Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Black Clown Adapted from the poem by Langston Hughes By Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter

The Black Clown
Adapted from the poem by Langston Hughes
By Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter
Music by Michael Schachter
Directed by Zack Winokur
At the American Repertory Theater
Loeb Drama Center
Harvard University
August 31 to September 23

Review by Wendell Smith 

The first thing you should do with this review is put it down and get online to see if you can get tickets to The Black Clown at the A.R.T. before it sells out. Ironically, given its subject, it is an entertainment not to be missed.

Ironic, because this entertainment grows from a poem that says a black man must overcome his culturally imposed role to be a clown and entertain us. Published by Langston Hughes in 1931, it can be read in less than the three minutes allotted at most open mikes. At the A.R.T. it has been turned into 70 minutes of absorbing theatre. 70 minutes where we are captured by the Muses through word, music and dance and led to a prospect where we are forced to look back at truths about our collective selves (the awful truths of our history) to seek to be healed and find hope for redemption through tears and shared community.

With one agonist, The Clown, exquisitely sung by Davóne Tines, and a chorus of equally accomplished singers and dancers, The Black Clown is rooted in the 6th century BCE Greek origins of our theater, fulfilling the Aristotelian purpose for poetry: it evokes our pity and fear to cause the purgation of those emotions.

The poem, as published in 1931 and provided in the program, has this stage direction for an epigraph, "A dramatic monologue to be spoken by pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown, to the music of the piano or an orchestra." A line runs down the left-hand margin of the poem to separate it from an outline for the music and the actions of the chorus called, “The Mood.” Here is a short sample from the beginning of the poem, which demonstrates that Hughes’ knew the potential for his poem, knew it would flourish, if it were ever to find the right soil, water and nurturing attention, would bloom as it has at the A.R.T.:

THE MOOD                 THE POEM

A gay and                     You laugh
low-down blues.           Because I'm poor and black and funny –
Comic entrance            Not the same as you –
like the clowns             Because my mind is dull
in the circus.                 And dice instead of books will do
Humorous                     For me to play with
defiance.                       When the day is through.

The program identifies 17 musical numbers by name but they flow into each other so that, with two exceptions they do not stand as separate songs. Those exceptions are, as Hughes calls for their use in “The Mood:” “Nobody Knows [the trouble I've seen],” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Chile.” In their adaptation Tine and Schachter do not use these songs in their entirety but impress them upon us by repeating their iconic phrases.

“Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows my sorrow,” in their rendition becomes a refrain without the solace of, “Nobody knows but Jesus.” and is presented, as Hughes suggested it should be, when the performance has progressed through his poem to this section:

Three hundred years
In the cotton and the cane,
Plowing and reaping
With no gain –

Until, at last, through the staging of that repetition we come to see and feel those “troubles” and “sorrows” as the chorus turns them from an abstract lyric sung by a Gospel choir into the visual substance of dance, and, in doing so, connects them with their source, slavery; a source, which we haven’t experienced but, until now, only observed. Here we cannot avert our gaze from this foundation of our culture but must see what whiteness does.

Hughes wants the second of those traditional songs to follow these lines:

Abe Lincoln done set me free –
One little moment
To dance with glee.

Then said this again –
No land, no house, no job,
No place to go.
Black – in a white world
Where cold winds blow.

Here Tine and Schachter have the chorus begin a funeral procession while singing “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child;” repeating it again and again as a dirge and carrying a chair above their heads as a symbolic casket they flow off the stage through the audience and back on the stage where the procession concludes the dirge as a member of the chorus lies down on the stage and a banner printed with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is used for a shroud while they sings these lines by Hughes:

Not wanted here; not needed
Black—you can die
nobody will care.

With that The Clown reaches his nadir, and we are halfway through the poem; now the performance pivots and begins to swing up. Initially this is through the resistance of Jim Crow illustrated with piece of magical stagecraft. The Clown sings

Yet clinging to the ladder,
Round by round.
Trying to climb up,
Forever pushed down.

as a ladder made of light comes down from the scenery loft; The Clown tries to climb it, he get one rung off the floor but can’t climb any higher because, as he pulls this endless ladder of light past him, it disappears into the floor. The production has that kind of theatrical flair from its opening through the triumph its conclusion:

Cry to the world
That all might understand:
I was once a black clown
But now –
I'm a man!

The Black Clown is the culmination of collaboration between Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter that began 2010, a year after their graduation from Harvard. The A.R.T. became involved in 2015. The result is a complete piece of absorbing theater directed by Zack Winokur with choreography by Chanel DaSilva, music direction by Jaret Landon, sets and costumes by Carlos Soto, lighting by John Torres, and sound by Kai Harada, tickets on line at, at the Loeb Theater through September 23.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

War Zones Zvi A. Sesling

War Zones

 Zvi A. Sesling

 Nixes Mate Books, Allston Mass. 2018

 Reviewer: Ari Appel

            With its tragic accounts of war and its human toll, War Zones by Zvi A. Sesling is an outstanding addition to any bookshelf, especially that of someone interested in war. It is consistent in portraying the uselessness and waste of war, each poem building off of the effect of the last as reading the book leaves one with a progressively darker and darker image of what war means. From loss of life to loss of dignity to loss of limb, Sesling covers a lot of ground for a short book. Some of my favorite lines are “Memories flash back like / an M-16 in the dark jungle,” “Bones in pieces and minds shattered,” and “War is the future,” the last of which is an interesting proposition—the book touches on the theme of war as ongoing several times.

            A poem that really stuck with me describes the tragedy of a fallen soldier who is given a 10-second memorial on a television station but Sesling describes him as follows: “Remembered or not he is already / forgotten by the nation / his moment of glory / he will not hear the cheers / for the returned living.” The idea that a fallen soldier can be so easily forgotten is compelling as we have forgotten so many fallen soldiers. A 10-second memorial on TV does nothing more than pay lip service to an issue that goes on and on in the background of most of our daily lives. The toll of war is real, and Sesling wants his readers to know this in all of its vivid detail.

            What I like about Sesling's book above any of its individual components, which I do admire, is his ability to piece together a work that is so homogeneous in subject matter without ever leaving a feeling of repetitiousness. Every page is a new story with the same underlying theme (war) but constantly builds on rather than repeats what came before. I read poem after poem without ever feeling like I had ever read the same thing twice. Sesling's War Zones is a laudable and well-put-together poetry volume that deserves to be read by all, and should absolutely be read by anyone who has any role in the decision-making process that leads to war.