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‘The Half-Pint Flask’ on PBS Takes Rare Look at Gullah Culture

April 17, 1987 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Public television takes an enchanting look at the people of South Carolina’s Sea Islands on Sunday with a dramatization of ″The Half-Pint Flask.″

As a ghost story, it’s a routine piece of work, but the real interest is in the setting - among the Gullah-speaking blacks of the islands.

Gullah, a melodious blend of colonial-era English and West African languages, is still spoken by about a quarter of a million blacks, especially in the self-contained communities of the islands.

The story, set in the 1920s, tells of a white linguist who comes to an island to study the language, but who has no respect for the culture and ignores the warnings of his host, a white lodge-keeper. His life starts to unravel after he steals a valuable flask from a grave, and finally a ghost comes calling for him.

The drama stars John Malloy as the lodge-keeper, Richard Leighton as the linguist and Estelle Evans as Maum Beck, a local woman. An old rice plantation near Myrtle Beach, S.C., provided the evocative setting, and The Moving Star Hall Singers contributed the distinctive music.

″It’s a story about outsiders and insiders,″ said Randy Brinson, who directed the film for South Carolina Educational Television.

″The visitor is obviously an outsider who is presented a whole new experience which presumably changes him. But beyond that, the person who presumably was the insider and was fond of the local culture discovers that he, too, is an outsider, and discovers a little bit about himself.″

″As you look at ‘The Half-Pint Flask,’ keep in mind that we tried not to make it a statement that analyzed Gullah culture,″ Brinson said.

″It’s seen through the perspective, the experiences and the fears, if you will, of the white outsiders.″

The story was written in 1927 by DuBose Heyward, whose little-remembered book ″Porgy″ became the durable George Gershwin opera ″Porgy and Bess.″

Heyward was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1885 to a once-prosperous family whose fortunes had hit bottom following the Civil War. His subject was nearly always the Gullah-speaking blacks of South Carolina, and he was proud to be sometimes mistaken for a black writer.

One university he visited described him on a program as ″not only a member of Harlem’s intellectual colony, but a Southern Negro of the old tradition.″

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″The Half-Pint Flask″ runs about 40 minutes, and the producers filled out the hour with a documentary about the survival of African burial customs in the South.

While that is an element of the tale, it would have been more interesting to learn something about Heyward, or about the relationship of white authors to Southern blacks in the early 20th century, or about the Gullah dialect.

Brinson noted that the story reflects a debate which continued long after the 1920s about the value and the roots of Gullah speech. The linguist in the drama holds the idea that the dialect was entirely adopted from whites, and retained nothing of Africa.

In ″The Story of English,″ presented earlier this season by PBS, Robert MacNeil discussed that controversy in more detail.

It had been widely believed that black English was rooted in British regional speech, and H.L. Mencken concluded that ″the Negro dialect, as we know it today, seems to have been formulated by the song-writers for the minstrel shows.″

Later students of the language, however, found that much of Gullah - as many as 6,000 usages and expressions - came from Africa.