Theater Preview: Lyrical Langston: His Muse for Music
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Langston Hughes asked in his most famous poem, "Harlem." Hughes was the leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance, the jazz-infused period of cultural ferment, cross-pollination and productivity in African-American literary, musical and visual arts.
He was an artistically prolific man of multiple dreams and prodigious talents. In addition to poetry, he wrote novels, short stories, children's books, essays, editorials and plays. Much less well known is his work as a lyricist: Hughes collaborated with composers across many musical genres to write lyrics for songs and Broadway shows, and even penned libretti for operas and an oratorio.
Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater inaugurates its new Winterfest with Lyrical Langston: His Muse for Music, an inventive meditation on Hughes' life and work that incorporates song, spoken word and dance. It's the brainchild of Quanda Johnson, a veteran Broadway actress and singer. The Vermont premiere will be the show's first performance outside of New York. Johnson and Music Director Paul Lincoln spoke about the process of developing the show in a phone call from New York City.
In the theater, African-Americans often "end up doing a lot of stories that other people have written who are not necessarily of our Diaspora," says Johnson. A passionate editorial in which playwright August Wilson urged African-Americans, "Tell your own stories," inspired her, she says.
"People may know the name Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, but nothing more," she goes on. "And I thought, how great would it be if I could start telling some of these stories that are not going to be told?"
Growing up, Johnson was encouraged by her father to learn about African-American culture and history, she recalls. "And so I knew about Langston Hughes early on. But like most people, I learned of him as a poet."
Reading Hughes' two-volume autobiography opened her eyes to his other artistic endeavors. As a singer herself, Johnson was especially intrigued to find out that Hughes also wrote song lyrics, spanning styles from classical to the blues. "This was new information for me," she reports. "I wanted something fresh and new to celebrate about Langston Hughes."
Johnson thrived on the process of discovery, wading through archives and unearthing hidden gems. "That was big fun," she says. Some of the composers Hughes worked with were well known: Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, bluesman W.C. Handy. Other music "was so obscure that it wasn't even in the public domain," Johnson notes.
Confronted with the wealth of material -- the song lyrics alone number into the hundreds -- she faced the challenge of assembling it. "How can I tell an innovative, new, fresh story about this man?" Johnson says. "And that's when I came up with the idea of juxtaposing his life development with his creative development, and telling it through the music."
As an organizing device, Johnson picked seven themes from Hughes' life and work: youth; travel and becoming a man; sexual maturity and first love; conflict with white society; the blues; faith; and America. In the show, each section blends songs and recitations; Hughes wrote every word sung or recited.
The range of musical styles is stunning. Weill's "Lonely House" features sexy dissonances and displaced rhythms, while Handy's "Golden Brown Blues" is an up-tempo romp. Perhaps the most surprising song is the simple patriotic anthem, "Freedom Land," for which Hughes also wrote the music. It is affecting in its simplicity and sincerity.
The recitations are drawn from almost every kind of writing Hughes did: moving poems such as "Harlem," and silly, almost Seussian verse such as "Madame and the Phone Bill"; the funny short story, "The Ways of White Folks," and the powerful essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
Music Director Lincoln stresses how radically Lyrical Langston differs from the current trend of Broadway musical biographies. These "jukebox musicals," as he calls them, take the concept of the artist's work and weave a plot around it -- either the story of the artist's actual life, as in Jersey Boys, or an entirely made-up tale, as in Dancing Queen, about ABBA.
"What really drew me to Quanda's idea was that she wasn't going to try and force-fit this into the construct of the traditional kinds of storytelling -- boy meets girl, or overcoming obstacles to become famous," Lincoln says. "Everything that's being talked about in all these different pieces is something that is important on its own."
Lincoln began working with Johnson on this project right after September 11, 2001. He was struck by "the relationship of people to their country and patriotism, and what Langston struggled with." Everything Johnson had selected from Hughes' work "was so relevant in so many different ways to what we're still thinking about and trying to deal with," he reflects. "Even right now, with this spying and the Patriot Act. What does that mean to us? What did Langston say about this?"
Hughes had traveled in Africa, Europe and Mexico, where he faced much less discrimination than he did in America, and yet he remained ardently committed to his own country. "I think that's so fascinating, putting it in the context of what's going on today," says Lincoln. "Here's this guy who's so fantastically patriotic, yet didn't shy away one moment from standing up and saying, 'Hey, you know what, this is wrong. This needs to be changed. This can be improved. I still love my country. I think it's great, but let's keep working on it.'"
Johnson offers some perspective on the source of Hughes' inner strength. "He came from a renegade heritage of fighters and people who would not take 'no' for an answer, who pushed through." Hughes' step-grandfather died in the John Brown uprising at Harper's Ferry, Johnson reports. His grandfather ran for public office, and his uncle was the first African-American to get elected. His father left the country after being denied permission to take the Kentucky Bar.
Hughes "had such a deep sense of who he was as a person," Johnson says. "I'm sure he had his foibles and his insecurities and his idiosyncrasies that we all have. But at the end of the day he really knew who he was as an American, as an African-American, and as a person of African descent, devoid of America. He knew who he was . . . because he came from a very rich legacy."
It's hard to believe that Hughes accomplished so much in just 65 years, and that he died in relative obscurity. It's also important to remember that, beyond his artistic achievements, he lived with and rose above the daily assault of racism with phenomenal courage and grace. Johnson recounts an episode from a poetry-reading tour Hughes took through the South.
Hughes was in Virginia, and wanted to go into a store to buy a Coke. He walked up to the screen door, but it wouldn't open. Peering inside, he saw that a burly white man was on the other side, holding the door closed.
"And after the shock of that," Johnson says, "the guy said to him, 'Go to the hole.'
"And he said, 'Go to the hole?'
"'Yeah, go to the hole.' And he's kind of jerking his head to the side, you know, Go to the hole. And so finally Langston realized he was talking about a hole in the wall around the side of the store, of the little shack, and that's where the black folks were supposed to go to get their beverages or concessions or whatever.
"And he thought that that was the funniest thing," Johnson concludes. "He walked off the stoop -- he said he was holding his sides he was laughing so hard at the idiocy of it. And of course he didn't spend his money. He got back in the car and they drove off. But he thought that that was hysterical. So he had an incredible sense of the hilarity and the ludicrousness of the situation that he lived most of his life in, which was segregation and racial apartheid."
It's sickening to think of a man being treated like this. Yet Johnson and Lincoln are laughing heartily as the story unfolds. They understand that Hughes' spirit soared above such petty manifestations of evil, undaunted and perhaps even strengthened by the experience.
Hughes died in 1967, just as the first gains of the civil-rights movement were being codified into law. Lyrical Langston begins and ends with Leonard Bernstein's setting of the poem "I, Too, Sing America," in which Hughes envisions -- with his characteristic grace and humor -- gradual but measurable progress towards tolerance.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed --
I, too, am America.