The Paul Green Story
By: Allison Johnson
What’s in a name?
In the recent years, there has been a nation-wide conversation about the names behind the buildings on campuses across the country. Much controversy has arisen from the discussion of institutional racism with the correlation of building namesakes. But what about the namesakes who are different, the namesakes who strived for equality on campus and everyday life – what about them? Well, this is the narrative of one of those people, Pulitzer-Prize winner and playwright, Paul Green. This narrative will explore the life and influence of Green and tell the story of the Paul Green Theatre on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Who was Paul Green?
Advocate? Educator? Playwright? Paul Green was all of these things and more. Green was a man ahead of his time; which, makes the story of Paul Green so fascinating. He was a true humanist, an advocate for the principles of humanism and equality. His life’s work and dedication earned him what would become the legacy of the Paul Green Theatre. Though it took numerous years of planning, Paul Green rightfully earned his name as part of the University of North Carolina’s campus history with the establishment of the theatre. The legacy of Green adds a new perspective to the historical campus narratives – it includes a legacy of advocacy and of a true visionary. This is the story of Paul Green.
Paul Eliot Green was born in rural eastern North Carolina in Harnett County on March 17, 1894. Raised on a small farm by a religious family, Green was named after Paul the Apostle, St. Paul. Green lived a childhood of trials and tribulations. When he was 10, he fell ill with osteomyelitis, a rare infection in the bone. Green had to receive treatment at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. However, one of the most challenging aspects of Green’s childhood was where he grew up: Eastern North Carolina. In this post-Civil War era, Eastern North Carolina was a land full of poverty and racism. However, Green did not let his childhood background reflect the future of who he was to become. Green went on to receive an education from Buies Creek Academy, present-day Campbell University, graduating in 1914. Two years later after he had saved up money playing semi-professional baseball, Green enrolled in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, shortly after, he had to leave the university as a result of WWI.[i]
During the war, he volunteered with a company who worked with British Engineers, where he ended up rising to the ranks as second lieutenant.[ii] After the war, he returned to UNC in 1919 to finish his education. He worked studying playwrights under the distinguished UNC professor, Frederick Koch. Later, Koch would become one of Green’s closest friends and colleagues.[iii]
Green’s life after college
After graduating from UNC, Green went to graduate school at Cornell University. After his educational experience there, he returned to UNC as a faculty member. He was a Philosophy, Creative Writing, and English professor until his retirement in 1944. During his time as a professor, Green was also writing his plays. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work In Abraham’s Bosom, a story based on tragedy and racism. Green was also famous for writing the script of The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest running outdoor symphonic drama located on Roanoke Island, which is where the historical story of the lost colony occurred. The list of honors and awards does not stop there. Green received honorary doctorates from nine different universities and was inducted into Broadway’s Theatre Hall of Fame.[iv] To see a full listing of Green’s honors and awards, click here.
Green’s personal progressive agenda
When he was asked of his religion, Green would reply: “Humanist”. Even the identity card Green kept in his wallet had his religion marked as “Humanist.” – Janet Green[v]
Green displayed his progressive spirit through his work. Many of Green’s works included storylines of African Americans. In 1940, Green worked with an African American author, Richard Wright to dramatize his novel Native Son. Not only was the play itself controversial as it was a story of an African American accidentally killing a white woman, but the fact Green was working with an African American playwright was controversial as well.
Yet, Green did not care what critics had to say. Green invited Wright to Chapel Hill. While Wright was in Chapel Hill, angry citizens approached Green about Wright’s presence with white girls at a racially mixed party. That same night, Green slept in the building next to Wright just in case the mob decided to come back. However, Green never alerted his guest of what had happened. As Green’s daughter said, her dad “let him go on believing that Chapel Hill in 1941 was a haven of racial tolerance”.[vi]
As stated earlier, Green was a humanist, not only in the stories he told through his plays, but in the way he lived his life. As his daughter said, “He was passionately involved in life.”[vii] Although her father was among the Hollywood elite, he most certainly did not live the stereotypical party lifestyle of Hollywood’s finest. Instead, Green held education as an utmost importance in his life. He truly valued learning and the idea of books over booze. He advocated for numerous platforms including: education, prison reform, abolition of capital punishment, labor unions, United Nations, and racial equality. Green was bold, and not afraid to stand-up for his beliefs in life. Green’s daughter tells of an episode where her father stood up to UNC officials. She believes this episode is just an indication on the type of person her dad was when it came to his personal agenda of equality.[viii]
Paul Green’s remarks to UNC officials in 1930s:
“You are mistaken, you are wrong. You have black laborers laying these brick walks, and you will not let them into the building to get a book. Why are they good enough to build it, but not good enough to use it?” – Paul Green[ix]
Green made this statement in the 1930s, to put this into perspective, UNC did not let African Americans enroll as freshmen until 1955 and the peak of the civil rights movement would not begin until the 1960s.[x] Meanwhile, Green was making these observations and statements some 25-30 years prior.
Green was an activist within the prison system as well. He visited the North Carolina State Penitentiary in Raleigh regularly to visit death row. During those times, death row was usually full of African Americans, mostly adolescent boys, sometimes as young as 14 years old. Green tried to fight the system for putting people on death row merely because of the color of their skin. To help, he would hire lawyers for the boys, all on his own dime.[xi]
Green also believed in enhancing cultural experiences for North Carolinians. He was one of the founders of the North Carolina Symphony and aided in the establishment of North Carolina’s School of the Arts. Green wanted everyone to have the opportunity to experience culture.[xii]
“I think his character was his most supreme achievement, greater even than his art.” –Green’s daughter, Janet.[xiii]
Green’s death & legacy
On May 4, 1981, Green died at the age of 89 in his Chapel Hill home. He was loved and respected by so many that his legacy lived on. Established in his honor in 1982 is the Paul Green Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to: “perpetuate the vision of playwright and activist Paul Green, whose commitment to the arts and human rights continues today through the mission of the Foundation.”[xiv] The foundation has long provided grants to those who shared Green’s values, but due to the reconstructing of the foundation at the moment, funding is temporarily suspended. The foundation has an informative website with biographies, pictures, and information about Green’s works.[xv] To visit the site, click here.
One of his most notable legacies, and one more important to this narrative, is the naming of the Paul Green Theatre on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The story of the Paul Green Theatre
The Paul Green Theatre was completed in 1976; however, the history of the building dates back to The Great Depression. The UNC Department of Dramatic Art was created in 1936. Previously, drama classes had fallen under the umbrella of the English department. With the establishment of the new UNC Drama Department, there was a want for a building to house the department. Yet, with the troubles and economic state of the university during The Great Depression, finding funding was challenging until powerhouse John D. Rockerfeller’s foundation approved a multi-year operating grant and pledged a $150,000 endowment to the university if it could secure the other $350,000 needed for a new theatre building.[xvi]
Another source of hopefulness came out of the Depression: the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre Project fell under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was one of the alphabet agencies under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hallie Flanagan was director of the Federal Theatre Project and a friend of both Green and Koch. She worked with them both in efforts to target the advancement of theatre in rural states, including North Carolina. She hoped to bring a regional center to Chapel Hill to help better establish the work of Playmakers, UNC’s theatre company. [xvii]
Paul Green’s remarks to Pierre de Rohan (1936):
“The Federal Theatre Project is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to the American stage or American drama for that matter.” – Paul Green[xviii]
Flanagan would visit Chapel Hill often, and when she did she would stay with the Green family. Together, they had big visions for Chapel Hill’s role with the Federal Theatre Project. Unfortunately, the Federal Theatre Project crumbled in 1939 and was no more. In 1938, the university requested the state legislature to include funds to restore salaries to the amount of those before the Depression, and to build new buildings, including a theatre. Yet again, plans for a theatre were never acted upon. Instead, the government decided on only funding two buildings on the UNC campus, one for social sciences and the other for medical education. Between this incident and the broken promise from the Rockefeller pledge, the UNC Dramatic Art Department had to wait until 1976 before they ever received a theater of their own.[xix]
In the meantime, the UNC Dramatic Art Department had to do with what they had for those 40 years without a theatre facility. The following spaces were utilized by the Department of Dramatic Art during this time:
- Smith Hall (Playmakers Theater)- small stage whose original purpose was a library
- Caldwell X- temporary building built in WWII, used as scene shop
- Bynum Hall (top floor)- office space for faculty and administration of the Department of Dramatic Art, along with Playmakers management
- Caldwell Hall (basement)- storing lighting equipment
- Murphey Hall– office space for the Institute of Drama
- Random classrooms- used as needed for rehearsal space[xx]
Planning for the theatre
The Paul Green Theatre is located at 120 Country Club Rd, Chapel Hill, NC. However, the theatre was not originally planned to be located where it sits today. During the planning process of the theatre during the early 1970s, multiple sites were proposed to build the theatre.[xxi] The three proposed locations were:
- Area adjacent to Cobb Dormitory on Country Club Road
- The “Tin Can” area between South Road, Stadium Drive and Woollen Gymnasium
- Emerson Place, near the Student Union
- Below is three stared locations on Google Maps, all locations that were possibilities for the site of the new theatre.
Extensive research was done by the architect in deciding where to locate the theatre. The company did a list of advantages/disadvantages of each location including factors like location from campus and level of easy public access. Ultimately, the Trustees’ Building Committee decided at their March 8th, 1972 meeting that the site approved for the Dramatic Art Building would be Emerson Field.[xxii] To some, this was problematic because this was the site of the Student Union parking lot. A 1972 Daily Tar Heel article stated that planning for the new drama center began the previous year after the North Carolina General Assembly approved $2,225,000 in funds for the building. During this same time period, it was announced that the facility would be named after Paul Green as a result of the “recommendation of the faculty.” Charlotte architects, A.G. Odell, Jr., and Associates along with Keith Michaels, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Drama at the University of Indiana, collaborated with the university in the vision of the theatre. Now that they had a site chosen, they needed a plan.[xxiii]
A bid for $1.5 million, well within the budget, for a 500-person theatre was set. Yet, money soon became an issue when the cost of the building exceeded not only the bid, but the funds from legislation as well. The communication between the university and the architects was hindered by a misunderstanding about funds. The architects were under the misconception that there was a possibility of more funding to be provided on the project in the future; however, the university had to tell the architects that was an entirely false statement and they would only be provided $2,460,000 (an increase from the prior $2.2 million thanks to a trust fund) for the total budget to cover the rest of the project.[xxiv]
*Note: By the time the theatre was completed, the cost of the project rose to $4.7 million, over double the original amount.[xxv]
Money wasn’t the only issue in the building process though. It had seemed to be that the architect company gave specific time frames, but had not followed suit. In the spring of 1973, the company gave an estimation that construction would begin in the fall of 1973. That time got pushed back until December 1973, then late March of 1974. Ultimately, construction did not begin in 1974 either. The university was frustrated with the lack of communication and broken promises from the architects. In late 1974, the university decided that the site of the building needed to be moved. The university took into consideration of “future library needs” that would need to occupy the Emerson space. Therefore, the university decided to move the theatre near the varsity tennis court site, the area near Cobb dormitory.[xxvi]
In 1976, the Paul Green Theatre was completed at the new location. In 1998, the building received additional construction with a 40,000 square-foot expansion. This expansion included offices for the Department of Dramatic Art and PlayMakers Repertory Company, a costume shop, a rehearsal hall, acting studios, a classroom, and a smaller 200-seat theatre, the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre.[xxvii] To view a seating chart the Paul Green Theatre or to find out more information about Playmakers’ current season: visit here.
Although a premier venue of entertainment, the Paul Green Theatre competes with other entertainment venues on campus including Carolina Performing Arts shows (ranging from dance, concerts, and plays) at Memorial Hall. Yet, the Paul Green Theatre is unique because it houses the university’s permanent professional theatre company, PlayMakers.
As of 2017, Paul Green Theatre still prides itself on serving not only the university, but the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the national community as well.
*A note on sources: As a result of the influence Paul Green had on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC libraries has multiple primary resources about Green. Paul Green’s A Southern Life: Letter of Paul Green, 1916-1981 allows readers to read personal letters sent and exchanged to Green from his fellow colleagues and his “Dearest Girl”, his wife, Elizabeth. Green’s daughter, Janet, also gives a great personal account of her father’s life in an issue of a 1983 Alumni Review. Information about Green’s life is easily accessible through UNC libraries’ Southern Historical Collection and online. Information about the Paul Green Theatre is harder to find. Research on the building was all found at UNC’s Wilson Library in University Records. Minutes, letters between the architect and UNC, artistic renderings, and clippings of old Daily Tar Heel articles about the building process were all found in Facilities Planning and Design office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, specifically Box 2:3:47.
[i] Green, Janet McNeill. 1983. Paul Green, 1894-1981.
[v] Green, Janet McNeill. 1983. Paul Green, 1894-1981.
[x] Toler, L.J. TC. “Carolina to celebrate 50 years of African-American students.” November 27, 2001. 03/24/17. http://www.unc.edu/news/archives/nov01/bsm112601.htm.
[xi] Green, Janet McNeill. 1983. Paul Green, 1894-1981.
[xvi] Cecelia Moore, “A Model for Folk Theatre The Carolina Playmakers,” Gladys Hall Coates University History Lecture, 2014. 02/26/17. http://library.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/2014_moore.pdf
[xviii] Paul Green, “A southern life: letters of Paul Green, 1916-1981”, 264.
[xix] Cecelia Moore, “A Model for Folk Theatre The Carolina Playmakers,” Gladys Hall Coates University History Lecture, 2014. 02/26/17. http://library.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/2014_moore.pdf
[xx] “Dramatic Art Department Building”. From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxi] “Dramatic Arts Theater Site. August 9, 1971”. From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxii] “Letter to Mr. Hood from UNC. March 10, 1972”. From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxiii] “Emerson Field new theatre site – Daily Tar Heel. April 5, 1972.” From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxiv] “Letter from UNC to Mr. Odell. May 24, 1973.” From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxv] “Theatre construction to begin shortly – DTH. January 1976.” From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxvi] “Letter from UNC to Mr. Henderson. May 6, 1975.” From Box 2:3:47, Facilities Planning and Design Office of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1970s #144453, University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[xxvii] “The Center for Dramatic Art,” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 02/24/17, http://www.unc.edu/interactive-tour/the-center-for-dramatic-art/.