“You laugh / Because I’m poor and black and funny.” These words open A.R.T.’s new show “The Black Clown,” a musical and dramatic adaptation of Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name. Though written in 1931, its verses are still bound to send chills down one's spine and induce an intense discomfort that stems from the truth and irony that characterizes both the entire poem and the performance.
“The Black Clown” is intended by its adaptors to be spoken by a “pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown” and accompanied by a piano or an orchestra. A.R.T.’s new show is beautifully adapted by Harvard College alumnae bass-baritone Davóne J. Tines ’09 and composer Michael L. Schachter ’09. Backed by an incredibly talented all-black cast, their new production exquisitely brings to life a rich musical legacy of jazz, gospel, opera, and spirituality.
Every stanza of the poem is broken up into various parts, each with different tones and music/dance styles. The first stanza makes up the opening dance and song. “You Laugh” begins with the titular Black Clown (Davóne Tines) speaking the first line of the poem into a standing microphone at the center of the stage. He is in period dres s— high-waisted pants and suspenders. The Black Clown unabashedly and simply looks straight out at the audience as he speaks. Eventually his speech turns into singing, which characterizes the entire performance of the poem — the focus is less about recitation and more about the musical and visual performance. Tines’ singing is dark and rich like syrup. He possesses an incredible control over his voice, imbuing each note with vibrato and emotion as he tells us about the pain, hatred, scorn, and complacency that makes up the life of a black man. His delivery is all the more powerful because the reports of being “pushed own” and the constant “white spit” in his face sadly do not feel at all like anachronisms.
While “You Laugh” is comprises of just the Black Clown and a female ensemble member, who joins him in a call-and-response fashion, over the course of the other numbers the rest of the ensemble eventually all gather on stage. They break out into wild dancing, paired with drums, tap dancing, and 1950s style swing dancing in “Strike Up the Music.” Here, ensemble member Amber Pickens puts on a particularly beautiful show of energy and athleticism in the form of pirouettes and slides into splits at double time, almost as if possessed.
For the most part, the stage is constrained by several walls of tarp. These are eventually replaced by white screened panels on wheels, behind which the cast dances during “Three Hundred Years,” another section derived from one of the stanzas, depicting slavery. The audience never actually sees any of the actual cast members. Instead, slinky shadows shrink and swell eerily across the screens as they dance. The shadows speak to the anonymity of slavery, and even though they sing in unison, one cannot help but distinguish between some of the individual voices during a particularly sorrowful rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Choreographer Chanel DaSilva should be praised for the diverse, beautiful, lively dance — tapping heavily into jazz and swing for most of the styles. The choreography is incredibly important for setting the tone of the words, sometimes its mood deliberately clashing with the ironic words for dramatic effect. This was evident during the performance of “Freedom!” The positive and optimistic lines about emancipation were steeped in irony, underscored by the gleeful dancing and the appearance of Abraham Lincoln on clunky stilts lording above the rest of the cast oafishly. No moment was more ironic that when ensemble members began to skip rope joyfully with a giant noose. Though perhaps the most disquieting moment, it is precisely this ability to provoke and disturb which made the performance so fantastic.
Of course, the show’s music is its true star. Schachter does an excellent job of bringing to life traditionally black forms of music in a kind of progression, for example, with New Orleans jazz eventually blending into gospel and blues seamlessly. The orchestra stuns with their energetic playing, driving the performance forward. During the more quiet numbers, usually those consisting of just the keyboard (Jaret Landon and Bethany Aiken), the orchestra’s absence is noted, as it makes the stage feel almost empty.
In the wake of “Hamilton,” where history is being depicted through relatively more modern forms of music, “The Black Clown” stands alone in the way it upholds and revamps older styles of music. It pays tribute to a history of oppression and injustice in a more traditional way, but that does not make it any less remarkable. Its hauntingly beautiful voices rage and cheer across the stage showing a whole spectrum of emotions. This nuanced composition has so many elements incorporated, each so thoughtfully put together that it becomes difficult to distinguish which is the best. It is truly a heartbreaking performance, yet so delightful the tears cannot help but accompany a smile.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.