Don’t Play Us Cheap (1972)
The least-known film among these first four of Melvin Van Peebles’ features is the most wonderful surprise. How has a film this joyful and generous, this positive, not been celebrated long ago? Well, it was barely distributed, and that may have something to do with being a warm-hearted, “corny” musical fantasy rather than another rousing Sweetback-ish rehash.
The film’s source is Harlem Party, one of the Van Peebles’ French novels, which he turned into a French musical play that combines American musical idioms with European ones like the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill tradition. (Say, people, isn’t there money to be made in resurrecting Van Peebles’ fiction and comics? Just a thought.) The new English version, Don’t Play Us Cheap, played Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1972.
The musical should probably be understood as part of a diptych, as the author’s flipside to his concurrent musical, the 1971 production of Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. He’d fashioned that series of musical monologues, in which African-American characters recount their anguished experiences, from songs he’d written for his albums, plus new songs. Oh, did we mention he was also putting out albums?
That show, scheduled for a Broadway revival in 2022, was “the dark side”. By contrast, Don’t Play Us Cheap is the positive vision of triumph via community and attitude. It’s also nothing less than a philosophical examination of good and evil that emphasizes the importance of adopting a positive attitude for making positive change because your vision affects the world.
Optimism is a moral and political choice as well as a survival strategy, and that’s one burden we should be glad to adopt. It doesn’t make pie-eyed fools; it makes resilient mavericks and leaders. The phrase “don’t play us cheap” means “don’t underestimate us” and also “don’t underestimate yourself”, don’t internalize defeat and impossibility before you’re out of the gate. That’s also Oscar Hammerstein‘s theme in just about every lyric he wrote, so his ghost must have been smiling.
This optimism is a stubborn streak in American culture and philosophy, from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson to William James to populist self-helpers like Norman Vincent Peale and everyone who tells or sells you the seven tips or twelve tricks for success. It’s also a stubborn streak in the history of African-American pioneers and strivers, constituting its own merging lane in the main highway and, in terms of practical change, sometimes driving all before it.
Perhaps I digress. The film version of Don’t Play Us Cheap is basically a staging of the play for the camera, although Van Peebles applies his editing and visual sensibilities to cinematic flourishes. When your film starts with a speech by a rat in costume, complaining that the devil’s imps fly around like bats and change shape in order to harass people so that rats and roaches get the blame, you know you’re not in the land of hard-hitting realism.
Van Peebles’ entire cinematic output belongs more to the realm of the fantastic or at least the surreal. Sometimes these elements are around the edges and sometimes front and center.
Miss Maybell (Esther Rolle) hosts a Saturday night flat party that doubles as a 20th birthday party for her visiting niece, Earnestine (Rhetta Hughes). The diverse crew of guests laugh and sing, taking solo turns in the spotlight. They’re played by Mabel King (large in bright pink), Joshie Jo Armstead (a former Ikette!), Thomas Anderson, Robert Dunn, and George Ooppee McCurn.
Two devil bats flying around the Earth looking to spoil somebody’s fun notice the party. One of them is apprehensive because he’s never taken on a Black form and he’s heard that imps who try to cause trouble in Harlem never come back. Still, he shows up as a young man called Trinity (Joseph Keyes), garbed in red and black plastic or leather. His attempts to break up the party backfire and he promptly falls into mutual love with Earnestine.
Disgusted, his older superior materializes as Brother Dave. The actor is the illustrious Avon Long, whose career goes back to the ’30s and who can be heard as Sportin’ Life in the 1951 recording of Porgy and Bess. Sportin’ Life famously sang that “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible ain’t necessarily so”, and that’s a crucial detail in Brother Dave’s education; talk about intertextuality. Long received one of the two Tony nominations for Don’t Play Us Cheap, the other being for Van Peebles’ book.
Brother Dave is a formidable philosopher, going on about the “purity of evil”. His goal of “breaking up the party” and “smashing the party” has insurgent or double-agent resonance beyond spoiling happiness. The word “party” had wider meanings, as did attempts to break them up, for example, the Black Panthers. Nevertheless, politics is never mentioned, only attitudes, as it’s explained that the Devil’s only tool is human weakness.
Meanwhile, a family of aspiring neighbors shows up, played by Frank Carey, Jay Vanleer, and pro basketball player Nate Barnett. Trinity senses rivalry for Earnestine from their college-going son to the displeasure of that lad’s parents. “These people are nice but they’re common,” says Dad. Don’t worry, the resilience and good nature and will to joy of these Harlem partiers will stump the devil and make everything work out, and that’s no spoiler.
Without sex or nudity, sexual knowledge and liberation remain part of the outlook. When Brother Dave tries to spread rumors of adultery between two married couples, he fails because it’s not a secret among “quarter-separated” people who basically have an open marriage. A woman gets tired of the same man all the time, and vice versa. They explain that rule books, like the Bible and law books and other books, sometimes agree and sometimes don’t and seem to favor those who can afford expensive solutions, but poor people take their laws from “the Book of Life”.
Here’s a class-based rationale for “free love”, more or less, that subverts bourgeois culture’s jealousies and possessiveness. We’re reminded not only of Turner and Miriam crossing a color line sexually, and of the inability of Jeff Gerber’s respectable wife to do so, but of the fact that Sweetback encounters or encourages a diverse chorus of sympathizers, from Mexican migrant workers to racially mixed hippies and eye-shadowed “militant queers”.
My favorite song in Don’t Play Us Cheap is Miss Maybell’s advice to Earnestine. She sings “It Makes No Difference” what people say because people will always talk and backbiters will always be here, so you have to be true to yourself and your heart. It’s a lesson in independence from the crowd – the crowd that will hold you back, that will tell you not to make this or that film, not to break out of your place or country or language or medium, not to focus on this message or that one, that gives you reasons in advance to fail or not try or stay crouched in your unsafe safety.
The safe advice was ignored by Peebles when he started filming shorts, when he traveled to Europe and added “Van” to his name, when he became a French writer, when he cast Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man instead of a white actor, when Turner asked Miriam to dance and share his three-day pass, when Sweetback decided he’d “had enough of the Man”, when Trinity realized that the impulse to be mean doesn’t make him feel as good as fellowship and love.
Van Peebles’ life and art are about breaking the rules, ignoring society’s “wise” advice, and following your heart. No wonder he’s important. No wonder he still feels original. How many people follow his example?