The evening seared my soul: Langston Hughes’ poem THE BLACK CLOWN made its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater this week, awesome, painful, and inspiring word made flesh. The piece adapted by performer Davone Tines (who first wowed me in CROSSING) and composer Michael Schachter is a brilliant collage of word, music, and movement, packing the strength, solemnity, and uplift of a prayer. Every move, every voice–perfect. With all the distillate power of poetry, THE BLACK CLOWN harnesses the exquisitely specific to the universal: what it is be a black man in America set within the context of a blistering history of enslavement and the journey to transcendent selfhood.
It begins on a spare white stage illuminated by a row of footlights, a lone black man walks downstage center (Davone Tines), and, possessed of a deep incantatory voice, intones the opening lines of Hughes’ poem:
Because I’m poor and black and funny —
Not the same as you —
Tines’ voice rings out clear and strong, the entire production anchored to his bass-baritone and Hughes’ words of accusation and shame, self-awareness and defiance. This single voice ripples out to a chorus of 12 remarkable singer/dancer/actors, who move about the stage like a flock of birds, gorgeously arrayed (Carlos Soto scenic & costume design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt hair & wigs) reforming themselves in an evolving series of tableaux. We flow with them on the current of this inhumane history; silhouetted “plowing and reaping,” they are shadows that haunt us still.
We move on past Lincoln’s “liberation,” affording “One little moment/To dance with glee,” to a pantheon of entertainers– shades of Josephine Baker, Bessie, Lady Day– who sing and dance their hearts out, bearing, and bearing witness to the pain. I swooned at the costumes, gasped at the choreography (Chanel DaSilva), revelatory and horrifying, as I watched them jump rope with a noose, and later cling to hope and the rungs of a gleaming white ladder, rigged to sink as they climb.
The most powerful moments find this ensemble leaving the stage together in mournful procession through the audience, a funeral of souls in scathing sorrow singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Schachter’s music, arrangements, and orchestrations are vibrant fusions of gospel, blues, and jazz rooted in African rhythms. At one point when the ensemble becomes an a cappella chorus we are left uneasy by the dissonances of their naked voices, detouring from easy, expected harmony to something more discordant, aching and complex before resolving into rivulets of sorrow–until the exultant gospel of “Cry To The World” and Hughes mighty last line uttered in jubilant defiance brought us to our feet.
THE BLACK CLOWN is a potent 70 minutes straight to the heart; directed by Zack Winokur it’s sleek and intimate, yet lushly emotive. Directed by Ch You MUST SEE. Onstage at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge until Sunday September 23.