Photo by Charissa Uemura, courtesy Guthrie Theater
Nighttime in Harlem was a refuge for poet and author Langston Hughes. Icon of the Harlem Renaissance (though he was abroad for much of it), Hughes brought the rhythm of jazz to his poetry. In “Harlem Night Song,” Hughes writes, “Across the Harlem rooftops/ Moon is shining./ Night sky is blue./ Stars are great drops/ Of golden dew.” When we find him hunched at his typewriter, however, the night offers none of its usual solace. Awaiting his appearance in front of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Government Operations, Hughes is a man isolated from his home and country.
Amid recent controversy regarding The Guthrie’s lack of diversity in its 50th anniversary season lineup, acclaimed playwright and director Carlyle Brown’s Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… is now playing in the sparse, top-floor Dowling Studio.
The stark experimental nature of the space fits the feeling of isolation Hughes, portrayed by Gavin Lawrence, surely felt on the eve of his hearing. The play can be split neatly into night and day, apartment and trial. Even without an intermission, the division of the two worlds is drastic, giving life to an early line that, Hughes is trying to live in his mind, but is being constantly interrupted by reality. Though the drama is much more pointed in the second half, the material presented in his apartment is more engaging, but also, unfortunately, more muddled.
With a neat line of mustache against his lip and shinning waves of hair pressed to his scalp, Lawrence is impossible not to watch. He engages the audience in an unsettled, fidgety conversation, pacing the floor littered with rejected scraps of paper. At his best when melodiously performing one of Hughes’ infectious poems about trumpet players, sultry nights, or dance halls, Lawrence also entertains with his merciless impersonation of the “long-necked, bug-eyed” James Baldwin. But his monologue is made to wander too quickly from the personal to the pedantic for the audience to keep up.
Both the script and the production suffer from the occasional gimmick: the projected poems rippling over Lawrence’s body as he speaks those very lines can be distracting and Brown’s efforts to recreate an entire literary scene and political moment from a litany of brief notations can feel forced. Declarations of the power of fiction are undoubtedly sincere, but the tell-don’t-show approach works against this power. When Lawrence instead loses himself in the recitation of a poem, then we are persuaded.
Historical settings are not new for Brown, but this piece explores new territory. A story of a writer, a black writer in particular, being made to answer to his audience and country about who he is and what he has done is, as Brown admitted, material close to home. We can sense his presence as Hughes tries to sort out his relationship to his fellow writers and to his readers, both white and black, as well as when Hughes constantly excuses himself to wrestle yet another line of “Georgia Dusk” onto the page.
When at last the hearing arrives with the panel members visible beyond the translucent black veil of a screen, the audience is relieved to leave these amorphous, introspective challenges behind. We can instead be sucked into the convincing rhythm of an interrogation’s question and answer. Much of the text in this half comes almost word for word from transcripts, right down to panel member Roy Cohn’s menacing joke about a Baptist metaphor failing to hold water. John Middleton as Cohn stands out as a particularly ruthless villain. His lines leave him like a speeding train ripping across the tracks.
To avoid a Kafka comparison, let’s go with J.M. Coetzee’s trial of writer Elizabeth Costello, in which a mysterious panel grills her about her beliefs. Claiming for herself no religion or creed, Costello instead clings to her special position as a writer and the unique fidelities that role incurs. Hughes, who refused to plead the fifth as others in his situation did, is left with a similar defense as he painstakingly pries apart “narrative” and “author” for the panel with his lawyer, played by Brown himself, sitting silent beside him per the committee rules.
Left to confess he did indeed sympathize with the Communists and to oblige the Chairman’s condescending, “There now that wasn’t so bad, was it,” Hughes returns defeated to his apartment. His demeanor transformed from the jittery, impassioned person we met in the first half, he walks slowly to center stage and stares hard into the crowd. Are we, his readers, still there for him, he seems to ask.
Behind him the complete lines of “Georgia Dusk” appear, ending, “Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk/ Scatters hate like a seed/ To sprout its bitter barriers/ Where the sunset bleeds.” The joy of the Harlem nights that entertained in the first half, are nowhere to be found in this closing poem.
In a play so full of questions, asked both by the poet and the panel, it is telling that Brown chooses to leave us in silence, many of the tensions of the first half left unresolved.
Despite the hurdles of historic recreation, Brown has succeeded in making a resonant, affecting story. Though the narrative deals more in philosophy than emotion, the undercurrent of a man struggling to be recognized as such hits at the gut, not the head.
Hughes returned to and was still living in Harlem when his friend and fellow artist Paul Robeson was made to appear before a similar panel, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1956. Asked why he did not stay in Russia after visiting, Robeson responded, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.”
Coverage of news and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.
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