Fort Worth — With all the political drama about Russia and collusion saturating the media, one could be forgiven for wanting to avoid any unnecessary contact with another iteration of the same story. It’s becoming a tale as old as time, it seems—the neverending struggle of identities and cultures between our country and theirs, born out of WWII and propagated by decades of propaganda and hysteria.
However, the effective power of historical review is never to be tossed aside, and Carlyle Brown’s Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been… is a unique testament to that point. It is a play that details the intimate isolation of a writer—the premier Langston Hughes—as he gears up for a chilling interrogation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee of Government Operations, led by Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.
During the Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s, many artists and creatives were carted before this kangaroo court on the grounds of “un-American activity.” To imagine the term “un-American” used as a legal definition for the purpose of prosecution is horrifying enough, but many of these individuals found themselves blacklisted, their careers halted and stunted.
The structure of Brown’s work, which has its area premiere by Stage West under the direction of vickie washington, is poetically effective. It’s a sort of one-man play, starring the adept Djoré Nance as Hughes. The first half is a close look at the playwright and poet’s vulnerability on the eve of his interrogation. Set in his small apartment, strewn with heaps of crumpled-up and discarded papers (set design by L.W. Miller, with video design by H. Bart McGeehon), the audience is welcomed into his home and into his head. Here, we witness what seems like his stream of consciousness—his free-flowing thoughts on art, poetry, race and society, politics, and the human experience.
The points made here are pointed with artistic weight and interpretation. Nance’s portrayal of Hughes, with his wry wit and smooth, brassy baritone drawl, works with effect as he muses on the impact of the Harlem Renaissance on American culture, the intellectual relevance of his contemporaries, his tumultuous relationship with his estranged father, and the inequitable nature of the relationship between those with power and those without. He remarks, at one point with sobering pertinence, on how those in power, in effect, believe that “there should only two ideas:” the right one, which we all should follow, and the wrong one, which we all should hate and denounce.
The relevance of his musings on today’s socio-political climate is blatant, and in the context, rather horrifying. As the second half is devoted to a fictional retelling of Hughes’ interrogation, where we find Hughes and his counsel, Frank Reeves (Christopher Dontrell Piper), seated before a large wooden desk facing the audience. The committee, represented by a projection on upstage and pre-recorded voices—Bob Hess voices McCarthy, Bradley Campbell is Senator Everett Dirkson, Blake McNamara is Roy Cohn, and Justin Locklear is David Schine (sound design by Kat Fahrenthold)—is daunting and imposing in delivery, but Hughes’ cool demeanor provides levity and a poetic sense of relevance to the ordeal.
It is a clever arrangement being put to use here by the cast and crew at Stage West. Using Brown’s script, they draw a sobering line between the concepts of “you either are or you are not a Communist” of the ’50s and “he either did or he did not collude with Russia” of today. It’s a new and engaging way of approaching how we understand our American identity, and in this day and age, we should be trying anything and everything in that regard.