A writer’s life is peculiarly isolated and the opening sequence of Are you now, or have you ever been… makes that abundantly clear. A typewriter sits on a table with a stack of papers and a wine bottle. The poet Langston Hughes. played by the terrific New York actor Marcus Naylor, enters in ruffled pajamas and stocking cap trying to coax a line of poetry into being, only to rip out page after page, crumbling and discarding each one– never good enough. Thus begins the lonely life of a poet, seeking just the right tone to get across the message.
But this is no ordinary poet—if there even is such a thing. Langston Hughes was a premiere writer whose poems are noted and quoted to this day. He launched magazines, cited the oppression of Black Americans in his work, and nearly invented jazz poetry. He was also one of only two writers called up before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations on Un-American Activities led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953.
The first half of this fictionalized account of Hughes’ experience focuses on the poet’s musings as he reminisces about living in his beloved Harlem. It’s here where we get a glimpse of his panache in describing Harlem Nights, the pulsating rhythm of the blues that infuses his works and watch the ensemble actors as extensions of his imagination.
We also get hints of his feud with other famous artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes did not mince words in knocking down the intellectual righteousness of James Baldwin. He watched his protégée Richard Wright exceed him with “Native Son” and he recited a brilliant section of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Writers and artists were exploring their worlds with zeal, spoke their minds and reveled in ardent forms of self-expression in the new Jazz Age.
With all of these other works in full view, why was Hughes targeted to come before the Committee? Being considered subversive for writing poetry? How could that happen in the land of the free? The script by Carlyle Brown notes artists through history who were jailed, persecuted, even executed for their works— he even gives a special nod to Federico Garcia Lorca –all contrary to the American sensibility of free speech. But then Hughes’ incriminating passages are brought to light and we realize with a sinking feeling that it could and did happen here. With the imagined text derived from ongoing investigations and interrogation, the giddy dancing ensemble suddenly turn into scowling images from the past, namely Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn.
The staged movement by Thomas W. Jones II is thrilling and chilling. Descriptions don’t do justice to what happens as the interrogators rip past the sumptuous and fun-filled images and zero in on ruminations from deep in the poet’s anguished soul.
Are you now or have you ever been …
closes November 5, 2017
Details and tickets
Jones has a special fondness for the poet Langston Hughes, and he describes the script that’s only been performed only one other time, as a play with music. The original music by Williams Knowles is hauntingly beautiful that helps set the poetry in motion. The inclusion of “I’ve Known Rivers” by the amazingly talented William Hubbard (written for Harlem Rose) is a rare treat.
It’s worth repeat visits just to watch Naylor in action as everything unfolds with the poet’s words projected on the upright jagged panels and he is forced to agree with or denounce his writings. Hughes is trapped by his own language, and he knows there’s no way out. Naylor digs into the heart, mind and soul of the poet with incredible strength and clarity. He paces like a caged lion working through text in his head. His entire demeanor softens as he tenderly recalls his Harlem nights, then he prepares for battle when subpoenaed to testify.
All of the performances are remarkable—Michael Sharp has been a mainstay at MetroStage and throughout the region, and with Russell Sunday, they interact, move, sing and dance with care and grace. Josh Thomas carries the weight of segregation on his shoulders as the black lawyer Frank Reeves with a case that represents steps forward or back not just for one client, but symbolically for the race. I’ve followed Wood Van Meter through several local productions and he delivers yet another stellar performance with vocals worth the trip to catch.
Costumes by Sigridur Johannesdottir and Michael Sharp work beautifully as the ensemble re-enters in beautifully tailored black suits accented by swirling black and white print patterned ties, reflecting the racial under and overtones. Marni Penning enters as a jazzy blonde bombshell in a flouncy maroon dress, and elbow length gloves that match the poet’s brocade dressing gown. But then watch her transformation as she charges out as the young Roy Cohn, a McCarthy henchman, ready to take no prisoners with rapid fire questions in a dazzling performance.
This is a perfect time for Are you now, or have you ever been…It’s a look back at a dark time in American history whose shadows tip perilously close to today. This show is a knock-out production that speaks truth to power, beautifully.
Are you now, or have you ever been… Written and conceived by Carlyle Brown . Directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Cast: Marcus Naylor, Marni Penning, Michael Sharp, Russell Sunday, Josh Thomas, Wood Van Meter . Movement Choreographer: Thomas W. Jones II . Set Design: Carl Gudenius & Shuxing Fan . Costumes design: Sigridur Johannesdottir and Michael Sharp . Lighting Design: John Alexander . Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith & Denise Rose . Projection Design: Robbie Hayes . Stage Manager: David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.