Are You now or Have You Ever Been?

We had great turnouts and engaging discussions “In-Conversation” at MetroStage  for both of our Live & About Outings on Nov 1 & 5 for this wonderful work about America’s great poet Langston Hughes. Carlyle Brown brings to life with a fictional account of the demons and dilemmas faced by Langston Hughes while attempting to write a poem on the eve of his appearance before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Performed against the backdrop of searing blues and the ever-present poetic hues of Langston.

 

 

So these are the questions for you to consider and comment on:

Focus Question #1

I’m very curious about the two-line poetic image that starts the work and gets repeated as the Langston Hughes character works to create a poem throughout the show — “A wild wind in Georgia/Blows in the Georgia Dusk”–  why this line? And what does this image mean to your understanding of the show? —

Focus Question #2

Director Tom Jones III  and composer  William Knowles have  filled Carlyle Jones’ original drama  with  music  and a choreographed chorus, how does this further the story?

Final Reflection

What in this work, written in 2007, speaks particularly to our current situation? How does it make you feel, and what can we do?

9 comments on “Are You now or Have You Ever Been?”

  1. Susan K Galbraith Reply

    Indeed, Metro Stage has delivered a loving tribute and a worthy one for our community.

    I returned to see the show three times, growing in my appreciation of all the artists involved. I was only sorry I did not have a chance to speak in person with Marcus Naylor, who played Langston Hughes.

    In every performance this actor grew and deepened the emotional intensity of the character. What he carried must have been very difficult and lonely at times. While singer-dancers swirled around and engaged each other, the actor had the burden of baring his own/Langston’s soul in a portrait of a man struggling not only in the midst of sharing the very private work of creative process, but a man who had to face the harrowing witch hunts that was the business of McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American activities. (My father too faced scrutiny during that time of hysteria, with all the mob’s insisting insolence and bullying, and had previously, as a cowboy and train-hopping fool in the thirties, dallied with the ideals of communism that attracted so many American mid-westerners struggling to get out of the depression and drought. However, as a white man, he did not carry, as Langston Hughes had to, that additional burden of fear and distrust in our history of racism.)

    It is chilling to be reminded we Americans could all face this once again; many of our citizens and would-be citizens are already doing so. The play serves as an important alarm bell.

    I shall not forget the sweat that drenched Naylor and the tension that furrowed his brow. He reminded me of the cost of being an artist — we are all canaries. And many of the best of us have been silenced.

    This actor took us on a magnificent journey and should be nominated for a Helen Hayes.

  2. Riley K Temple Reply

    AYNOHYEB is a loving and lovely tribute to Langston Hughes — and a lesson about his “turn” as a witness before MacCarthy’s SCOUA. It was an evil time — captured powerfully by the acting and staging (or should I say, choreography?) — and the appropriate and essential references to that detestable hypocrite, Roy Cohn. Hughes’ sublime verse and the brilliant score make it all go down so easily. There is an intentional and brilliant coexistence between the cadence of the verse and the music’s rhythm that interweaves them such that we are led to think that were created together and simultaneously — that they were always blissfully and thrillingly joined. It’s delicious.

  3. Michael A. Feldman Reply

    In response to the question about music and theatre, I would ask if the use of rhythm in this production illustrated the creative process of a poet and librettist.

    Great play and production!

  4. Ari Jacobson Reply

    Regarding question 2, a major theme of the work was the relationship between author and readers, how an author creates a poem from some combination of his mind, cut, and past, then lets it fly out into the world (like the seeds blown in the wind of the Georgia Dusk poem sprinkled throughout the piece) to be interpreted (or often MISinterpreted) by the world in general. The music and use of the other characters as a constantly shifting Greek Chorus, often repeating, in song, the spoken words of the poet a moment after they were spoken, was a constant reminder of this push and pull felt by the creator who must eventually release his creation to the world.

  5. Bert Keidel Reply

    This wonderful show was so engrossing and troubling at the same time, especially the first half. Hughes’s poem struggling to come out: “Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk/ That cries and cries and cries …” reminded me of last season’s “Red hills of Georgia” musical. in the talk back I said it made me think that the wind was trying to say something that wasn’t allowed to be said. It reminded me of a book I read for Lent this year called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” In the musical, Hughes even said that “they have different problems deep down south than we do here in the Midwest” (which I thought meant Chicago for some reason). The musical’s treatment of the Blues as a theme was especially evocative of a point made in The Lynching Tree that Southern African Americans, subjected to random lynching just to intimidate them and keep them cowed, sang and danced their hearts out Saturday nights in little shacks filled with self-made music as the only escape (albeit temporary) they had from the terror. This musical even said something like “today we’re alive [with music] because tomorrow is darkness.” The blood images in the final full version of the poem just made me more convinced that he was trying to write of the horror of lynching, which however, couldn’t be said right out. The second half of the musical, in McCarthy’s hearing, emphasized just how little the white power establishment was aware of or cared about the lynching – so absorbed were they in making political points with anti-communism. I got curious at home and looked up the poem and a possible linkage to lynching. It quickly took me to a poem of Jean Toomer’s entitled “Georgia Dusk” (1922). It’s in a volume called “Cane” with a broodingly brown mix of prose and poetry, including a white mob’s burning alive of an African American named Tom Burwell. Hughes certainly must have known Toomer’s work.

    Note Toomer’s “flashing gold,” which Hughes converts into “Red streaks,” if I’m right:
    Georgia Dusk
    The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
    The setting sun, too indolent to hold
    A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
    Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46407/georgia-dusk

  6. Abigail Wiebenson Reply

    Stephen and I were so glad to have taken advantage of that moving evening last night. We were so impressed with the staging; the choreography was just extraordinary. Being reminded of those Army/McCarthy hearings we all lived through was timely and horrifying. We are getting out Langston poetry and rereading it — along with remembering the other authors mentioned. These are definitely the times to remind ourselves to fight behavior we don’t want to replicate in this county. Thank you so much for organizing these memorable events. We look forward to more.

  7. Kay Garlick Reply

    The work is curious. The chorus punctuates entrances and moves with syncopated, rhythmic stamps, claps, and suitcase banging, and its members swirl around Langston Hughes like the Georgia dust, kicking up memories with all the pain and shame of the race history of the South. The singer-actors work with each other beautifully.

    Langston Hughes, on the other hand, stays isolated, in his head, wrestling with how to write a poem. The fact that he doesn’t sing or “ride” the music the way the others do keeps him in that present moment, a Black man in a White-power world and fearing the crushing of his work and identity if he is blacklisted. His through-line is a whole apologia of a man being asked to compromise, even sell out, and wanting absolution in some way. But is his audience White people or African Americans? Langston Hughes went on record articulating the difficulty of trying to reach both. The way playwright Carlyle Brown tells it, it seems to change in the course of the play. He, the artist, seems to be wrestling too.

    But if we don’t risk kicking up some dust ourselves in our attempt to reach each other, aren’t we doomed to repeat the past — with all its ugliness, resentments, guilt, shame?

  8. Susan Galbraith Reply

    Robert,

    Your comments are, as always, insightful. I thought it was a lovely discussion and deepened my understanding of the show. I invite Bert, A.K., Mary, and others to amplify their thoughts about the central poetic image.

    Tom’s direction helped “pop” the drama and, to my mind, seamlessly welded the two parts of the story — Harlem’s rich jazzy backdrop and then the McCarthy-led hearings on the Committee on UnAmerican Activities in Washington. The use of a fabulous assembly of singers in a mixed race chorus in both settings further kept the work from being “Black vs. White.”

    William Knowles kept his music transparent, peppering the text throughout, never pushing a show-stopping number at us or weighing down the story.

  9. Robert Darling Reply

    The evening offered a great example of a music-theater evening. Filled with rigorous artistic choices, all the elements supporting the main ideas of the performance make a beautifully paced evenin in the theater, greater for all of its parts, producing a beautifully synergy. Movement, visuals, set and music underscored the text of this story of artist and artistic creation under attack. The McCarthy Hearings remain a horror of our democracy. The harrowing portrayal of the scenes in the Committee Room has been fodder for many, many plays, movies, Radio, TV Shows and theater events. Here, it became a striking music and theater tour de force driving home several ideas about artistic creation, personal integrity, the power of the arts and indeed, the great danger of the arts, the artist their enlarged importance and influence. This danger, from the power of iteration driving the writing of the ‘Winds of Georgia’ Poem, the poets continual crumbling of the text until it was right, fighting to find the right words. The poem’s completion at the end, underscored by speech, music and image, the projection of the text and the letters of the poem, and wonderfully these same letters blowing away and across the abstract surfaces of the set directly show how the director envisioned the and realized this show.

    The importance of artistic context — art lives beyond a yes-or no world beloved and framed by the Senators Conservative fears — and how context powers truth, made this music-theater work exceptional.

    The performance was a beautiful example of a “Gesamptkunstwerk” the idea, often attributed to Wagner, of a performance where ALL the arts express the idea, build upon each other, uses great rigor to produce an artistic whole. It also lived only in the moment of performance, the interaction with the marvelously diverse audience. Together — black, white, old, young, fat, fit all approaching the stage in the moment . The audience working, wanting to follow each detail as it comes. The story tapped out in our minds like Langston typed his sharp focused taps on his typewriter — deliberate and precise strokes struggling to get the words right. Bravi tutti!

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