A Collaboration to Bring Langston Hughes’s “The Black Clown” to LifeInterview July 26, 2019
The Black Clown is a musical performance originally presented at The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in Harvard, now being presented as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at New York City’s Lincoln Center. A collaborative effort between friends and colleagues, the musical-theater piece was adapted from Langston Hughes’s poem of the same name by singer Davόne Tines, composer Michael Schachter, and director Zack Winokur.
Hughes’s poem presents a black character who brings us through the historical oppression of his race, from slavery to the Harlem Renaissance, ending in a triumphant declaration of his humanity. The current adaptation is a showcase of thirteen performers, led by Tines and backed by an orchestra. It blends vaudeville, jazz, gospel, opera, and spirituals to create a narrative of the African American experience.
Tines and Winokur met in graduate school at Julliard, where they studied music and dance, respectively. In 2017, Winokur co-founded American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), a company made up of a variety of musicians and performers (including Tines) who produce work collaboratively. Tines and Winokur first worked together on the theater piece Were You There, part of the 2017 Run AMOC! Festival with the A.R.T.
I spoke to Tines and Winokur about their interdisciplinary work and the journey of bringing Hughes’s poem to life on the stage. What follows is our discussion, edited for space and clarity.
Aria Chiodo: What was the process of developing The Black Clown?
Davόne Tines: When I was in the middle of working in arts administration, I became hungry to do something creative again. I had done a lot of it college and had never pursued it in a professional context because it didn’t seem like a viable career option. But I knew that I wanted to work on a project with a friend and see what could happen. I emailed Michael [Schachter] and said I wanted to sing something that I personally connected to.
We started looking at Langston Hughes’s poetry because we both enjoyed it and he happened to find “The Black Clown.” When I read it, it was extremely striking because it said something very personal to myself that I also knew would be personal to people in minority groups or people that are “the other.” It was a fairly unknown poem in the larger context of Hughes’s canon so that was even more exciting—that it seemed so brilliant but also underappreciated.
The first steps were to turn it into song. It became a twenty-minute song cycle, in a standard classical realm. But what’s different about the poem is the structure—it gives you a column titled “The Poem” and a column titled “The Mood,” [in which Hughes] gives what are kind of stage directions or musical ideas for what could be happening while someone is reading the poem. It always seemed apparent while we were making the song cycle that it would have some sort of theatrical presentation, but the initial idea we had (that I would act it out) always seemed to fall short of the larger possibility of this document.
I’d worked with composer Matt Aucoin [co-founder of AMOC] on developing the opera Crossing and through him I got to know the A.R.T. producers on the creative side in a different way. So I felt comfortable taking this idea to them and they thought it seemed to have an interesting theatrical possibility and, more than that, a necessity. And it seemed that it needed to be sung, but it also needed to be danced and acted, and dramatically blown up and out into audiences. So four years into the process of Mike and I mulling over how we could do this, the A.R.T. commissioned it.
Zack Winokur: [Michael and Davόne] had been talking about it for a long time as a song cycle, just a piano and Davόne and segments of the poem. It developed from there into something like an oratorio, which involved a Greek chorus, where Davόne was still the central character enacting everything. When we started talking about bringing it to the stage, I felt like we needed to involve the chorus, and make them people and characters with real identities. So we started expanding it and finding a general dramaturgical flow.
The first decision we made was to honor Hughes as the genius he is and not add any words at all. So my initial task was to think from the poem and investigate what was there already and where it could go. The crucial next step was getting all the people in a room together. I think Chanel [DaSilva, the choreographer], the set and costume designers, and this formidable cast of performers really built the show together. That’s how I like to work all the time, super collaboratively, and my job, when I’m doing it well, is to be the remover of obstacles, to get things out of the way and to stand behind people. And since I’m also a white guy, and the entire cast is black and the nature of the text addresses a lot of things that I would never know the answer to, that was my role more than ever.
AC: Was there a particular aspect of Hughes’s poem and/or Hughes himself that stood out to you or felt relevant to right now?
DT: Something that is critically relevant and continues to reveal itself as important throughout American history in many contexts, from the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to fighting against our current administration, is bringing marginalized stories to the fore. This was part of Hughes’s main project. He did it in ways that were more subtle or elegant, like talking about blues singers or different personalities in the Harlem Renaissance, [portraying] aspects of black culture as vignettes. But “The Black Clown” stands out in his canon because it’s extremely clear about outlining a character of a minority who identifies his oppression and then walks through the history of how black Americans are made “other” throughout the history of oppression. Then, once having identified it, he overcomes it by saying, “I’m actually more than this—we have always been and we will be more than this.” It’s incredible because it’s not just a cry for freedom and equality and acknowledgment for black people, but for any sort of person that has ever been subjected to be less-than.
ZW: The thing that really stood out in this poem in particular was that there was this “Mood” in the left column, so it felt like it was meant to be performed in this way. There’s even more evidence of that based on the fact that Hughes himself, when he did readings around the country in universities, had choruses singing with him, he had a jazz band behind him—he was thinking of this as an interdisciplinary event meant to include music. This poem and the others in the collection are written to imply [musical accompaniment]. It’s not even implied it’s stated, since he says [the spirituals] “Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” should be in this piece somehow. I don’t think we would have felt comfortable making this into a theatrical event if Hughes had not already suggested it. The thing that’s so interesting to me about him is how he was thinking about language and how language can be lifted up in song.
AC: What were some of the challenges of bringing The Black Clown to life?
ZW: There were a number of challenges, some practical, like the fact that the poem is only a certain amount of words and that we endeavored to turn it into 80 min of [performance]. It was fun to look at and take “The Mood” as a map to see where we could dive in, what we could expand, what things could be brought further to light by stage imagery, dancing, settings, and what the function of the chorus was and how to get them to participate all the time.
Chanel had this idea that one scene could happen in the after-hours of the Cotton Club, and we pulled everything together to make that as clear as possible. So there’s a moment where we just snap into that world and you are in the Cotton Club and people are dancing and wearing clothes from that time, and people like the Nicholas Brothers make appearances and Billie Holiday joins for a moment. Those were things that were created in rehearsal. There was a classic moment when we were talking to one performer about Billie Holiday and she just did this unbelievable impression of Billie Holiday and we asked if she could take this phrase of music and turn it into a Holiday song. And she did it! So then we said, “Okay, we need to have one person bring a stool, another to bring the gardenia for her hair, another to bring a microphone,” and we just gathered in a dream state all of these things and they all combined into this beautiful image of Billie Holiday for a moment. So we were always thinking imagistically, based on the text of the poem.
DT: The largest challenge was how to tell the immensity and intensity of this story in a concise and clear way and be mindful of the major audience that would engage with it. In the introduction Hughes says: “this is 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 orchestra,” and the first thing that clown says is, “you laugh because I’m poor, black and funny.” So [Hughes] automatically implicates a white audience by outlining a black clown—it was always built to be for a white audience. So the challenge was how to speak to an audience about something that they may be implicated in and not be accusatory or off-putting.
AC: What does the title “The Black Clown” mean to you? Why is the poem significant today?
DT: I think the title has many meanings. The first and most obvious is outlining a specific character: the black clown, a clown who is black and singular—this is that character’s story that we are going to engage [with]. Another meaning that I like to consider especially while playing the role, is clowning as a verb. What does it mean to do “the black clowning?” That kind of takes that character’s existence and action and makes it something malleable and applicable to multiple people and contexts. So, when people go to see The Black Clown, it’s not necessarily just about a character but it’s about this mode of being “other” that people have had to participate in in order to survive.
ZW: I think Hughes talks about what it is to be a black person in America, from his perspective, and what it is to deal with and look at the history of oppression. Then he brings it into contemporary life, and this is something we all have to do all the time. And I think, hopefully, the theater piece does as good a job of reminding us of that as the poem does. But rather than read it alone on the page, you’re in the theater with a hundred other people, looking at these things come to life in front of you and confronting those things and having the performers confront you back.
The Black Clown is being performed at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City July 25-July 27
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