Reviewed Performance: 2/16/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What's the price of freedom? When expression of ideas or someone's existence is used to tap into a perceived national fear, what is the cost of squashing expression? Long before fake news there was McCarthy.
After the triumph of WWII, America went through years of turmoil that threatened our free society and destroyed people's lives. When decades of unfettered artistic expression suddenly fed the fear of communists in the US, a scared society capitulated to a regime that played on those fears. Neighbors and co-workers turned on each other to report communist tendencies. The Red Scare spread across government and academic workers and into the entertainment industry with surprising speed. No one embodied the government-wide witch-hunt or fomented the national fear more than Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the nagging fear of homeland terror to push his personal agenda. Oh, wait! Was that 1950 or 2019?
Langston Hughes was caught in the whirlwind in 1953 with a subpoena to appear before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations on Un-American Activities. The author, established poet and voice of the oppressed blacks in America, who wrote eloquently about black self-acceptance as well as the lack of equality, found it difficult to testify about his communist ideals. The stakes for him personally and for artists in general were high. How would he handle it?
ARE YOU NOW, OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN… by Carlyle Brown is the Regional Premier at Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth that explores this short event. Brown's text eschews a documentary approach to McCarthy's committee to delve into the receipt of that subpoena and how it affected Hughes' life and creative process. He had struggled to understand his place in the world for decades, sometimes changing his views, often exploring different ideas ("the -ISMs") to find a solution. But now his early views came under scrutiny and he was challenged to explain his lifelong struggle. A long-lasting effect of baseless accusations is the chilling effect it has on artistic expression, no less today then in 1953.
vickie washington directed this play with her own vision to find the spaces and moments that would bring out Hughes' personal and creative struggle. Her mantra to "breathe" into this script allowed cast and crew to find nuances that underpinned the story. Her production team created a space and environment where the audience could feel the process of Hughes' search for expression and fight for the right words.
On entry, the audience walked into a space designed by L. W. Miller where papers hung throughout the theater. A stage floor was strewn with clumps of paper around a solitary desk with a typewriter. Behind the shallow stage several back-wall projection scrims hung to the floor. This was Hughes' home in New York and it conveyed the artist's lair. It seemed a cold, lonely space. Lynn Lovett's props and set decor included items representative of a writer; a messy desk, magazine articles, books from other authors. In time a desk with mics and items you'd see in a hearing appeared. There was an economy with these – just items the story would need.
Lighting, designed by Aaron Johansen, filled the space with alternate blues and 1950's incandescent lights. Some came from overheads to accentuate the lonely struggle. Some came from the front to create an inquest feel. The disconnected back-wall scrims acted at once like large back-washes with colors that enhanced Hughes' moods, and also as large papers on-which Video Designer H. Bart McGeehon projected various things, especially text as Hughes typed it on his typewriter and text of the poems Hughes read. There were a few understated sound effects or backing music added by Sound Designer Kat Fahrenthold, but the main challenge was to create the hearing committee with voices coming from four inquisitors.
Costume Design only had to deal with two actors. Laurie Land placed Hughes in his home with his pajamas, but gave him a light grey 3-piece suit right out of a 1950s Hart Shaffner & Marx ad to change into for the hearing. Frank Reeves, who supported Hughes for the hearing, wore a 3-piece brown suit that screamed rich lawyer.
Carlyle Brown's script is essentially a one-man show with a supporting actor and several unseen voices. The whole first act is Hughes by himself.
Christopher Dontrell Piper played the lawyer, Frank Reeves, and by played, I mean he sat next to Hughes at the table and reacted visually to the questions being slung at Hughes. There are a couple of lines he speaks, as Reeves interjects an objection for his client and gets slapped down by the committee, but otherwise Piper had to look the part. He did. And his looks were reactions one expected.
While McCarthy pushed his extreme personal agenda and said little during the hearing, it was Roy Cohn who prosecuted the case. These were words from the text of the hearing. Voices were a bit disembodied by the sound designer and sounded almost like they sound in recordings of the hearings, almost a old radio mic sound. None of the Committee were seen and voices appeared recorded, but it was done well enough to sound conversational, if you could call a witch-hunt committee a conversation. So we had to pull emotional context from voices.
Cohn's purpose was to ask, cajole, threaten, trick and hound witnesses into revealing their own or someone else's guilt. Blake McNamara voiced these questions with a rapid-fire peppering of questions. His sub-text was clear – get the witness. And we got that from McNamara's vocal range and pacing.
Slow the pace of delivery, make it a deep, Illinois voice, and add a conciliatory almost-apologetic tone and we heard Senator Everett Dirksen. He served in the Senate through the 60's and became not only a social supporter of Democratic agendas but played an instrumental role in LBJ's 1965 Civil Rights Act. But in these hearings, he knew his narrow victory in the election had been supported by McCarthy, so there was no-doubt a debt to pay. Dirksen also fancied himself an amateur writer and may have had more sympathy for Hughes than anyone knew.
Only a few lines were voiced for David Schine by Justin Locklear. He was a junior staffer to McCarthy and bought fully into the legal nature of the hearings. So Schine's lines both support Cohn's tone of attack, but seems more like warnings to make Hughes understand how serious his testimony is. Locklear's voice conveyed this urgent caution in both pace and tone.
And, Joseph McCarthy, voiced by Bob Hess, only had a few questions that, surprisingly, got the most assertive and satisfactory answers from Hughes and ended the hearing. The banshee character perception of the Senator in myth was not strictly true and Hess, perhaps, made this clear through the voicing of those questions. It seemed almost a bit friendly and appreciative of Hughes. Joseph McCarthy was an immensely complicated villain history has argued, correctly in many cases, was evil. By the end of the next year, he was censured by the Senate, turned on by former friends and died three years later a broken man.
Djoré Nance took on the role of Langston Hughes, an iconic figure, also a complicated man. The mid-Century Red Scare was rampant for years before Langston Hughes aroused the Committee because he professed curiosity about communism and how it might improve the plight of discrimination in America. He went to Russia to make a film, though it was cancelled, and he found the political environment there as bad as it was here. He wrote for the communist paper in America and said things that shocked the Committee. And he was far from alone, as many artists did the same.
As an essentially one-man show, Nance had to put himself out there alone to catch and hold the attention of the audience. He had to capture and embody a deeply flawed, complex character who, admittedly, spent his life struggling to understand his world and how he could fit into it. Nance resembled Hughes in body and voice, which is both a curse and blessing for an actor. The first Act is an effort to write a poem the night before his hearing with the threat of the subpoena and a threat hanging over him. Nance took Hughes through the struggles to get this poem written, a sneak-peek into the poet's process, and understand how he had been chosen to address it. Hughes had to be the voice of reason on behalf of artists who had gone before and those who might follow, so the pressure was great. We could see this in Nance's variation in every aspect. His voice waivered, turned strong, exploded into frustrated anger, and almost wilted with indecision. We saw him contort his body and face through an amazing range of emotional responses. He was showing his own view about how Hughes must have felt that early morning. With the night and morning passed, we then saw him at the accused's table being grilled by the committee and Nance did something more extraordinary. He showed the deeply personal pain and anguish Hughes must have felt from the barrage of questions while also maintaining a controlled, even-tempered response to those questions. Hughes had prepared well and was able to show the Committee that he was worthy.
In the midst of this mind-bending turmoil through the night, Hughes read some of his own poems, as well as books by other authors. This was my favorite part of this performance. Nance didn't just read those words, which we saw on McGeehon's video screens, but he reading them with an author's passion, heard the love in those words like they were the author's children, and saw him physically play out the meanings they held for him. It was as if Hughes was falling in love with this own works again. Nance's pacing and vocal dynamics were lyrical, musical, coming from deep within his own love of those works.
Langston Hughes was a romantic idealist. Like most of those brought before the committees, he flirted with the utopian dream of a society where everyone was equal, politically and economically. But the question posed by McCarthy was, "Are you now or have you ever been a communist?" Hughes affirmed he was not. He neither had an interest in Russians nor ideas of overthrowing government. He only longed for a place where people were treated with dignity. If he was guilty of anything, it was an innocent hope for a better world. He was exonerated. Of course, most of the accused were exonerated, but many of their lives were permanently damaged.
ARE YOU NOW, OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN… suggests an artist's visionary expression can be damaged by fake news and unsubstantiated innuendo in an atmosphere of fear of outsiders. We live in a time where that is happening again. But it can get worse. This production meets one of the highest goals of a producing theater – to expose difficult events and problems and express a way of exploring them through discussion.
The real learning in Carlyle Brown's story is personal. How would Hughes respond to his challenge. How would we respond to ours? That's something we may need to do in our time. ARE YOU NOW, OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN… models how we might all handle it.