Willa Saunders Jones Papers, 1930-1984
Biographical Note: Willa Saunders Jones | The Play
Scope and Content: Willa Saunders Jones Papers, 1930-1984
Biography | Manuscripts | Programs
Clippings | Photographs | Memorabilia
|Provenance:||Gift of Rogers Jones, 1982|
|Size:||4 linear feet|
|Repository:||Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature 9525 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60628|
|Citation:||When quoting material from collection, the preferred citation is: Willa S. Jones Papers, [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library.|
|Processed by:||Angela Bacon, Mapping the Stacks, University of Chicago|
|Supervised by:||Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library|
Willa Saunders Jones was born a twin on Feb. 22, 1901, to Ada Pulliam and George Washington Saunders, in Little Rock, Ark. Soon after Willa’s birth, and the death of her twin, Jimmy, Ada Pulliam married Smith McBerry and worked as a domestic. Later, Ada married William Anderson. Willa (called Willie as a child) spent her childhood with her mother, stepfather, and half-brother, as well as her grandmother and great-grandmother, both former slaves. The working conditions of African American laborers she witnessed as a child propelled Jones to move to the urban Midwest and had a great impact on her work as a playwright.
Willa’s father, George Saunders, was the pastor of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Little Rock until his death in 1924. Willa attended both her father’s church and Mt. Olive Baptist as a child. Willa graduated from Arkansas Baptist College, a denominational high school, around 1920. Upon graduating, she married George Washington Jones, a graduate of Philander Smith Methodist College.
In 1921, shortly before their move to Chicago, Willa and George had their first child, George Jr. Intending to remain in Little Rock, and in the process of purchasing their first home, the couple was forced to leave Arkansas for Chicago after George Sr. (along with another man, Emanuel West) was accused of raping a white woman. Willa and George narrowly escaped unharmed by the vigilante mob.
In 1922, shortly after moving to Chicago, Willa had her second child, Charles, and a third, a girl named Betty Jane, who died soon after birth. While George attended Moody Bible Institute, Willa became severely ill. It was during her recovery that she began work on The Passion Play. As a young woman, Jones was recognized as a talented vocalist and acclaimed as a choral director. Jones was also known as a keyboardist, powerful speaker, and spiritual leader. These talents would serve her well as director and producer of the play.
The Chicago Passion Play ran for 55 years, between 1926 and 1981—two years after Jones’ death in 1979. It was first staged Easter Sunday 1926 at St. John Church. Originally titled The Resurrection, the original production did not include Christ as a character, nor did it depict the crucifixion. The audience consisted of fewer than 25 viewers and a small cast. By 1930, the production was being staged at various churches around the city. However, The Passion Play remained a small-scale production until its later performances, which were staged in large auditoriums and venues such as the Civic Opera House.
Being in Chicago increased the play’s opportunities for exposure through close-knit local churches and community organizations. Its major form of publicity came from word-of-mouth advertising in African American communities. Jones’ audiences grew when performances began to include singers like Mahalia Jackson, a close friend of Jones, Dinah Washington, Reverend Clay Evans, and the Barrett Sisters, along with popular Chicago dance troupes. The play also presented the opportunity for Chicago’s south and west side residents to participate in theatrical productions.
After Jones’ death in 1979, the play’s production and direction were taken over by her grandson, Rogers Jones, and continued until 1986, when a lack of funding stopped production.
The papers in this collection, though small, include a series of programs and playbills (the first dating back to 1930), an organizational summary from the Willa Saunders Jones Corp., 1984, an original copy of the script (likely from later productions), and a large collection of memorabilia—plaques, awards, and proclamations from the City of Chicago.
In addition to the information contained in these papers, researchers can find a detailed biography of Willa Saunders Jones and an analysis of the Passion Play, written by Brian James Hallstoos of University of Iowa in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Spring 2007. His full dissertation on the Passion Play is available in PDF form at http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/371/.
The Willa Saunders Jones Collection consists chiefly of programs, news clippings, and numerous photographs from the production of the Chicago Passion Play. Also, there is a large amount of memorabilia—plaques, trophies, and proclamations from City of Chicago—included in the collection. Of note is a copy of the play (date unknown) containing marginalia.
The collection is made up of six series: Biography, Manuscripts, Programs, Clippings, Photographs, and Memorabilia.
Series 1: Biography contains two documents: a brief, undated, biographical sketch of Jones and a summary of the Willa Saunders Jones Corp., printed in 1984.
Series 2: Manuscripts contains a single document: a copy of the Passion Play script, date unknown.
Series 3: Programs consists of seven programs from various productions of the Passion Play from 1930 to the mid-1970s.
Series 4: Clippings is comprised of Chicago press notices, written between the 1950s and 1983, covering various aspects of the play’s production and Jones’ development as the writer/director.
Series 5: Photographs is composed of photographs documenting the production and performance of the Chicago Passion Play.
Series 6: Memorabilia contains various awards—proclamations from the Mayor of Chicago, trophies, and plaques—spanning Jones’ career as writer and director of the Passion Play.