James de Jongh, Who Put Stories of Slavery Onstage, Dies at 80
The play has been revived many times over the decades, with a touch of humor and a theme of overcoming adversity. But the language and depictions of the cruelty of slavery are also frank, a kind of historical realism that is being erased from the educational curriculum of some schools and libraries today. In one scene, a woman tells the story behind her transformation of her face. When she was a child, she was punished for ingesting peppermint sticks by having her head placed under the rocker of her rocking chair and being crushed.
In an interview with the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, Professor de Jong said he was not particularly religious, but that he considered creating plays a kind of vocation.
“Somehow I felt I had a challenge, and that challenge found me,” he said.
James Lawrence de Jong was born on September 23, 1942 in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. His father, Percy, was Treasury Secretary for the Virgin Islands Government, and his mother, Mavis E. (Bentrage) de John, was Deputy Director of the U.S. Customs Service and ran a poultry farm and plant store. .
Professor de Jong attended Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School in St. Thomas and then Williams College in Massachusetts, where he acted in theater productions and received his BA in 1964. He received his master’s degree from Yale University in 1967 and his doctorate in 1967. He received his doctorate from New York University in 1983.
Professor de Jong continued to act as an actor for some time after his stint at Williams College, but teaching became his vocation when he spent a year as a lecturer at Rutgers College beginning in 1969. The following year he joined the faculty of the City University of New York. He remained there for decades, adding a graduate center to his portfolio in 1990. In 2011 he became an honorary member.
Professor de Jong has authored numerous scholarly articles on black theater, the Harlem art scene, and related subjects, and in 1990 published the scholarly book Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. He also served on the Board of Directors of the New Federal Theater. Its current artistic director is Elizabeth Van Dykecalled him a “quiet and graceful man of power”.