A fictional account of the demons and dilemmas faced by Langston Hughes while attempting to write a poem on the night before his appearance before the Senate Permanent-Sub-Committee on Investigations on Un-American Activities led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
first presented at the Guthrie Studio Theater in 2012
Written by Carlyle Brown
Directed by Noël Raymond
|Gavin Lawrence||Langston Hughes|
|Steve Hendrickson||Senator Dirksen|
|John Middleton||Roy Cohn|
|Matt Rein||David Schine|
|Peter Rachleff||Joseph McCarthy|
|Carlyle Brown||Frank Reeves|
Set design by Joseph Stanley
Lighting design by Mike Wangen
Sound design by C. Andrew Mayer
Costume design by Clare Brauch
Prop design by Kellie Larson
Stage manager: Lydia Bolder
Small theaters made big impression
by Rohan Preson and Graydon Royce, Star Tribune, December 24, 2012
Rohan’s Top 10:
3. “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” Carlyle Brown and Co. at the Guthrie Theater. Under Noel Raymond’s astute direction, Gavin Lawrence was spellbinding as poet Langston Hughes. He charismatically limned his activist character’s doubts and rationalizations as he is called to justify his existence before Sen. Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunting committee.
Top 10 plays of 2012
by Ed Huyck, City Pages, December 26, 2012
Gavin Lawrence gives one of the year’s standout performances as Langston Hughes in Carlyle Brown’s examination of the poet, especially his testimony before Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. The specter of the blacklist hangs over the play and lends it drama, but it is Hughes’s own cross-examination of his art and the creation of poetry that allowed the show to reach such amazing heights.
The interrogation of a poet
by Rohan Preston, Star Tribune, May 7, 2012
Poet Langston Hughes sits in his robe at a small desk. Surrounding him are books, a nearly finished bottle of liquor and discarded drafts. He taps out a line on a manual typewriter, which we see projected on a screen, then examines it. He balls up the paper and tosses it onto a pile on the floor.
In the scene, set in 1953, the poet is working on one of his distinctive distillations in rhyme and rhythm. This piece is more meaningful than others, though, because the poet feels impelled to justify his work and capture his mood about what’s happening in his life. The next day, this artist who lives in Harlem in a world of metaphors and images must go to Washington to explain his political writings to a gray-suited panel of literal-minded U.S. Senators.
The Hughes in Carlyle Brown’s new play, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” is different from the historic figure we know. In his readings, which are available on recordings, Hughes did not enliven his own poems much. But onstage, actor Gavin Lawrence — under the steady, steely direction of Noel Raymond and the hot lights of Michael Wangen, dressed by Clare Brauch and performing in a two-sphere set designed by Joseph Stanley — gives us a man of magnetism who also is in shock.
His eyes, by turns wide-eyed with fear and twinkling with warmth, reveal his conflicting emotions. Hughes knows that by testifying in front of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunting panel, his life is about to change forever. He appeals directly to his readers (the audience at the Guthrie Theater, where the play premiered Saturday) not to abandon him. He wants us to remember him for his poetry, not whatever insinuations of un-Americanism may come out of Congress.
Playwright Brown, who also plays Hughes’ lawyer at the hearing, infuses this one-act with Hughes’ poetry. In fact, Lawrence often makes the poems sing, delivering them with such force and power that audiences interrupt the action with applause.
Its intellectual heft is part of what’s so compelling about “Are You Now.” This is a play about the power of ideas and also the difficulty of pinning down the imagination. At one point, Hughes tells his interrogators that visiting a Baptist church does not make one a Baptist.
His Senate hearing pushes Hughes’ anxieties to the surface, and he becomes a literary critic who takes on Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and James Baldwin (Lawrence’s Baldwin rubber-faced imitation is a highlight of his engrossing performance).
The panel of Hughes’ interrogators — Sen. Joseph McCarthy is played by Peter Rachleff, Sen. Dirksen by Steve Hendrickson, Roy Cohn by John Middleton and David Schine by Matt Rein — is a footnote in this piece. They come off not just as misguided fools, but as fools with absolute certainty about their views and the rightness of their exercise of power. The play is set in a 1953 that does not feel that far away.
Guthrie Theater review: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” illuminates McCarthy era
by Renee Valois, Pioneer Press, May 6, 2012
In 1953, poet Langston Hughes was served with a subpoena requiring him to appear before the Committee on Un-American Activities – Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous communist witch-hunters. Playwright Carlyle Brown has used that historic fact as a springboard to explore questions of race, freedom, bigotry, the power and limits of poetry, and the black experience in America in “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been â ¦” from Carlyle Brown and Company.
We first meet Langston Hughes in his pajamas, up late trying to write a poem and unable to sleep because of the subpoena. Gavin Lawrence gives Hughes plenty of charisma as he stares directly into audience members’ eyes, talking to us as if we are guests in his home as he contemplates the difficulties of writing poetry that speaks to both black and white audiences – and the events that have brought him to this crossroads.
The monologue is often charming and intriguing, but eventually feels a little long. The strongest parts are when Lawrence passionately performs some of Hughes powerful poems, such as “The Weary Blues” and “Harlem Sweeties,” as they are projected on the scrim behind him.
We also get to see Hughes’ start-and-stop writing process as he writes and rewrites the opening lines for a new poem that will eventually turn into “Georgia Dusk” – with words projected behind him as he taps the keys of his old typewriter. Crumpled papers accumulate on the floor around his desk as he mulls and rejects ideas, a cliched way to suggest the choices writers must make as works evolve and change during creation.
Although there is no intermission, it feels like act two when Lawrence walks across the stage to make his appearance before McCarthy’s Committee, and the one-man monologue transforms into a full scene with six actors. If the first part charms us, the second section angers because of his abhorrent accusers.
The actors who portray the smug, antagonistic men who grill Hughes with rapid-fire questions that challenge his art and his patriotism convey their villainy and prejudice well. John Middleton is especially effective as a smirking Roy Cohn.
A black lawyer (played by the playwright) provides mostly quiet support for Hughes during his testimony. When he makes a single reasonable comment to the committee, it’s enough to elicit a verbal attack in return, like a wolf savaging a deer.
My companion was so infuriated by the actions of the committee that he said he had to keep reminding himself these were actors. The McCarthy era was a dark one for America, and Brown’s story shines some light on how it affected those victimized by the violent prejudice against “communists” – while also reflecting on attitudes toward race and art.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but director Noel Raymond and his able cast mostly pull it off. Tightening the ruminations in the first half would strengthen it even more.
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… at the Guthrie
by Ed Huyck, City Pages, May 9 2012
Early on in Carlyle Brown’s exploration of Langston Hughes and his testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations (the Joseph McCarthy-led anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s), the poet notes that the subpoena he received left the reason for the “invitation” blank. He knows that it boils down to his writing, especially his poetry. He’s been asked before a congressional committee to explain and defend being a poet.
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…, presented at the Guthrie by the playwright’s own Carlyle Brown & Company, essentially puts the writer’s life and essential act of creation on trial, not just from McCarthy and his cronies but the harshest judge of all — the writer himself.
Brown’s probing, deep, and rich work never attempts to truly answer the question at the core of the play, but it does provide a springboard for a conversation — one that mainly involves Hughes and his thoughts. In a move that could easily provide a turgid, didactic evening, Brown leaves the actor playing Hughes alone onstage for the first two-thirds of the play, sharing his thoughts on life and writing with us, the audience.
How well it works is a testament to the script and an absolutely arresting performance by Gavin Lawrence as Hughes. The cliché is that in a one-person show, you forget that there is just a single actor. Here, for the first hour of the show, you are always aware of just the one person, but Lawrence so fully inhabits Hughes that you could listen to him talk — about the writing process, his life, his experiences as a black man in early 20th-century America — for hours. And the moments when Hughes’s poetry comes out are just magical, as the jazz rhythms and probing text merge with Lawrence’s terrific performance.
You can also give plenty of credit to director Noel Raymond and the overall design, which isolates the actor but nicely illustrates the rich, creative world inside of his head.
We open on Hughes alone in his apartment. It is late night or early morning, and the floor around him, clichéd enough, is full of discarded starts of his current poem. Through the play, when inspiration strikes, the character will stop for a few moments and type up new lines or revisions of the piece, which will eventually grow into “Georgia Dusk.”
Through this long night, Brown and Lawrence probe into the man behind the words, uncovering the layers of his creative process and political views along the way. Alone with his thoughts, Hughes certainly is confident that he is part of a longstanding conversation between the writer and audience, but the exact nature of that is slippery. He may be confused and conflicted, but Hughes is also free in his musings.
The shift comes in the final third, when the rest of the cast join in: Hughes’s attorney (played by the playwright himself) and four members of the committee, led by a mostly silent McCarthy and his favorite bulldog, Roy Cohn. Here, the rich confusion of writing fiction and poetry — where holding multiple points of view at all times is essential — comes head to head against the black-and-white world of a U.S. Senate committee. They aren’t interested in nuanced looks at the experience of race in America or the complex satire of “Goodbye Christ,” just whether or not he believed in radical pursuits, was antireligious, and had been a member of the Communist Party.
Lawrence continues to work the stage like a master, showing us the complex character at the heart of Hughes, bringing out the confusion and building anger of a character who is being badgered with excerpts of his life’s work by people who are not interested at all in any of his thoughts, just that he act like a good, upstanding American.
Much of this comes from Cohn, played by John Middleton (his second slimy character in one of Brown’s plays this spring). Like the rest of the tribunal, Cohn is a bogeyman for Hughes — the voice of a conservative who wants to stamp out anything that doesn’t fit into his view. Middleton does what he has to here, making Cohn a man who honestly thinks he is doing what is best for the country. The same goes for the other three actors, Steve Hendrickson, Matt Rein, and Peter Rachleff. Tellingly, the stage is set up in such a way that Lawrence never looks at them. Even before the committee, the debate rages on as much in his head as in the outside world.
Langston Hughes on trial at the Guthrie
by Sheila Regan, City Pages Dressing Room Blog, May 2, 2012
There has been a bit of a hullabaloo the past couple weeks on social networking sites and in the media over the announcement of the Guthrie Theater’s 50th anniversary season. Criticisms have stemmed from the lack of playwrights and directors who are female or of color in the upcoming season.
While the Guthrie may have a long way to go before it reaches a diversity of voices that matches our state as a whole, it should be noted that this week quietly marks the opening of Carlyle Brown’s Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… about the Langston Hughes’s McCarthy trials, while Penumbra Theater’s production of The Amen Corner is in previews. So if you haven’t written off the Guthrie entirely, this would be a chance to show support of the theater for presenting this kind of work.
Carlyle Brown, fresh from the recent run of his play American Family at Park Square, says that Langston Hughes, “the original jazz poet,” has always been an inspiration for him. But there has been a fear preventing him from using Hughes in his own work.
Part of the difficulty was that Brown felt that Hughes’s writings were too close to home for him. Hughes is often used in pieces about the difficulties and uncertainties in a writer’s life, just as Brown faced many similar uncertainties, going through periods where “the money wasn’t coming in.”
However, in recent years, Brown has enjoyed some success, and he says he wrote Have You Now or Have You Ever Been… during a year when he had a number of commissions coming in, and felt that a play about Hughes was “something I wanted to expunge.”
Aside from centering on the McCarthy hearings and its impact on artists, the play also focuses on the relationship between “the artist and his work,” Brown says. Hughes’s licensed work appears in the play as the character of Langston is distracted by a poem he is writing. This reflection on “a poem in the making,” acts as a meditation on how the artist is “in some way separate from his writing,” Brown says. The artist becomes a conduit, and a work of art is seen as “a living organism.”
Brown believes that the current political climate makes it an ideal time to present the play. Just as the McCarthy era of the 1950s was a period of repression and suppression, today politicians also use language that consists of dualities where only two choices are presented. Artists are suppressed under such conditions, Brown says.
For research, Brown studied the Senate-committee transcripts, and had some help from Macalester history professor Peter Rachleff, who plays McCarthy in the show. Rachleff created a research guide that included other snippets of testimony from artists such as Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht.
Brown says he’s using the play to look at the nuance and complexities that artists grapple with. For example, Langston Hughes’s relationship with the Communist Party (he was never an official member) is a complex one, and to understand it you need to understand the social and political forces of the period. At the time, “there were no white people who did anything for social justice for black people, except the communists,” Brown says. More broadly, Brown says the play illuminates the relationship between the citizen and the government.
As for the recent outcry about the lack of diversity in the Guthrie’s season next year, Brown reflects that much of the work that people are expecting the Guthrie to do is already being done very well by other companies, such as Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Mu Performing Arts, and so forth. “If the Guthrie isn’t used to doing diverse plays, what makes us think they can do it well?” he asks.
Taking the longer view, Brown says, “the world is changing. The white guys are going to go away anyway. Audiences are changing. The whole thing is going to take care of itself.”
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been … at the Guthrie Theater produced by Carlyle Brown & Company
by Janet Preus, HowWasTheShow.com, May 6, 2012
In the 1950s, there was a contingent in American politics with an intense fear of the rise of communism, fueled by the belief that communist infiltrators were everywhere, trying to bring down the American way of life. Headed up by Senator Joe McCarthy, this paranoia led to a systematic harassment of many of the country’s most acclaimed entertainers and artists. Many of them had, at least at one time, been attracted to socialism and communism, believing it offered the hope of a more just and equitable society, particularly for people of color. Poet Langston Hughes was one of those.
In Carlyle Brown’s play, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been …” Hughes has just been subpoena’s by the U.S. Senate to appear at a hearing, headed up by Sen. Joe McCarthy. He is struggling with writing a poem, Georgia Dusk, distracted by the fact that he doesn’t even know exactly why he has been served. “That line is blank,” he notes.
With Hughes poems, projected on a floor to ceiling scrim and scrolling behind him, we share in the frustration these artists, such as Hughes, must have felt attempting to explain the virtually unexplainable—how art speaks to us, what a poem means, where a poem comes from—to men who take all things literally and out of context.
Writers are “the canaries in the coal mine,” he tells us. “When they come for the writers, you could be next.” This was not only true, it served to throw the danger of the era’s paranoid thinking right in the lap of the audience from the outset.
The bulk of the play is a one-man show, with Gavin Lawrence as Hughes revealing many more things about himself and his writing life. But these are the context in which his poems are born, and the context that the Senate committee, late in the play, does not have the patience to hear. Lawrence is wonderfully engaging as the writer. Broke and at odds with other well-known Black writers, he types a line of poetry, rips it out of the typewriter, crumples it and throws it away, until at last he gets one line, and then another and another. In between he reflects on his place in the artistic life of the country – not just among “Negroes.” He recognizes the need to be able to speak to White people, too – something Whites never have to think about, he says. Lawrence’s performance of Hughes poems is reason enough to see this show. He really makes the poetry live!
Hughes’ appearance at the hearing is necessary to conclude the story, but it is not what this play is about. In fact, as good as the actors were, particularly Steve Hendrickson as Senator Dirksen, the hearing itself almost seemed like a different play. Staging the committee behind the black scrim, elevated and encased in their desks and behind their microphones, set up the distance between these two “sides.” But Hughes never faces them down. Furthermore, Hughes’ attorney, played by Brown, must sit, with only one line to deliver, for the entire time facing the audience. I think another means of staging this scene could have made it far more dramatic – perhaps with Hughes full back down center. That would have said something completely different.
Presented at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio Theater through May 20. Produced by Carlyle Brown & Company. Recommended
Are you Now or Have You Ever Been…”
by Sophie Kerman, Aisle Say Twin Cities, May 7, 2012
When it comes time to justify their work, the testimony of an artist speaks to much more than simply the words on the page. Although Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… is framed around Langston Hughes’ 1953 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is not Hughes’ sympathies with the Communist Party that are the play’s primary concern. As we hear not one, but two testimonies by Hughes, it becomes clear that what is truly important is the necessity for art, the importance of context, and the subjectivity of interpretation.
The play begins with Langston Hughes in his pajamas, struggling to write a poem while preoccupied with his upcoming hearing. Alone in his apartment, Hughes reflects on how he became a poet and how race and politics have affected his work. Actor Gavin Lawrence’s portrayal of Hughes captures both a determined artistic idealism and the real financial constraints of professional poetry; as Hughes struggles to balance the desires of black and white readers – and the competing ideologies within the African-American literary community – he leans on the one thing he knows to be true: that fiction is a way to escape being alone, to imagine voices and experiences outside of our own. We get a taste of this escape in Lawrence’s impassioned and vivid performances of several of Hughes’ poems: there is no better of the power of art than a powerful piece of artwork.
This is not a new idea, and one might argue that none of the ideas presented in Are You Now… are particularly new. But as Hughes himself points out in the play, newness is beside the point when it comes to artistic resonance. The point is that playwright Carlyle Brown‘s way of interweaving speculative musings, impassioned diatribes, and Hughes’ poems themselves is so seamlessly done that the play itself is like poetry to watch.
But when Hughes’ opening monologue – essentially Act I of the play – yields to the HUAC hearing itself, we suddenly hear a different kind of testimony. This time, Hughes is not given the time or the artistic liberty to tell the committee what he has just so eloquently expressed to the audience. Joseph McCarthy’s panel barrages Hughes with questions, insisting on a “yes” or “no” to questions that Hughes insists are dependent on both literary and historical context. And, in the audience, we have just witnessed the proof that Hughes is right: having come to Hughes’ HUAC hearing with more complete information, we can see exactly the size and shape of the box that the panel is putting him into.
It is ingenious, really, both how the play is structured and how the interrogators – in particular, Roy Cohn (John Middleton) – manage to get exactly the responses from Hughes that they were looking for. The treatment of race is powerful in its subtlety: when Hughes attempts to provide the committee with some context on racial oppression, the panel’s response (essentially, “we get it, move on”) proves just how little the congressmen really do understand. Time and time again, we see these Washingtonian legal minds unable or unwilling to grasp the concept of imagining oneself to be other than what one is, and the necessity of interpretation and creativity to understanding anything outside of a fixed perspective.
Although this second half is faster paced than the one-man show that opens Are You Now…, it feels a bit slower, and this might be because we think we know what message we are supposed to take from HUAC’s aggressive questioning. But as Hughes stumbles out of the courtroom, suddenly incapable of speech after all these words, the consequences of narrow-minded and one-sided interpretations become much more severe.
Are You Now… is a play that, like Hughes’ poetry, opens many doors and refuses to close them or to give the audience too many obvious signposts. Themes circle back on themselves, expanding out or spiraling inward in new and unexpected ways. The present-day parallels to anti-terrorist paranoia or partisan sound bites are there, to be sure, but this play is thankfully not a contemporary propaganda piece. And yet: in the current political climate, isn’t a play about poetry – a play this good about poetry – a pretty strong argument in itself?
THEATER REVIEW | At the Guthrie Theater, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…” is resonant and affecting
by Leah Binkovitz, TC Daily Planet, May 15, 2012
Nighttime in Harlem was a refuge for poet and author Langston Hughes. Icon of the Harlem Renaissance (though he was abroad for much of it), Hughes brought the rhythm of jazz to his poetry. In “Harlem Night Song,” Hughes writes, “Across the Harlem rooftops/ Moon is shining./ Night sky is blue./ Stars are great drops/ Of golden dew.” When we find him hunched at his typewriter, however, the night offers none of its usual solace. Awaiting his appearance in front of Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Government Operations, Hughes is a man isolated from his home and country.
Amid recent controversy regarding The Guthrie’s lack of diversity in its 50th anniversary season lineup, acclaimed playwright and director Carlyle Brown’s Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… is now playing in the sparse, top-floor Dowling Studio.
The stark experimental nature of the space fits the feeling of isolation Hughes, portrayed by Gavin Lawrence, surely felt on the eve of his hearing. The play can be split neatly into night and day, apartment and trial. Even without an intermission, the division of the two worlds is drastic, giving life to an early line that, Hughes is trying to live in his mind, but is being constantly interrupted by reality. Though the drama is much more pointed in the second half, the material presented in his apartment is more engaging, but also, unfortunately, more muddled.
With a neat line of mustache against his lip and shinning waves of hair pressed to his scalp, Lawrence is impossible not to watch. He engages the audience in an unsettled, fidgety conversation, pacing the floor littered with rejected scraps of paper. At his best when melodiously performing one of Hughes’ infectious poems about trumpet players, sultry nights, or dance halls, Lawrence also entertains with his merciless impersonation of the “long-necked, bug-eyed” James Baldwin. But his monologue is made to wander too quickly from the personal to the pedantic for the audience to keep up.
Both the script and the production suffer from the occasional gimmick: the projected poems rippling over Lawrence’s body as he speaks those very lines can be distracting and Brown’s efforts to recreate an entire literary scene and political moment from a litany of brief notations can feel forced. Declarations of the power of fiction are undoubtedly sincere, but the tell-don’t-show approach works against this power. When Lawrence instead loses himself in the recitation of a poem, then we are persuaded.
Historical settings are not new for Brown, but this piece explores new territory. A story of a writer, a black writer in particular, being made to answer to his audience and country about who he is and what he has done is, as Brown admitted, material close to home. We can sense his presence as Hughes tries to sort out his relationship to his fellow writers and to his readers, both white and black, as well as when Hughes constantly excuses himself to wrestle yet another line of “Georgia Dusk” onto the page.
When at last the hearing arrives with the panel members visible beyond the translucent black veil of a screen, the audience is relieved to leave these amorphous, introspective challenges behind. We can instead be sucked into the convincing rhythm of an interrogation’s question and answer. Much of the text in this half comes almost word for word from transcripts, right down to panel member Roy Cohn’s menacing joke about a Baptist metaphor failing to hold water. John Middleton as Cohn stands out as a particularly ruthless villain. His lines leave him like a speeding train ripping across the tracks.
To avoid a Kafka comparison, let’s go with J.M. Coetzee’s trial of writer Elizabeth Costello, in which a mysterious panel grills her about her beliefs. Claiming for herself no religion or creed, Costello instead clings to her special position as a writer and the unique fidelities that role incurs. Hughes, who refused to plead the fifth as others in his situation did, is left with a similar defense as he painstakingly pries apart “narrative” and “author” for the panel with his lawyer, played by Brown himself, sitting silent beside him per the committee rules.
Left to confess he did indeed sympathize with the Communists and to oblige the Chairman’s condescending, “There now that wasn’t so bad, was it,” Hughes returns defeated to his apartment. His demeanor transformed from the jittery, impassioned person we met in the first half, he walks slowly to center stage and stares hard into the crowd. Are we, his readers, still there for him, he seems to ask.
Behind him the complete lines of “Georgia Dusk” appear, ending, “Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk/ Scatters hate like a seed/ To sprout its bitter barriers/ Where the sunset bleeds.” The joy of the Harlem nights that entertained in the first half, are nowhere to be found in this closing poem.
In a play so full of questions, asked both by the poet and the panel, it is telling that Brown chooses to leave us in silence, many of the tensions of the first half left unresolved.
Despite the hurdles of historic recreation, Brown has succeeded in making a resonant, affecting story. Though the narrative deals more in philosophy than emotion, the undercurrent of a man struggling to be recognized as such hits at the gut, not the head.
Hughes returned to and was still living in Harlem when his friend and fellow artist Paul Robeson was made to appear before a similar panel, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1956. Asked why he did not stay in Russia after visiting, Robeson responded, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.”
Download the Are You Now… resource guide created by Carlyle Brown & Company.