Langston Hughes’ ‘Black Clown’ Gets New Life On Stage

Langston Hughes’ poem “The Black Clown,” transformed into a music-dance-theater piece by composer Michael Schachter and bass-baritone Davóne Tines, was staged as part of this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival. (Photos by Richard Termine)
By Xenia Hanusiak

NEW YORK – At the opening night July 24 of Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter’s  adaptation of Langston Hughes’ The Black Clown at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, part of this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the audience stood and roared with a heartfelt veracity not often experienced in New York. The mood was joyous, even celebratory. The pageant of artistry was stratospheric. But The Black Clown is disturbing and chilling. Or at least it should have been.

The dominant mood in Zack Winokur’s direction of “The Black Clown” is exultant.

Hughes was 30 when he wrote his poem. Nearly 90 years later, in a new century, the 32-year-old African-American bass-baritone Davóne Tines is compelled to reinvigorate the same messages of a poem that extols the central premise “no place to go. Black in the white world.”

The necessity to re-enact Hughes’ 1930s experience in 2019 elicits a chill. The dominant mood in Zack Winokur’s direction is exultant. The production invokes Hughes’ missive in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

The 70-minute, music-dance-theatre piece faithfully renders the poem’s trajectory through the course of the seventeen stanzas. The staging responds to the structure set in Hughes’ preface, subtitled “The Mood”:

Melancholy jazz. Then defiance again followed by loud joy.
A burst of music. Strutting and dancing.
Then sudden sadness again.

The sheer pizzazz of the performance was a distraction from the poems’ darker intentions.

As Hughes’ clown monologist, our commedia dell’arte avatar, the  incandescent Tines leads a 12-member vocal-dance ensemble and Cab Calloway-style dance orchestra in a series of numbers that depict the African-American experience – from the bluesy 1920s speakeasies to the ecstatic fervor of a Southern Baptist revival meeting. Schachter’s contributions combine original music inspired by work songs and the significant 12-bar blues riffs that underpin Hughes’ poems. The grace of the mood is enriched with choral anthem-like reshaping of spirituals including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” A series of poetically rendered documentary tableaux, including the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and images of cotton field workers, are seen through shadow plays and processions.

Ironically, the spectacle and sheer pizzazz of the performance distracted the listener from the poems’ darker intentions. There is a strange discomfort in the appreciation of the company’s superlative renditions of the spirituals. Both received rapturous show-stopping applause, but I wonder if we were rewarding the musical achievement at the cost of contemplating the issues behind the bitter experiences of slavery that these old songs portray.

Poetically rendered documentary tableaux are shown as shadow plays and processions.

This is not to say that the messages are not there. We see a host of metaphorical intentions. In the middle of Chanel DaSilva’s hyperactive jazz choreography, the lithe sensual swinging is interrupted by sudden momentary collapsing movements. The breaks are jolting and haunting. They reveal to us the lacuna between the entertainer and their reality.

At one point, the women are costumed in resplendent arrays of dazzling blue, yellow, green, and red taffetas, velvets, and silks. The connotation of what color denotes to the black experience is redolent of what Tines prefaces in the program notes: “to understand that there is a larger diaspora of thought in terms of engaging in the reality of the human experience.”

As a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes polarized his intellectual peers with his vernacular approach and popularity. In many ways, the accessible musical theater style of this production carries the same contention and paradox. Thus the question for this reincarnation must be: Is the chasm too wide?

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.