by Edward Medina
Langston Hughes, whose Harlem home is still a popular place for visitors and artists of all likes to gather and reflect on art and the body politic of the day, is himself still a monumentally impactful player on the worlds stage and in the lives of everyday African Americans. This is a black man who became a poet when his white grammar school teacher, stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry, along with his fellow students, elected him class poet because “everyone knows that blacks have rhythm” and in that moment a literary giant was born.
The work of Langston Hughes does speak in the rhythm and syncopation of jazz, it also invokes the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance which he gave birth to, and all the creative soul searching that epoch invokes just spills out onstage at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival and its exceptional premiere of The Black Clown. Adapted by Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter from the 1931 Langston Hughes poem this is a tour de force seventy-minute interpretive musical piece that is both glorious celebration and rightful condemnation.
This is not simply easy theatre to digest and then dismiss as a culturally enriched musical frivolity. This is deep thought provoking stuff that grabs you by the mindset and rattles your established morays until you realize that everything you thought you knew from history books, and tend to believe foolishly was oh so long ago, is still very much alive and with us to this day. Davóne Tines also embodies The Black Clown himself. He is our guide in this world. His deep rich bass baritone voice shakes the rafters and one’s soul to the core. He sublimely leads the way with exceptional confidence, jaunty irony, and great sadness.
The Black Clown is the teacher now and his lessons are meant to set things to right. To that end he has a powerful ensemble of adjudicators to assist him. Director Zack Winokur leads here with a firm guiding hand that lets the vision of every assembled artist speak for itself. Choreographer Chanel DaSilva delivers poetry in motion by mixing both traditional and modern dance elements which beautifully depict the deeply emotional arcs at play. The musicality of the Langston Hughes poem is here as well in the work of composer Michael Schachter. His mix of gospel, spiritual, jazz, and blues numbers are the beautiful framework on which this entire portrait hangs.
The ensemble of players gathered to tell the tale are exceptionally gifted. Every one of them is committed to the message they are bringing home and they have the artistic skills to both entertain and render emotional enlightenment. Sumayya Ali, Darius Barnes, Dawn Bless, Jonathan Christopher, LaVon Fisher-Wilson, Lindsey Hailes, Evan Tyrone Martin, Jhardon DiShon Milton, Brandon Michael Nase, Amber Pickens, Jamar Williams, and Hailee Kaleem Wright all act and sing and dance as a dynamic and compelling whole.
Set and costume designer Carlos Soto, lighting designer John Torres, and sound designer Kai Harada also contribute their considerable creative skills in bringing this all to life. Large movable screens of scrim framed in neon trim and the shadows that play behind them illustrate momentous moments, sometimes the simple aesthetics of a bare stage highlighting the mostly monochrome costumes serve the story, and just the right sound effect, at just the right moment, or no sound at all drive the dramatic points home.
The Black Clown is a celebration of endurance despite the blunt force trauma of hundreds upon hundreds of years of oppression. At times its portrayal of the Negro experience in this country is uncomfortable to watch. It should be. Its right to do so. The truth hurts. At other times, there is a bittersweet joy that permeates the proceedings and a raise the roof celebratory ending. It is a joyful sound and that’s right too for, despite the darkness, joy always cometh in the morning.
Many cultures have suffered and endured in the United States. Some more than others. Some longer than others. It has sadly become part of our cultural identity. We should never memorialize that part of who we are but we should never trivialize or forget them either. The Black Clown beautifully reminds us that we can overcome where we’ve been and once again be touched by the better angels of our nature in order to light the journey ahead.
Photos: Richard Termine