langston hughes’ poem comes to life on stage

September 7, 2018
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Powerful art owes its influence to the sustained resilience of its message. When reading poems like Langston Hughes’ “The Black Clown,” we are immediately beguiled by the artistry poured into the work; but even more, that its message is as clear and searing as when it was born, sometime in 1931. Hughes’ artistry has given the poem the kind of resilience that has allowed those of us living in 2018, the opportunity to use its message as a means of addressing a world so blighted by white supremacy that it couldn’t quite stick the first time. And now “The Black Clown” is being reinvented for the stage.

As racism comes full circle, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, composer Michael Schachter, and directed Zack Winokur have adapted “The Black Clown,” taking their lead from the musical cues and stage directions that Hughes added to each short stanza.

According to the Boston Globe, “‘The Black Clown’ has made its grand entrance in a world premiere at the American Repertory Theater, with an opening night performance Wednesday that brought down the house.”

The adaptation boasts an incredible Black ensemble lead by Tines in the title role. According to the Globe, “The cast spun, stomped, and soared through songs of joy, grief, and rage with music and dancing that paid loving tribute to myriad black art forms and traditions.” Schacter’s score and Chanel DaSilva’s choreography were faithful to Hughes’ direction, delivering New Orleans-inspired brass bands alongside harmonies, struts, and shimmies.

Tines described reading the poem as “receiving a revelation that gave name to the experience of my existence as a Black man in America that I had never been able to articulate . . . [The clown’s] forced role represents a wholesale relegation of Black existence to something less than human.”

The commodification of Black identity is a pressing issue, especially now that the contemporary “Black Renaissance” seems to be shifting into high gear. Hughes’ clown is a figure we’re all familiar with, as Black people have to watch as our art, identity, and trauma consistently siphoned off for white consumption. This adaptation, however, doesn’t allow for mindless consumption of Black pain, as some visuals—a giant noose used as a jump rope, and grotesque minstrel paraphernalia—will likely leave white audiences uncomfortable. This kind of blunt imagery holds off catharsis, encouraging uncomfortable yet necessary questions and conversations.

The power of “The Black Clown” also resides in how we reimagine and give it new life, in order to articulate complex Blackness in a white supremacist world. Be thankful to artists, past and present, for diving headlong into the dark places to provide some illumination. This company of artists has given new life to a sobering yet piece of art. Here’s hoping there’s a tour.