LANGSTON HUGHES once told a story about a manuscript he submitted to a "well-known anthologist." The short story came back from the editor with a letter full of praise, but saying that the characters were not clearly white or black. Would Hughes make them definitely Negro? The re-editing did not take long. Hughes simply inserted "black" in front of the word "man" and "Brown skin" in front of the girl's name and the story was accepted. "Just a plain story about human beings," as Hughes called it, was not acceptable from a black writer. But you have to accept Harlem in the Evening on Hughes's terms, as a story about human beings, in a world he knew best: Harlem in the early 1940s. There is no overbearing emphasis on racial strife, though it is inevitably present; no modern stereotyping of older caricatures, portrayed as Hughes put it, "with an eye dead on the white market," though occasionally his characters lapse into archetypes.
Harlem in the Evening is not a "plain story." The production is extremely complex, with little character development and less plot to hold it together. Gene Bone and Howard Fenton, both of whom worked with Hughes before his death, composed and conceived Harlem in the Evening from Hughes's poems, lyrics and drama as a cross-section of life in Harlem. In many ways the play is like Hughes's long poem about Harlem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, from which some of the script was taken. It has the same sudden shifts in pace, mixing quick jazz tempos with slower blues and holy-rolling gospel songs; splicing ironic humor and tragedy.
The play is like the jam-session of a community: each character playing out his own theme, sometimes getting it on with other players, but always reverting back to the whole group, which, together, sings the main score, "Harlem in the Evening." At times the rhythm is off, the shifts just too coarse. When a love song, "Golden Girl," leads into a bittersweet fantasy of death (originally a one-act play, Soul Gone Home) the movement is contrived. During the entire song a mother can be seen in the dimly-lit background greiving over her son's body. While this accomodates the shift, it is annoying and detracts from the main action. The theme song is repeated four times throughout the production, apparently to make up for the play's lack of continuity. The last time around, it begins to sound more like a bad, overplayed disc on the local AM station.
By its very nature, Harlem in the Evening has no primary characters, but a few stand out because they defy ordinary stereotyping. Roger Hoefer is superb as Roscoe the pimp, along side Mattie Mangrum's equally fine performance as Madam Alberta K. Johnson ("The 'Madam' stands for business"). Both are absolutely confident as they strut around the stage enjoying their lives steeped in desire, running the numbers for low-lifers. Roscoe is all jive and no-give, but he's more than just a superficial pimp on the make, because he can appreciate the "eeeeasy role down in the bassss, Rolling like I like it In my soul."
Andrea Bradford's voice is the finest of the whole production and she sings the strongest numbers, "No Crystal Stair," and "A Happy Tomorrow," although the latter song is marred by a cheap-sounding organ background, a problem at several points during the play. Robert Honeysucker is the wizened Old Man, detached from the fast pace of Harlem, able to look at the entire scene with a broader historical perspective. And his recital of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," a short but powerful poem about the black's hard struggle from the shores of the Congo to the banks of the Mississippi, loses its strength when accompanied by the soap-opera-like organ.
Perhaps the most striking character in Harlem in the Evening is Garr, a disenchanted young man played by Lester Payne. Garr is less obvious in the production compared to the flashy prostitutes, Roscoe, or Madam Alberta K. Johnson. But he is the strongest representative of the underlying tension of blacks in a culture dominated by whites, the tension that never surfaces in many of Hughes's characters. Garr asks the question that lies dormant in all of them, a question that appears only in the worst moments of despair for a people used to despair: "What happens to the dream deferred?" In Harlem, the dream of equality explodes into the same human qualities we all have, perhaps a little more passionately. And when Garr decides that he cannot hold onto the dream, the Old Man says that we cannot let go.