Paul Laurence Dunbar: Common Ground

Publication Information




Soprano 1 - A lyric soprano

Soprano 2 - More dramatic than Soprano 1



Duration: 35 minutes

Instrumentation: piano/vocal score available,
flute, oboe-english horn, clarinet-bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion (sus. cymbal, small snare dr., woodblock, glockenspiel, bass drum, claves, triangle, violin 1 (2+), violin 2 (2+) viola, cello (2+) bass

Special considerations: Everyday late 1800’s style dress. Tri-fold scene was used to define performance area - minimal props to suit each scene. Production was designed to be easily transportable for 80+ school programs.


  1. Ode to Ethiopia/Compensation (Soprano 2 and Baritone)
  2. A Love Letter (Tenor and Cast)
  3. A Frolic (Cast)
  4. The Awakening (Soprano 1)
  5. Thou Art My Lute (Soprano 1 and Tenor)
  6. Little Brown Baby (Baritone)
  7. A Negro Love Song (Tenor and Baritone)
  8. Discovered (Soprano 1 and Soprano 2)
  9. Accountability/A Hymn/An Ante-Bellum Sermon (Cast)
  10. He Had His Dream (Soprano 2, Soprano 1, Tenor, Baritone)
  11. Finale: Ode to Ethiopia/Compensation (reprise) (Cast)


Paul Laurence Dunbar: Common Ground was conceived as a theatrepiece. The original intent was not to present a chronological representation of Dunbar’s life and career, but something more closely related to an impressionistic representation of his work. Thirteen poems are used with two being used at the beginning of the work and reprised at the end. This work employs two sopranos, one tenor and one baritone.

It begins with Ode To Ethiopia, and slowly embraces Compensation. It is at once a hymn to beginnings and a praise to struggle and the commitment to survival. An allusion is made to Dunbar suggesting that he is born with a gift that embraces and enlightens and influences the lives of African Americans.

This work pauses to acknowledge the brevity of Dunbar’s lifetime (1872—1906) a mere thirty-three years. Still, the poet was able to craft a wide number of voices who spoke of love and its importance in the lives of men and women who are remembered as vibrant beings in his poetry. Dunbar’s use of dialect is one of the memorable attributes of his poetry. He uses it to great effect to describe the emotion the man feels as his mind moves ever closer to the dances that occupy black life.

He musically takes a turn towards tenderness when one of the singers sings a lullaby Little Brown Baby. It is one of those moments which we know invokes love which is so closely attached to passion. It is here that the audience encounters A Negro Love Song. It is a rhythmical delight that repeats itself, over and over again, in amusing ways, and which spills playfully over into gossip and noisiness. Dunbar seems ever aware of the subtle rhythms which are pervasive in the African American community.

This theatrepiece is a pastiche of love that is attentive, passionate, and playful, but then it turns its attention to the sacred as well as the secular. These two elements are intrinsically bound together in the black community. The movement is one that goes back and forth before either one becomes too serious at the expense of the other. It is at this juncture that we are presented with someone who has to acknowledge that he is at the least accountability for what he does in the community, which leads directly into a church hymn and a sermon. The entire quartet is employed in this section of the work.

The penultimate section of Common Ground focuses on the ever—present heroes and leaders of the black community. It is here that the singers focus on He Had His Dream. Here the drama focuses on the heroic and a sense of determination.

The reprise bring us full circle back to the beginning, and the necessity for understanding when, where and how we began on this worldly journey and what it may require before its conclusion is reached.

Biographical Information

(b. 1933) Herbert Woodward Martin is a prize-winning poet and performer, an actor and playwright, a singer and opera librettist, a professor, and a scholar originally from Birmingham, Alabama. He began his studies at the University of Toledo. He continued them at SUNY at Buffalo, then at Middlebury College, and finished at Carnegie Mellon University. He came to the University of Dayton in the fall of 1970 and now has the rank of professor emeritus. As a professor and poet-in-residence, he taught creative writing and African American literature. In 1973, he was a distinguished visiting professor at Central Michigan University, and in 1990, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Hungary. He has devoted decades to editing and giving performances of the works of the poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar. He is also the editor of four books and the author of nine volumes of poetry.

View a documentary about Martin.