American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
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Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been... posts this Friday on the PBS Wisconsin website. It details the night before, and the day of, poet Langston Hughes' interrogation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. We talked to Actor Gavin Lawrence (Langston Hughes), Director David Daniel and Stage Manager Jacki Singleton about the reading.
APT produced Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III in 2016. David Daniel, who directed the reading of Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…, which will post to the PBS Wisconsin website on July 10, acted in that production, as did Gavin Lawrence in his first year with APT. Gavin, who joined the Core Company himself in 2019, has a longstanding friendship and work relationship with Carlyle Brown. (Carlyle actually joined us for the Q&A following the reading. We don’t want to give anything away, but be sure to stick around and hear what he’s got to say about the play, the performance and the world.)
Carlyle’s riveting brand of historical fiction continues on APT’s newest stage with Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…, a play chronicling poet Langston Hughes’ unsettled evening prior to his interrogation by Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee on March 23, 1953. Part poetic introspection and part legal drama, it’s a story that resonates heavily in 2020. This reading marks Gavin’s third time portraying Hughes in this play, after two prior productions in Minneapolis, which he said helped him mold the character to the Zoom format. But maybe even more than that is his relationship with the playwright.
“Carlyle and I go way, way, way back,” Gavin said. “We first met in 1992. The Playwright Center in Minneapolis did a workshop, they used to do something in the summertime called Play Labs, where they would workshop new plays, and then we would do a staged reading of them. And that's when I first met him, and from that point on, we just developed a really great kind of collaborative relationship.” Gavin and Carlyle worked on several other productions, including Pure Confidence about an antebellum era jockey trying to buy his family’s freedom with his earnings, which toured the country, ending with a production in New York. “And then he started writing stuff with me specifically in mind,” Gavin continued. “So I would have to say that more than any artist, writer, theater maker, Carlyle has given me more work than anybody else…over the years, gosh, I don't know how many other plays I've done of Carl's but quite a few. And it was nice to revisit this one.”
David Daniel is a multiple-hats kind of guy. His love of poetry began long ago, though love isn’t always the word he would use. “My dad used to read poetry to us, out loud. As a kid, I hated it…in the best possible way.” Now, not only is he a Core Company actor at APT, he’s also the theater’s Education Director, leading classroom workshops for schools who visit APT for a student matinee performance, as well helming the Potency of Poetry program, which breaks down poetic language for students in an accessible and entertaining way. That deep love of words and connection to poetry instilled by his father many years ago made David a great fit for his most recent hat: directing the Out of the Woods reading of Carlyle Brown’s Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…
While the first act of the play is largely Langston Hughes alone in his home, the second half is set in a courtroom, with a group of white politicians using Hughes’ words to persecute and condemn him. Hughes’ poetry is spoken throughout the play, but the way his work is manipulated by the men interrogating Hughes in the second half is striking. David says that hearing that poetry misused is powerful in a completely different way.
“I love Langston Hughes’ poetry,” David said. “And I love hearing people say it. I mean from Gavin doing "Harlem Sweeties" and "Weary Blues." But even to Jimmy DeVita doing "Goodbye Christ." Or "Good Morning Revolution" read by Jim Ridge. I love to hear those words. And even when those men say those words with a particular agenda, somehow that makes it even more clear in my mind what those poems really mean to me when I hear them twisted in another direction.”
Gavin also had early experience with Langston Hughes, also thanks to a parent. “I grew up with his poetry. My mother, who was a literature professor at Howard University, HU, you know, I'm very proud of having attended Howard. But my mother introduced me to Langston Hughes when I was about eight. When I first came to this country my mother, she would have me not just read Langston's poems, but then she would have me recite them to her. So I grew up with his poetry. I grew up with some of his short stories. I love the fact that he was not afraid to write in our vernacular. Because as August Wilson said, our vernacular is our grammar. That's our language. And it's not wrong, it's ours. And so I appreciated his connection to our culture and his willingness to show all different facets of who we were and how he perceived the world at that time. He was one of the main writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, and at a time when other writers, whom I really appreciate and like, were writing kind of in a different style and using kind of a different kind of vernacular and kind of like reference point in their writing, Langston stayed true to the folk. And that's what I appreciate about him.”
As mentioned earlier, the first act of Are You Now… is almost entirely Langston Hughes, alone in his home. It feels like a gift to hear Hughes’ poetry spoken without distraction, and to hear him tell the story of what brought him to this point in his life – but it’s also seriously heavy lifting for an actor. “It's a different kind of terror, Gavin said. “Because it's just me by myself saying lots and lots of words. And again, not being able to get up and do a lot of physicalization, I felt more pressured to find vocal variety, to find a whole bunch of different ways to keep the audience engaged…And so for me, in a weird sense, even though the second part I'm on trial and I'm treading water trying to not lose my dignity, not lose my freedom or my audience because of the testimony that I'm gonna give, it was also a bit of a relief to just have some people to speak to,” he said, laughing.
One of the things David said he was most excited about while directing this play was that he got to work with his crazy talented friends, who are able to bring nuance to historical figures as well-known, and as reviled, as Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn and the rest of HUAC. “When we did the trial scene, you know, I'm working with the best actors the theater has to offer here,” David said. “And one thing we kept reminding ourselves is that we didn't want any cartoon villains. Because it would have been easy for all of us to just kind of slide into that.”
APT recorded the reading of Are You Now…on June 7, two weeks into the protests demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd. “It was a hard week, and for a lot of people, it was a normal week,” David said. “Nothing's changed. It was a week I felt trapped. I didn't know what to do, how to do it. And this play helped in some ways. It wasn't an answer, it didn't fulfill my need to be active in the conversation, but I felt like I could lean my muscle into this and make something, as an artist, make something to be a part of that conversation. In support. Not what I had to say about it, but in support of that conversation.”
If you’ve been watching the Out of the Woods series as it posts, you may notice a trend. As the artists learn what can (and cannot) be successfully portrayed on Zoom, they reached peak technical requirements in Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been… There are plenty of sound effects (they used QLab, the sound program APT uses in the theaters) and visual effects (PowerPoint) in a limited medium with a limited crew. All of which was nimbly navigated by Stage Manager (ie Superhero), Jacki Singleton.
In an interview before the Are You Now… recording, Jacki said of the readings, “Each one's a little bit more challenging than the others, and Are You Now..., because of the way that it's written…you know, Carlyle Brown really wanted people to be able to see the poems that Langston Hughes wrote. And so there's more tech to it. Like more sound, more visuals. So it's more like a traditional play for me, in that I'm going to have a whole bunch of cues, and that's mostly what I'm going to be doing.”
Speaking with Gavin after the recording, he said, “Jacki – she is a boss. Because, you know, she ended up operating three computers at once. Like, how do you do that? Like an air traffic controller focusing on 50 flights at once. She was amazing.”
In the end, Gavin said he was most excited to explore Langston Hughes’ work with the APT audience. “My sense is that most of our audience may have heard of him, but not necessarily heard his words. I don't necessarily know that many people know that Langston appeared before McCarthy and his committee. So I think for me as an African American artist, just to be able to continue to uplift our heroes and bring them into the now, into the present, for young people in particular who need to know about Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston, and all these amazing artists who came out of the Harlem Renaissance. So for me, bringing our history into the present is always important. And given the world we're living in, the fact that this was '53 but it could be 2020, is quite saddening. And also poetic in a weird kind of way. That we have not moved as far forward as we would like to think we have, you know?”
Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been…
By Carlyle Brown
Directed by David Daniel
Watch Here beginning at 7:00 pm CDT, Friday July 10
Featuring: Jim DeVita (Senator Dirksen), Jamal James (Frank Reeves), Gavin Lawrence (Langston Hughes), Brian Mani (Senator McCarthy), James Ridge (Roy Cohn), Marcus Truschinski (David Schine).
Jacqueline Singleton: Stage Manager. Eva Breneman: Voice and Text Coach. Special Thanks to Eli Saperstein and Matt Snow.