I really want you to know. I’m very happy you came back to Mother’s house. Welcome, Marga.

MARY

(Upset) A child, Mickey, a child!

MICKEY

(Astonished). A child? (Goes closer) Did you get married?

MARY

(Sobbing). A white one.

MICKEY

(Beside himself). How dare you, Marga?!

KATY

You’ve always been her good friend, Mickey, you once loved her…you’d be having to… make a cradle for her. (MARGA puts her hand on a piece of wood, as if she is going to hit her with it.)

MARY

(Very upset) A child, by a white man, what a disgrace!

MICKEY

This really is too much. If one of us, a Negro, just glanced at a white woman – he’d be lynched*! -- -- --

SET 2

(The telephone rings. In the middle of curling her hair, ANNE picks up the phone.)

ANNE

Hello!*… That’s right, to who? …. That’s right. Who is this?...

GRACE

(Enters from the bathroom in the middle of washing herself) For me?...

ANNE

(Gestures to her not to interrupt) But who are you? Paul?... Ah, Colvin?… Oh yes, now I know. (Hides the phone. To GRACE) The boys*.

GRACE

Which boys*?...

ANNE

From the freight car. They want to come up. Should they?

GRACE

Maybe…spies, we don’t even know them.

ANNE

The things you come up with, dear Grace. Didn’t they defend us?! (Speaking into the telephone) Ok, come on up. Are you going to bring goodies with you? Fine*. Candy*, too? That’s great, goodbye*. (Hangs up) Grace, do you have a client today?

GRACE

(Raising one finger) One. The manager of the stocking factory. A miser, doesn’t want to bring me silk stockings. Says he doesn’t steal. What do I get out of it for the five dollars he leaves me, when he keeps me busy for three hours.

ANNE

When someone is used to exploiting people…. (Curls her hair)

GRACE

(Pensive) Anne, do you think we’ll ever be respectable people again?

ANNE

What do you mean?

GRACE

I mean go back to a shop*, an office*, stenographers*, typists*. Fifteen dollars a week?... And the boss flirts with us….

ANNE

If that’s all it was, it wouldn’t matter…but usually they don’t stop there…wasn’t it like that before the crisis? And even if the crisis ends, would we get our jobs* back?

GRACE

(Resigned). Crisis, shmaysis, it’s all the same…help me lift the bed.

(They both pick up the bed that goes into the wall. The bell rings. PAUL and CALVIN enter, well dressed. Happy.)

BOTH MEN

Hello*, hello*, girls.

BOTH WOMEN

*Hello, boys*.

SET 1

(At the Boster’s door we see the REVEREND)

KATY

Hello*, hello*, Reverend.

REVEREND

God’s grace. (Sees Marga), Hello*, Marga.

KATY

What good news does the Reverend bring to the home of common and oppressed people? (KATY brings him a chair.)

REVEREND

Thank you, thank you, Missus* Katy. News? First, greet the guest and then ask your question. (Sits.) Thank you, dear Mrs. Boster. Why is the second Missus* Boster so gloomy?

MARY

(With a sigh.) It’s no good, no good, Father.

MARGA

I suspect the reverend* has something to tell you, I shouldn’t be here.

REVEREND

You guessed the first piece, not the second. It’s true it has to do with your returning to your mother’s house, and as people are saying, with a child…but no matter how much people talk it’s not about who God has chosen to be your soul mate, because I hear it’s a white man….

MARGA

Well, and if he is white, what does that matter? Maybe you want to take the child away and raise it?....

KATY

You want us to raise a snake that’ll go on to bite us later.

MARGA

As of yet, no snake has come out of my womb.

KATY

We’ll see about that.

REVEREND

We’re not talking about the fact that there was no wedding. Let’s think about this. Well, imagine, dear Margaret, it grows up and let’s assume it looks like the father. He’ll still be made to suffer because his mother is a Negro.

MARY

(In tears) The white people should take it. It’s as much theirs as it is ours.

REVEREND

I don’t know how to respond to that. But I do know that they want me to warn our Negro girls that they should take their eyes off the white boys. Because there is already talk again about a rape. Here. Read. (He gives her a newspaper. Everyone reads. KATY bursts out laughing.)

SET 2

(Both young men, PAUL and COLVIN, are sitting on rocking chairs, the girls – on their laps. One of them is reading the newspaper. They all laugh.)

GRACE

…Read it again. An interesting story.

COLVIN

(Reading) Nigger youths kidnap two white girls in a freight car and rape them. (They all laugh.)

ANNE

Did you make the call?

PAUL

Of course, we did. They should know, those dogs, what it means when you throw someone off a train while it’s moving. Now they’re going to roast in the electric chair*. I’m just sorry you were hauled off to the hospital to be examined. But no one will know that you…a secret is sacred. (Doorbell rings)

GRACE

(Frightened) That’s not a ring I recognize! (Searches in their eyes) You?

PAUL

What do you mean us, babes*? On my mother...

GRACE

(Ordering them) Hide! (They try to run into the bathroom.) No, not there. In the bed.

(They pull the bed down from the wall. The young boys hide. ANNE opens the door and two BUSINESS WOMEN and a REPORTER* with a camera enter. They are astonished.)

WOMAN 1

I don’t think we’ve made a mistake. Which of you is “Miss” Anne and which is --- “Miss” Grace?

ANNE

I am Anne and she --- Grace, ma’am. What is this about?

WOMAN 2

(Studies them through a lorgnette *.) These girls don’t have much. Innocent children like these can be easily deceived, led astray. Nigger-scoundrels!

WOMAN 1

We have been delegated by the sisterhood of the ‘White Lily Movement’, to express our sympathy.

WOMAN 2

And, also, to offer you a modest check* for one thousand dollars, which has been allocated as the first installment of support, a small consolation for your troubles.

WOMAN 1

Especially for the period during which you will be embarrassed to show your faces in public.

WOMAN 2

(Whispers in their ears) And it’s even possible that you will have to have an operation. We are not against birth control* and we must not allow something like this to happen. May the heavens protect us from bringing little Negroes into the world…

WOMAN 1

We are currently preparing some events, balls and bazaars for your benefit. Your shame will have to be compensated with a large dowry…and now, permit us to leave with you some little trifles donated by big businesses. Stockings…

GRACE

(Joyfully). I actually need stockings. (Steps back.)

WOMAN 1

And here are some other trifles. (Displays blouses, dresses and other things) Just don’t be discouraged.

WOMAN 2

(Eagerly) Don’t be ashamed, children, tell us how it happened as if we were your sisters...

(ANNE and GRACE take stock of themselves.)

GRACE

(Refined) And … the gentleman* …

WOMAN 1

Oh yes. If only the newspapers had not gone on and on about this. It concerns the honor of two girls…

WOMAN 2

(Poses with the check* in her hand) Like this? McGray, snap* a photo if you must.

(The camera flashes. Both girls with the check* in their hands, and things set up on the table.)

SET 1

(At the same time, photographs are being taken in Mrs. Boster’s house. In the light from the camera, we see the SHERIFF and REVEREND.)

SHERIFF

(Setting up the protocol) Good, let people see what kind of home the criminal comes from. So, who is Mrs. Boster?

KATY & MARY

I am, Boss*.

SHERIFF

(Amazed) Both of you? What do you mean you’re both Mrs. Boster? Explain that Reverend.

REVEREND

It’s very simple: this woman (Indicating MARY) is the first Mrs. Boster, and this woman (Indicating KATY) is the second Mrs. Boster.

SHERIFF

I don’t understand.

REVEREND

Old Mr. Boster had a wife, you see, and he separated from her – her name is Mary, this one. So, he took a second wife, (Indicates KATY) this one.

SHERIFF

They live together? That’s bigamy*!

REVEREND

Now they live together. But when Old Mr. Boster was alive – they didn’t. They lived separately. Mary, here, and Katy — not here. But Old Mr. Boster died from an explosion of a steam-engine on a train, and Katy didn’t have anywhere to go with her child, Tommy, so Mary, the first Mrs. Boster, took her in. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, since Old Mr. Boster built this house.

SHERIFF

Really? Quite confusing. And who is the young woman over there?

REVEREND

Miss* Margaret, a daughter. Mary’s daughter by Old Mr. Boster.

SHERIFF

She seems to me to be dressed in poor taste. Is she a prostitute?

REVEREND

God forbid! Is that even permitted here? … But there has been a misfortune. A child, a white child, and we don’t know whose?

SHERIFF

There’s something mystifying in this house…

MARGA

You don’t know, but I do.

SHERIFF

Be quiet! Ok. Lineage is not the issue. So, who is Tommy Boster’s mother?

KATY

I am, Boss*. What’s happened to my child?

SHERIFF

A child? He’s not a child anymore! And do you know where he is right now?

KATY

No, I don’t. He went to look for work. It’s been eight days since I last heard from him.

SHERIFF

Went to look for work…everybody has the same excuse.

KATY

I’m not complaining. I have a tub full of laundry to do here. But a boy of thirteen, why shouldn’t he work?

SHERIFF

Then I’ll tell you where he is: he’s in jail!

KATY

In jail? My child is not a thief!

SHERIFF

Worse than that. He seduced two white girls and raped them.

SET 2

(The radio is playing. The two girls dance separately.)

GRACE

And now that I have all this money, dresses and stuff, I’ll finally know how to live. Really live!!

SET 1

(In the Negro’s home there is silence. Everyone has lowered their heads.)

MICKEY

And this smells like a death sentence!

(KATY collapses onto the rim of the washbasin full of laundry, bursts out crying loudly and bitterly.)

SET 2

(In the girls’ room the radio is playing jazz*. The girls are dancing with the boys.)

SET 3

(The prison chapel. Grey, vaulted. A deep wall of windows. A black cross on the bars on the window. The REVEREND stands in front of the cross, reciting Sunday prayers. The Negroes are crowded together, choked with anger.)

REVEREND

(Praying)… God is angry, because people are so sinful. And God is full of mercy when the person being judged has remorse in his heart. Therefore, take heart, be forgiving and submissive to the one who brings light to your eyes during the day and sleep to your eyes at night. Therefore, bless the power that your common sense does not understand, but you feel in your heart. The power that gives sun and rain to the grass and corn-stalks, bread, and rest to people. God, who nourishes the bird in the tree, the worm beneath the soil, the fish in water, animals in the forest, cows in the forest, will not neglect you, son of Adam. Therefore, be not recalcitrant toward your master who clothes you and puts shoes on your feet, puts bread on your table and water in your jug. Because by the hand of your master does God give it to you. And if you express anger toward your master, you express anger toward God….

GEORGE

(Interrupts him) But why are they keeping us here?!

MLA STYLE
Malakh, Leyb. “An Excerpt from Mississippi.” In geveb, June 2021: Trans. Ellen Perecman. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/an-excerpt-from-mississippi.
CHICAGO STYLE
Malakh, Leyb. “An Excerpt from Mississippi.” Translated by Ellen Perecman. In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Oct 24, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leyb Malakh

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Ellen Perecman

Ellen Perecman holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Graduate Center -CUNY and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College.

ABOUT THE EDITOR

Alyssa Quint

Alyssa Quint is the author of The Rise of the Modern Yiddish Theater (Indiana 2019) and curator of the forthcoming online exhibition A Tale of Two Museums.