Langston Hughes was a noted poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry. It’s no wonder that the literary giant got a “shout out” in Rent’s “La Vie Boheme” along with other historic notables.
In 2012, Carlyle Brown conceived a play about Hughes that presented a fictional account of the demons and dilemmas he faced while trying to write a poem on the night before his appearance before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations on Un-American Activities led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953.
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… was originally staged in 2012 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio in Minnesota and was a critical darling. Five years later, D.C.’s MetroStage has decided to tackle the production with Helen Hayes nominated Thomas W. Jones II as director.
“Someone sent [artistic director] Carolyn Griffin the script and she read it and fell in love with it, and she passed it on to me, and I fell in love with it as well,” Jones says. “I think it’s interesting looking at the time period that it’s even more timely now, given the current political circumstances, than it was even in 2012.”
He also believes the story resonates in a completely different way than it did five years ago.
“It probably felt like a bookmark in history back then, in terms of acknowledging the journey of looking at the ’50s and what that meant,” Jones says. “Now I think it’s eerily reminiscent of a time period that we’re kind of going through now.”
Jones admits he grew up wanting to be a writer because of writers like Langston Hughes, anointing him on the Mount Rushmore of black American poets and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
“He was an extraordinary activist and never left Harlem, yet his international reach was extraordinary,” he says. “He wrote so many different genres. He was a playwright, poet, essayist, and all of his work was very profound and deeply affective. Certainly his impact on a generation of younger poets and writers was very profound.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the spoken beauty of Langston Hughes’ poetry,
watch the reading at the end of this interview of one of his Simple stories
MetroStage’s version of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… is a bit different that the one originally conceived. Most notably, the show now incorporates the poems by Hughes with original music by composer William Knowles. There’s even a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca, representing the time Hughes spent in Mexico thrown into the mix.
“We’ve kind of made this a play with music,” Jones says. “This is a man who is haunted by demons and at a certain point you journey through your past. This is on the eve of the night that may destroy his life and career, and to that extent, you kind of recollect everything. As an artist, when you’re at a moment of crisis, the thing you do is go to the art to order what you’re going through. With that, I think the music added a rhythm to the poems and the tension of the play. It allowed someone who is exploring their life, to listen to the musicality of his own soul.”
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been …
closes November 5, 2017
Details and tickets
The music was also used to convey sound effects of Harlem—wind howling, dust brewing—the soundscape of the night Hughes is going through before he has to testify.
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… stars Marcus Naylor as Hughes, and the veteran actor brings all of the poet’s commanding strength to life. Jones had worked with the actor before in The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton, Spunk, and Fraternity, and knew he would be perfect for the role.
“Marcus has a gravitas. It’s so intense and this almost feels like a one-man play for the first half of it, before he goes to the trial, and Marcus has the chops to handle that,” Jones says. “He certainly has the sensibility of a poet. He is a really good actor and has that emotional and physical gravitas to handle Langston.”
The cast also features Michael Sharp, Russell Sunday, Wood Van Meter, Josh Thomas and Marni Penning.
The reason Jones believes no other theater has attempted to take on the show since its initial run is because it’s something of a difficult read in that you can’t immediately see the theatrical action in it.
“It really reads beautifully, but it’s also very dense,” he says. “You tend to think, ‘is this just a play sitting behind a desk talking to us about a historical incident?’ Carlyle is such a fine writer, but also a very dense writer, and he really engages in ideas, so in some respects, it doesn’t leap off the page for everyone. But for me, I really love a language play and it did leap off for me. I think it’s an important piece and should be done.”
In speaking with Brown about the production’s first run, Jones learned that audiences left the theater moved by a moment in history that not many people knew. While people know about the McCarthy trials, they don’t think of Hughes and black writers, because only two were ever interviewed by McCarthy.
“It’s an interesting niche in terms of that historical incident, and audiences were fascinated by the fact that it did occur,” Jones says. “We had our first preview and people were really engaged. People were sitting in the theater afterwards talking to each other, and that’s a good sign that this is resonating with people in a very contemporary way.”
The late WPFW (89.3 fm) broadcast Nap “Don’t Forget the Blues” Turner reading “Springtime”, one of Langston Hughe’s Jesse B.Simple stories. From Turner’s Hughes Views of the Blues.