One-Act Plays
Comedies | Dramas | Playwrights | Cast-Size

a play in one-act

by Mary Burrill

The following one-act play is reprinted from The Birth Control Review. September, 1919. It is believed to be in the public domain and may therefore be performed without royalties.


MALINDA JASPER, the mother
ELIZABETH SHAW, a visiting nurse


The action passes in a small country town in the South



[It is late afternoon of a day in September. The room, which does a three-fold duty as kitchen, dining room, and living room for the Jasper family, is dingy and disorderly. Great black patches as though from smoke are on the low ceilings and the walls. To the right is a door leading into a bedroom. In the opposite wall another door leads into a somewhat larger room that serves as bedroom for six Jasper children. In the rear wall a door opens into a large yard. A window is placed to the left of the door while against the wall to the right there stands an old, battered cow-hide trunk. The furniture, which is poor and dilapidated, consists of a table in the center of the room, a cupboard containing a few broken cups and plates, a rocker, and two or three plain chairs with broken backs and uncertain legs. Against the wall to the left there is a kitchen stove on which sit a tea-kettle and a wash-boiler. Near the window, placed upon stools, are two large laundry tubs. Through open window and door one gets a glimpse of snowy garments waving and glistening in the sun. MALINDA JASPER, a frail, tired-looking woman of thirty-eight, and LINDY, her seventeen-year-old daughter, are bending over the tubs swirling their hands in the water to make sure that their task is completed. From the yard come the constant cries of children at play.]

MRS. JASPER: [straightening up painfully from the tubs] Lor', Lindy, how my side do hurt! But thank goodnis, dis job's done! [She sinks exhausted into the rocker.] Run git me one them tablits de doctor lef' fo' dis pain!

[LINDY hurries into the adjoining room and returns with the medicine.]

MRS. JASPER: [shaking her head mournfully] Dis ole pain goin' be takin' me 'way f'om heah one o' dese days!

LINDY: [looking at her in concern] See, Ma, I tole yuh not to be doin' all this wuk! Whut's Miss 'Liz'beth goin' er say when she comes heah this evenin' an' fine out you done all this wuk after she tole yuh pertic'lar yestiddy that she wuz'n goin' let yuh out'n bed 'fo' three weeks--an' here 't'ain't been a week sence baby wuz bawn!

MRS. JASPER: Ah ain't keerin' 'bout whut Mis' 'Liz'beth say! Easy nuf, Lindy, fo' dese nurses to give dey advice--dey ain't got no seben chillern to clothe an' feed--but when dis washin' git back Ah kin nevah ketch up!

LINDY: [reprovingly] But I could 'a done it all mys'f.

MRS. JASPER: An' been all day an' night doin' it--an' miss gittin' you'se'f off in de mawnin' tuh Tuskegee--no indeedy!

LINDY: [hesitatingly] P'rhaps I oughtn' be goin' erway an' leavin' yuh wid all dis washin' to do ever' week, an' de chillern to look after--an' the baby an' all. Daddy he gits home so late he cain't be no help.

MRS. JASPER: [wearily] Nebber you mind, Lindy, Ah'm going be gittin' aw-right bime-by. Ah ain't a-goin' be stan'in' in de way yo' gittin' dis edicashun. Yo' chance don' come, Lindy, an' Ah wants ter see yuh tek it! Yuh been a good chile, Lindy, an' Ah wants ter see yuh git mo'e out'n life dan Ah gits. Dem three yeah at Tusgegee warn't seem long.

LINDY: [her face brightening up] Yassum, an' ef Mister Huff, the sup'inten'ent meks me county teacher lak he sez he'll do when I git back, I kin do lots mo'e fo' you an' the chillern!

[The cry of a week-old infant comes from the adjoining room.]

MRS. JASPER: Dar now! Ah'm mighty glad he didn' wake up 'tel we git dis washin' done! Ah reckon he's hongry. Ain't Miles come back wid de milk yet? He's been gawn mos' 'en hour--see ef he's took dat guitar wid 'im.

LINDY: [going to the door and looking out] I doan see it nowheres so I reckon he's got it.

MRS. JASPER: Den Gawd knows when we'll see 'im! Lak es not he's some'airs settin' by de road thumpin' dem strings--dat boy 'ud play ef me or you wuz dyin'! Ah doan know whut's goin' come o' 'im--he's just so lazy en shif'lis!

LINDY: Doan yuh go werrin' 'bout Miles, Ma. He'll be aw-right ef he kin only learn music an' do whut he likes. [The cry of the infant becomes insistent.] No, Ma, you set still--I'll git his bottle an' 'tend to him.

[She goes into the bedroom. The shrieks of the children in the yard grow louder. A shrill cry of anger and pain rises above the other voices, and MARY ELLEN, age six, appears crying at the door.]

MARY ELLEN: [holding her head] Ma! Ma! Mek Aloysius b'have hisse'f! He hit me on de haid wid all his might!

MRS. JASPER: [rushing to the door] Aloysius! Yuh Aloysius! It warn't do yuh no good ef Ah 'ave to come out'n dere to yuh! John Henry, git down f'om dat tree, 'fo yuh have dem clo'es in de durt! Yo' chillern 'nuf to werry me to death!

[As LINDY returns with the baby's empty bottle, MILES enters the rear door. He is a good-natured but shiftless looking boy of sixteen. A milk pail is swinging on his arm, leaving his hands free to strum a guitar.]

LINDY: Have yuh brought the milk, Miles? An' the bread?

MILES: [setting down the milk pail] Nup! Mister Jackson say yuh cain't have no milk, an' no nothin' 'tel de bill's paid.

MRS. JASPER: Den Gawd knows we'll starve, 'cause Ah see'd yo daddy give de doctor ebery cent o' his wages las' week. An' dey warn't be no mo'e money comin' in 'tel Ah kin git dis wash out to do Redmon's.

LINDY: Well, baby's gawn back to sleep now, and p'rhaps Miss 'Liz'beth will bring some milk fo' de baby when she come in lak she did yestiddy--but they ain't nothing heah fo' de other chillern.

[The shrieks of the children at play in the yard grow louder.]

ALOYSIUS: [calling from without] Ma! Ma! John Henry done pull' down de clo'es line!

MRS. JASPER: [rushing again to the door] Come in heah! Ever' single one o' yuh! Miles, run fix 'em up an' see ef any o' 'em got in de durt!

[The Jasper children, four in number, a crestfallen, pathetic looking little group--heads unkempt, ragged, undersized, under-fed, file in terrified.]

JOHN HENRY: [terror-stricken] It warn't me, Ma, it was Aloysius!

MRS. JASPER: Heish yo' mouf'! March yo'se'f ever' one o' yuh an' go to baid!

MARY ELLEN: [timidly] We's ain't had no suppah.

MRS. JASPER: An' whut's mo'e, yuh ain't goin' git no suppah 'tel yuh larns to b'have yo'se'f!

ALOYSIUS: [in a grumbling tone] Cain't fool me--Ah heerd Lindy say dey ain't no suppah fo' us!

MRS. JASPER: [calling to the children as they disappear in the room to the left] Ef Ah heahs one soun' Ah'm comin' in dere an' slap yuh into de middle o' nex' week! [As she sinks again exhausted into the rocker.] Them chillern's goan ter be de death o' me yit!

MILES: [appearing at the door] De clo'es ain't dirty. I fo'git to tell yuh--I stopp't by Sam Jones an' he say he'll be round fo' Lindy's trunk 'bout sun-down.

MRS. JASPER: Ah reckons yu'd bettah git yo' clo'es an' pack up 'cause it warn't be long fo' sun-down.

LINDY: [dragging the old trunk to the center of the room] I ain't a-goin' less'n you git bettah, Ma. Yuh look right sick to me!

[As LINDY is speaking, MISS ELIZABETH SHAW, in the regulation dress of a visiting nurse and carrying a small black bag, appears at the rear door.]

MISS SHAW: [looking in consternation at Mrs. Jasper] Malinda Jasper! Whar are you doing out of bed! You don't mean to say that you have washed all those clothes that I see in the yard?

MRS. JASPER: Yassum, me an' Lindy done 'em.

MISS SHAW: [provoked] And you look completely exhausted! Come you must get right to bed!

MRS. JASPER: [leaning her head wearily against the back of the rocker] Lemme res' myse'f jes a minute--Ah'll be goin' 'long to-rectly.

MISS SHAW: It's a wonder in your condition that you didn't die standing right at those tubs! I don't mean to scare you but--

MRS. JASPER: [with extreme weariness] Lor', Mis' 'Liz'beth, it ain't _dyin'_ Ah'm skeer't o', its _livin'_--wid all dese chillern to look out fo'. We ain't no Elijahs, Mis' 'Lis'beth, dey ain't no ravens flyin' 'roun' heah drappin' us food. All we gits, we has to git by wukin' hard! But thanks be to Gawn a light's dawnin'! My Lindy's gittin' off to Tuskegee to school tomorrer, Mis' 'Liz'beth!

MISS SHAW: [surprised] I didn't know that Lindy was thinking about going away to school.

MRS. JASPER: Thinkin' 'bout it! Lindy ain't been thinkin' an' dreamin' 'bout nothin' else sence Booker Washin'ton talked to de farmers down yonder at Shady Grove some ten yeah ergo. Did yo' know Booker Washin'ton, Mis' 'Liz'beth?

MISS SHAW: I saw him once a long time ago in my home town in Massachusetts. He was a great man.

MRS. JASPER: Dat he wuz! Ah kin see him now--him an' Lindy, jes a teeny slip o' gal--after de speakin' wuz ovah down dere at Shady Grove, a-standin' under de magnolias wid de sun a-pou'in' through de trees on 'em--an' he wid his hand on my li'l Linly's haid lak he wuz givin' huh a blessin', an' a-sayin': "When yuh gits big, li'l gal, yuh mus' come to Tuskegee an' larn, so's yuh kin come back heah an' he'p dese po' folks!" He's daid an' in his grave but Lindy ain't nevah fo'git dem words.

MISS SHAW: Just think of it! And ten years ago! How glad I am that her dream is coming true. Won't it cost you quite a bit?

MRS. JASPER: Lor', Lindy 'ud nevah git dere ef we had to sen' huh! Some dem rich folks up yonder in yo' part de world is sen'in' huh.

LINDY: [entering with her arms laden with things for her trunk] Good evenin', Mis' 'Liz'beth.

MISS SHAW: Well, Lindy, I've just heard of your good fortune. How splendid it is! But what will the baby do without you! How is he this afternoon?

LINDY: He's right smart, Mis' 'Liz'beth. I been rubbing his leg lack you showed me. Do yoh think it'll evah grow ez long ez the other'n?

MISS SHAW: I fear, Lindy, those little withered limbs seldom do; but with care it will grow much stronger. I have brought him some milk--there in my bag. Be careful to modify it exactly as I showed you, and give what is left to the other children.

LINDY: [preparing to fix the milk] Yes Mis' 'Liz'beth.

MISS SHAW: [nodding at Lindy] What will you do, Malinda, when she goes? You will have to stop working so hard. Just see how exhausted you are from this heavy work!

MRS. JASPER: Lor', 'Mis 'Liz'beth, Ah'll be awright toreckly. Ah did de same thing after my li'l Tom was bawn, an' when Aloysius wuz bawn Ah git up de nex' day--de wuk had to be done.

MISS SHAW: [very gravely] But you must not think that you are as strong now as you were then. I heard the doctor tell you very definitely that this baby had left your heart weaker than ever, and that you must give up this laundry work.

MRS. JASPER: [pleadingly] 'Deed, Mis' 'Liz'beth, we needs dis money whut wid all dese chillern, an' de sicknis' an' fune'ul 'spenses of li'l Tom an' Selena--dem's de chillern whut come 'tween John Henry an' dis las' baby. At'er dem bills wuz paid heah come Pinkie's trouble.

MISS SHAW: Pinkie?

MRS. JASPER: [sadly] Yuh nevah seed Pinkie 'cause she lef' 'fo' yuh come heah. She come 'tween Miles an' Aloysius--she warn't right in de haid--she wuked ovah tuh Bu'nett's place--Ah ain't nevah been much on my gals wukin' round dese white men but Pinkie mus' go; an' fus thing we know Bu'nett got huh in trouble.

MISS SHAW: Poor, poor girl! What did you do to the Burnett man?

MRS. JASPER: [with deep feeling] Lor', Mis' 'Liz'beth, cullud folks cain't do nothin' to white folks down heah! Huh Dad went on sumpin awful wid huh ever' day, an' one mawnin' we woked up and Pinkie an' huh baby wuz gawn! We ain't nevah heerd f'om huh tuh dis day-- [She closes her eyes as if to shut out the memory of Pinkie's sorrow.] Me an' Jim 'as allus put ouah tru's in de Lawd, an' we wants tuh raise up dese chillern to be good, hones' men an' women but we has tuh wuk so hard to give 'em de li'l de gits dat we ain't got no time tuh look at'er dey sperrits. When Jim go out to wuk--chillern's sleepin'; when he comes in late at night--chillern's sleepin'. When Ah git through scrubbin' at dem tubs all Ah kin do is set in dis cheer an' nod--Ah doan wants tuh see no chillern! Ef it warn't fo' Lindy--huh got a mighty nice way wid 'em--Gawd he'p 'em!

MISS SHAW: Well, Malinda, you have certainly your share of trouble!

MRS. JASPER: [shaking her head wearily] Ah wonder whut sin we done that Gawd punish me an' Jim lak dis!

MISS SHAW: [gently] God is not punishing you, Malinda, you are punishing yourselves by having children every year. Take this last baby--you knew that with your weak heart you should never have had it and yet--

MRS. JASPER: But whut kin Ah do--de chillern come!

MISS SHAW: You must be careful!

MRS. JASPER: Be keerful! Dat's all you nu'ses say! You an' de one whut come when Tom wuz bawn, an' Selena! Ah been keerful all Ah knows how but whut's it got me--ten chillern, eight livin' an' two daid! You got'a be tellin' me sumpin' better'n dat, Mis' 'Liz'beth!

MISS SHAW: [fervently] I wish to God it were lawful for me to do so! My heart goes out to you poor people that sit in darkness, having, year after year, children that you are physically too weak to bring into the world--children that you are unable not only to educate but even to clothe and feed. Malinda, when I took my oath as nurse, I swore to abide by the laws of the State, and the law forbids me telling you what you have a right to know!

MRS. JASPER: [with tears trickling from her closed eyes] Ah ain't blamin' you, Mis' 'Liz'beth, but--

MISS SHAW: Come, come, Malinda, you must not give away like this. You are worn out--come, you must get to bed.

LINDY: [entering with more things for her trunk] I'm glad yuh gittin' huh to bed, Mis' 'Liz'beth, I been tryin' to all day.

MRS. JASPER: [as she walks unsteadily toward her room] Lindy, honey, git yo' trunk pack't. Thank Gawd yo' chance done come! Give dat [nodding toward the partially filled bottle of milk] to de chillern. Mis' 'Liz'beth say dey kin have it.

LINDY: All right, Ma. Mis 'Liz'beth, ef you needs me jes call.

[MALINDA and the NURSE enter the bedroom. LINDY is left packing her trunk. MILES can be heard from without strumming upon his guitar.]

MARY ELLEN: [poking her head out of the door to the children's room] Lindy, Lindy, whut wuz dat Ma say we all kin have?

LINDY: Some milk--it ain't much.

[The CHILDREN bound into the room. MARY ELLEN, first at the table, seizes the bottle and lifts it to her lips.]

ALOYSIUS: [snatching the bottle from MARY ELLEN] Yuh got 'a be las', 'cause Mis' 'Liz'beth says we mus'n' nebber eat or drink at'er yuh! Did'n' she, Lindy?

LINDY: [as MARY ELLEN begins to cry] Ef yo' all git to fussin' I ain't goan to bring yuh nothin' when I comes back!

MARY ELLEN: [as the children crowd about Lindy] Whut yuh goan 'a bring us, Lindy?

LINDY: [as she puts her things carefully into her trunk] When I comes back I'm goan to bring yuh all some pretty readin' books, an' some clo'es so I kin tek yuh to school ever' day where yuh kin learn to read 'em!

JOHN HENRY: [clapping his hands] Is we all goin', Lindy? Miles too?

LINDY: Yes indeedy! An' whut's mo'e I'm goan 'a git Miles a fine new guitar an' let him learn music. An' some day ever' body'll be plain' an' singin' his songs!

ALOYSIUS: [glowing with excitement] Some day he might have his own band! Might'n' he, Lindy? Lak dat big white one whut come fru heah f'om 'Lanta! Ole Miles'll come struttin' down de road.

[ALOYSIUS seizes the broom, and in spite of the handicap of bow legs, gives a superb imitation of a drum-major leading his band.]

LINDY: [watching ALOYSIUS antics] An' I'm goin' tuh have Aloysius' li'l legs straightened. [as the children roll in merriment] 'Sh! 'Sh! Mus'n' mek no noise 'cause Ma ain't well! An' in de evenin' we'll have a real set-down-to-de table suppah--Dad he won't have to wuk so hard so he kin git home early--an' after suppah we all kin set 'round de fiah lak dey do ovah to Lawyer Hope's an' tell stories an' play games--

[The CHILDREN, radiant as though these dreams were all realities, huddle closer about LINDY who, packing done, now sits enthroned upon her battered trunk.]

LINDY: 'Sh--sh! Wuz that Mis' 'Liz'beth callin'? [They listen intently but can hear nothing save the sweet, plaintive notes of an old Spiritual that MILES is playing upon his guitar.] Then we'll git some fine Sunday clo'es, an' a hoss an' wagun, an' when Sunday come we'll all climb in an' ride to Shady Grove to Meetin'--an' we'll set under de trees in de shade an' learn 'bout li'l Joseph an' his many cullud coat; an' li'l Samu'l whut de Lawd called while he wuz sleepin'; an' de li'l baby whut wuz bawn in de stable an' wuz lots poor'n me an' you. An' on Sunday evenin' we'll--

MISS SHAW: [appearing at the bedroom door and speaking hurriedly] Send the children to bed quickly, Lindy, I need you.

[The children run into their room.]

ALOYSIUS: [wistfully, at the door] Ef we's good, Lindy, let us git up when Sam Jones come an' see de trunk go?

LINDY: [quickly] Mebbe--hurry up!

MISS SHAW: [very seriously] Lindy, your mother's condition has grown suddenly very, very serious. The exertion of today is beginning to tell on her heart. Bring me some boiling water immediately for my hypodermic. [calling from the rear door] Miles, Miles! Run to the Hope's as fast as you can and ask them to telephone for the doctor--your mother is very ill. Tell him the nurse says it is urgent!

[MISS ELIZABETH hurries into the bedroom, followed soon after by LINDY with the water. In a few minutes the sobbing of LINDY can be heard, and the NURSE re-enters the kitchen. She leans against the frame of the rear door as though exhausted and stares out into the yard at the clothes fluttering like white spirits in the gathering dusk. Then sighing deeply, she puts on her bonnet and cape and turns to go.]

MILES: [rushing in breathlessly, with his guitar under his arm] De Hopes ain't--

MISS SHAW: [placing her hand tenderly on his shoulder] Never mind, now, Miles, your mother is dead.

MILES: [his guitar crashing to the floor] Dead!

MISS SHAW: Yes, and you must help Lindy all you can. I would not leave but I have a case up the road that I must see tonight. I'll be back tomorrow. [As MILES walks with bowed head toward his mother's room.] Come, Miles, you had better bring in the clothes before it gets dark.

[As MILES follows her out, LINDY enters the kitchen. The light has gone from her face for she knows that the path now stretching before her and the other children will be darker even than the way that they have already known.]

MILES: [awkwardly, as he struggles in with the hamper piled high with the snowy clothes] Anything mo' Ah kin do, Lindy?

LINDY: [as she sits on the edge of her trunk and stares in a dazed, hopeless way at the floor] I reckon yu'd bettah walk up de road a piece to meet Dad an' hurry him erlong. An' stop in de Redmon's an' tell 'em dey cain't have de wash tomorrer 'cause-- [gulping back her tears] 'cause Ma's dead; but I'll git 'em out myself jes ez soon ez I kin. An', Miles, leave word fo' Sam Jones 'at he need'n' come fo' de trunk.


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