Creators Davone Tines and Michael Schachter chose to dramatize Langston Hughes’ watershed 1931 poem because of its long shadow from slavery to subjugation and its shameful, continued relevancy. Inspired by written form emulating Harlem speakeasies, they utilize redolent choreography, spoken word popular at the time, solo vocals, and a chorus representing the multitude. Traditional spirituals emerge side by side with original music/lyrics embracing blues, minstrel shows, jitterbug, work songs, and New Orleans jazz.
A dramatic monologue to be spoken by a pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown, to the music of a piano or an orchestra, Hughes dictated. You laugh/Because I’m poor and black and funny-/Not the same as you… Davone Tines begins. The riveting bass-baritone wears a black wife-beater and pants, suspenders hanging. Because my mind is dull/And dice instead of books will do/For me to play with/When day is through…
Dancers swing in a Cotton Club environment. A vocalist in gown and white flower (Billie Holiday) takes her place at the microphone. Music mushrooms to island rhythms. Movement is graphically slow-mo. Brass leads. A tribal circle forms. Deftly created, large shadows play across a white scrim. Cast on either side interacts. (Scenic Design – Carlos Soto; Lighting – John Torres)
God! Give me the spotted/Garments of a clown/So that the pain and the shame/Will not pull me down. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The Clown is pulled from behind the elastic bottomed scrim. He’s surrounded by brotherhood. Freedom! Abe Lincoln done set me free-One little moment/To dance with glee…The president, on stilts, brandishes a cloth Emancipation Proclamation, passing it to the Clown who throws it over his shoulders as nebulous protection- a cape.
Dancers with chains and a noose show what little change occurred. A vaudeville soft shoe turns into marching performers waving small American flags. Freedom oh freedom/Then sadness again/No land, no house, no job…Women sit in an area marked Colored Section. Saxophones wail. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Men pick up a chair as if someone were in it and ceremoniously lead a marching dirge in front of the proscenium till each person behind walks under its legs. People testify; lock arms and protest. Day after day/White spit in my face-Worker and clown I am/For the “Civilized race.” Music grows dark, dissonant. A ladder descends from above. The Clown climbs half way up, then descends. But no! Not forever/Like this will I be: Here are my hands/That can really make me free!
Hemmed in st the juncture two walls, he sings a capella. Keening voice resonates. We see shadows of reaching hands. …Suffer and struggle/ Work, pray and fight/Smash my way through/ To Manhood’s true right…Gospel wells. Hypnotic lyrics repeat again and again, almost never landing the same way. Cry to the world/That all might understand:/I was once a black clown/But now-/I’m a man!
Struggle and strides are acknowledged, dignity respected, pride recognized, power visceral. One step forward, two back. This is an immensely compelling piece, performed as written with imagination and dignity, from the gut. And extremely entertaining. There’s not a weak link in the multi-talented cast.
Davone Tines (the Black Clown) sings, dances, and acts with bruising truth whether Shakespearean or jiving. The last phrase he quietly utters is deafening.
Director Zack Winokur has digested the spirit and content of this poem (and its larger history) whole. His imaginative take acts as vertebrae without ever stiffening. Nothing on stage is formulaic. Vignettes morph fluidly with music, movement and speech. Focus is complete, expression vivid.
Choreography is inspired. Not only does Chanel DaSilva channel the period’s various dance genres with break-out solo turns, she creates a conga line that becomes hand-to-shoulder slaves, uses portions of link chain as flora-dora props, and employs a giant noose as a jump rope.
Carlos Soto’s costumes are elegant, individually flattering, and aesthetically pleasing together. Color is sympathetic rather than matched. Attitude manifests itself in everything from metallic jumpsuits to velvet evening wear, tuxes, and sweats. Beautifully calibrated.
Through July 27, 2019
It’s a crime this piece will not have a longer run.
Photos by Richard Termine
Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival presents
The Black Clown
Adapted from the Langston Hughes poem by Davone Tines and Michael Schachter
A production of American Repertory Theater at Harvard University
Music – Michael Schachter; Additional Arrangements – Jaret Landon
Directed by Zack Winokur
July 24, 2019
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
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