BWW Review: Langston Hughes' Poetry Comes Alive at Metrostage
Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only Poetry can be his resurrection. - Langston Hughes, 1964
These words by the great Langston Hughes adorn the backdrop of Metrostage's moving production of Carlyle Brown's Are you now, or have you ever been... Waiting for the play to begin the audience is left to ponder these words and how they frame the action on stage. Politics and the arts have had a difficult time coexisting during certain eras, particularly during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1953-54, which colloquially known as McCarthyism. The 90 minute intermission-less play takes place on the eve of Mr. Hughes testimony to the committee and the committee hearing itself. The evening before the hearing, Mr. Hughes is struggling to comprehend his subpoena to the hearings while attempting to write the poem, "Georgia Dusk".
While this play has a 6-member ensemble, it is really a one man show. At the center, as the famed writer, Marcus Naylor is superb. His portrayal of Mr. Hughes is deeply nuanced and does an impeccable job of showing the writer's struggle with creativity, and likewise, his uneasiness when confronted by the committee members. Mr. Naylor embodies Langston Hughes physically, but more importantly, he embodies his soul. The remaining cast members play various roles throughout the evening and act as a Greek chorus of sorts. Marni Penning, in a pants role, plays famed lawyer Roy Cohn who is on the giving end of Mr. Langston's testimony. Ms. Penning is a wonderful choice for the lawyer, not just because of her superb ability to handle the legalese, but it adds another level of understated political satire, in our current world where minorities and women are still oppressed. Ms. Penning and Mr. Naylor's back and forth is on par with watching Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs.
Thomas W. Jones II directs this outstanding production where he masterfully keeps the focus on Mr. Hughes, but uses the ensemble in such a way that they truly support and not overpower. At the end of the show, Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin came out and spoke to the audience and mentioned that the writer, Carlyle Brown will be attending in a few weeks and she said that he won't believe he actually wrote a musical. The program credits William Knowles as composer and music director and I assumed that he wrote the music for the original Guthrie Theatre production in 2012, but I assumed wrong. His music was so on point, that you would never know that it was not originally there. His music was so organic that it just flowed out of Mr. Hughes' beautiful words. If there is a costar to Mr. Naylor, it would be Mr. Knowles and his exceptional score.
The design aspects of the show were all perfect for the piece and for Metrostage's intimate theatre. One particular standout is Robbie Hayes' projection design. The projections underscore the entire evening and he beautifully orchestrated them to match the action impeccably.
Metrostage has a long history in the Washington area of producing high quality work and this is another one for them to add to their storied history. While the political climate of 2017 may not be too different than 1953, Are you now, or have you ever been... is a beautiful gem of a piece that lets Langston Hughes' glorious poetry become resurrected.
Box Office: (703) 548-9044 or online.
Photo Credits: Chris Banks