Theater

Review: Powerful play pits Langston Hughes against McCarthy panel

Gavin Lawrence portrays poet and playwright Langston Hughes.
Gavin Lawrence portrays poet and playwright Langston Hughes.

I’m not going to pretend; this was a difficult play albeit an important one to watch. I had avoided it, but with the PBS Wisconsin viewing extension, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been … ” by American Players Theatre became an unavoidable invitation. Written by Carlyle Brown and directed by David Daniel, how important and vibrant this play truly is became quite evident, and being naive to the time period covered, I was shaken.

On March 21, 1953, poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes was served a subpoena to appear before the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on Un-American Activities. He was given two days to get to Washington D.C. from Harlem, and had to pay for his own transportation and hotel ("it’s like borrowing money for your own hanging”). Hughes was advised by his [Black] attorney Frank Reeves (“he knows the particular significance of being a Black”) to tell the truth, the full story, and clearly. Hughes was a multi-dimensional thinker, far too intelligent for the committee chairman, Joseph McCarthy, and fellow Senators Everett Dirksen and David Schine, and government attorney Roy Cohn.

For the entire first act, an exquisite actor, Gavin Lawrence, addresses the audience directly on the eve before his appearance from his apartment in Harlem. He’s also attempting to write a haunting poem ("the wind in the Georgia dust"), crumpling papers and asking us to excuse him to write it.

Lawrence brings the ideal continuity and pattern to Hughes’ thoughts and words; he even recites some of his poems: "Weary Blues" (“ebony hands on each ivory key”), "Harlem Night Club" (“What do you know about tomorrow where all paths go?”), "Harlem Sweeties" and my favorite, "Harlem (A Dream Deferred)" (“What happens to a dream deferred? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.”). Lawrence is facially succinct and gives deep clarity to the emotions and the recollections of Hughes’ personal history, his loneliness as a writer, his travels, discrimination, fears, and agony over the reviews his work received. Lawrence shows the vulnerability of being human.

The play hits home painfully about halfway through. There is a brilliant discussion of the fallacy of government: “a group of people who want power and will do anything in their power to get power … they’ll come up with an idea and call it good … for this group there are only two ideas: the right one and the wrong one, and heaven help you if you should have your own idea and have inquiry and discourse.” The first act ends with Hughes rehearsing his opening statement while suiting up to go.

Act two brings the other actors into focus. Hughes is now before the Washington subcommittee with his almost silenced attorney. Jamal James as Frank Reeves clearly and subtly messages his frustration and fear through his eyes and expressive emotion as he watches and observes until finally he protests the rapid-fire questioning of his client. Jim DeVita as Senator Dirksen outlines the purpose of the hearing, namely Hughes' objective in his poems “striking Communist notes,” and since public funds provide the money for libraries and foreign information centers, this must be explored. DeVita is condescending and badgering with politeness and manners.

Another senator sitting in judgment is David Schine; as portrayed by Marcus Truschinski, he is stoic and a hammer pounding away at the danger of perjury and ultimately asks Hughes to name names and questions him about Paul Robeson.

Of course, the chairman of these proceedings is the masterful Brian Mani as McCarthy. He may not have a lot to say, but try not watching him. The scene stealer naturally of this inquisition is prosecutor Roy Cohn. James Ridge is such a good Cohn that I hated him. He’s acerbic, disruptive, smug and nasty. And through it all, Lawrence continues as Hughes – strong with his disbelief and able to counter intelligently and bravely. “Anyone can be a Communist, especially if it’s someone you dislike.”

Brown’s play, which does contain explicit language, is intense, but so very impressive. It sent me to research Langston Hughes and read more of his poems beyond the scattered forgotten mention of my college days. “Poetry is a very thin and fragile world easily evaporated and destroyed.” Not so this play. It’s a sobering play, a relevant play, but it’s also a hopeful and engaging play. Please don’t be like me – I almost let this one slip by.

• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with the theater since the first grade. She has been in stage plays, on web series and radio broadcasts, served on theater boards, and appeared in the Mike Preston film “Citizen Dick.” She anxiously awaits the return to things she loves best: acting, directing, teaching, traveling with her husband and attending live theater with a live audience.

IF YOU VIEW

WHAT: "Are You Now of Have You Ever Been …" by American Players Theatre

WHEN: Through Aug. 9

COST: Free viewing; 1 hour and 45 minutes

INFO: Americanplayers.org, PBSWisconsin.org/apt

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