Hughes’ words ring out again in ‘The Black Clown’
CAMBRIDGE — Langston Hughes wrote his poem “The Black Clown” in 1931 but as with many other timeless works, the words sing forever, recalling various aspects of the black experience in this country, wearing its heart on a musical sleeve that encompasses many different eras and genres.
The world premiere work was developed with the support of the American Repertory Theater, adapted by Davóne Tines and composer Michael Schachter.
The director is Zack Winokur, a colleague of Tiines in the American Modern Opera Company.
The adaptation has received a warm, joyous welcome at the ART, and one of the major reasons is the gorgeous bass/baritone of Tines, a truly remarkable instrument, which both grounds and centers the production.
“The Black Clown” cuts across the length and breadth of the black experience in this country, voiced by the 13 members of the all-black cast, voices that are simply sublime up and down the cast.
The essence of “The Black Clown: is distilled in Hughes’ own words in the opening number: “You laugh — Because I’m poor and black and funny — Not the same as you,” words repeated again and again in the spirit of Hughes’ poem, meant to show that the black man is simply dismissed and ignored as an entertaining footnote in a white world
Director Winokur uses backlit silhouettes and pantomime behind a scrim at the rear of the stage to simply and starkly display some of the more wrenching aspects of the piece, including slaves being beaten and whipped in “Three Hundred Years” depicts the long-lasting effects that 300 years of slavery in this country wrought on a race of people.
Through music and dance, a story is told, joyous at times, then mournful and spanning genres ranging from jazz, to swing, gospel, and soul blues. A wonderful orchestra led by Jaret Landon provides robust , or muted accompaniment to the voices depending on the mood changes of the Hughes piece.
There is no overriding narrative that links the disparate elements together; they exist mostly independent of each other, each stressing a different aspect of the black experience.
Each member of the company has a time to shine in solo spots or as part of gorgeous harmonies that fill every part of the Loeb Drama Center.
Powerful moments are simply presented, including “Freedom,” a stark moment when a long rope with an unmistakable hangman’s noose becomes a playful jump rope in a moment of bitter irony.
“Motherless Child” saw a somber parade around the Loeb Drama Center, voices rising and falling as the spiritual rang out.
Chanel DaSilva’s choreography didn’t stand on the synchronicity of a standard production numbers. Instead, dancer are alternately sashaying, swaying, strutting strutting, or shimmying on stage, with some standout solos, and even a kick line at one point.
“The Black Clown” doesn’t care to linger too long or too late on any one aspect of the journey. It has far to go and packs an packs an awful lot of history and perspective is into a compact 70 minutes.
Ans always there are Tines and Hughes reminding us about the plight of their people, little changed from the time they came over bound in chains from Africa. “You laugh — Because I’m poor and black and funny — Not the same as you.”
“The Black Clown.” Adapted by Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter from the Langston Hughes poem. Music by Schachter. Directed by Zack Winokur. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through Sept. 23. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300. www.americanrepertorytheater.org