In the 1950s, there was a contingent in American politics with an intense fear of the rise of communism, fueled by the belief that communist infiltrators were everywhere, trying to bring down the American way of life. Headed up by Senator Joe McCarthy, this paranoia led to a systematic harassment of many of the country’s most acclaimed entertainers and artists. Many of them had, at least at one time, been attracted to socialism and communism, believing it offered the hope of a more just and equitable society, particularly for people of color. Poet Langston Hughes was one of those.
In Carlyle Brown’s play, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been …” Hughes has just been subpoena’s by the U.S. Senate to appear at a hearing, headed up by Sen. Joe McCarthy. He is struggling with writing a poem, Georgia Dusk, distracted by the fact that he doesn’t even know exactly why he has been served. “That line is blank,” he notes.
With Hughes poems, projected on a floor to ceiling scrim and scrolling behind him, we share in the frustration these artists, such as Hughes, must have felt attempting to explain the virtually unexplainable—how art speaks to us, what a poem means, where a poem comes from—to men who take all things literally and out of context.
Writers are “the canaries in the coal mine,” he tells us. “When they come for the writers, you could be next.” This was not only true, it served to throw the danger of the era’s paranoid thinking right in the lap of the audience from the outset.
The bulk of the play is a one-man show, with Gavin Lawrence as Hughes revealing many more things about himself and his writing life. But these are the context in which his poems are born, and the context that the Senate committee, late in the play, does not have the patience to hear. Lawrence is wonderfully engaging as the writer. Broke and at odds with other well-known Black writers, he types a line of poetry, rips it out of the typewriter, crumples it and throws it away, until at last he gets one line, and then another and another. In between he reflects on his place in the artistic life of the country – not just among “Negroes.” He recognizes the need to be able to speak to White people, too – something Whites never have to think about, he says. Lawrence’s performance of Hughes poems is reason enough to see this show. He really makes the poetry live!
Hughes’ appearance at the hearing is necessary to conclude the story, but it is not what this play is about. In fact, as good as the actors were, particularly Steve Hendrickson as Senator Dirksen, the hearing itself almost seemed like a different play. Staging the committee behind the black scrim, elevated and encased in their desks and behind their microphones, set up the distance between these two “sides.” But Hughes never faces them down. Furthermore, Hughes’ attorney, played by Brown, must sit, with only one line to deliver, for the entire time facing the audience. I think another means of staging this scene could have made it far more dramatic – perhaps with Hughes full back down center. That would have said something completely different.
Presented at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio Theater through May 20. Produced by Carlyle Brown & Company. Recommended.