KPBS AIRDATE: September 29, 2006
When you were in school, did they teach you about the Harlem Renaissance? Did you learn about novelists like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright? What about the ‘poet laureate of Harlem ,” Langston Hughes? Surprisingly, in a recent Q&A with audiences both black and white, few had learned about or read Hughes or the other African American arts pioneers of the early 20th century – unless they grew up in New York or D.C.
Now, the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players are trying to rectify the omission and fill in the gaps, with a tribute to Langston Hughes called “Ain’t You Heard ?, ” based on his bracing speeches, essays, stories and poems. Hughes was not only a groundbreaker in asserting that “black is beautiful”; he made the vibrant culture, speech patterns, courage, resiliency and humor of everyday, working-class blacks a bona fide part of the American experience. He used blues and jazz rhythms as the basis of his poetry of racial pride. In 1943, in the black publication Chicago Defender , Hughes created the endearing character Jesse B. Simple, the colorful Harlem resident who spewed life lessons in the form of amusing reflections on his troubles with drink, women, racism and other concerns of the day.
Jesse is the centerpiece of the play conceived and directed by Charmen Jackson, a multi-talented Ira Aldridge regular. In her program notes, she admits that she knew little about Langston Hughes before artistic director Calvin Manson handed over the project. But she put together a fascinating pastiche, a series of 13 short scenes that capture life in Harlem and reveal the heart and soul of a people, through their jokes, jibes and conversations. The production values are minimal, though the costumes for the women are vivid. The high-spirited Jesse, engagingly portrayed by Leonard Patton, strings several women along, and tries to corrupt young Darby, ingenuously played by Patrick Kelly. Ballast and stability are provided by Laurence Brown’s strapping Sonny, who tells a fascinating tale of how an attempted theft turned his life around. Ida Rhem is forceful and energetic in several female roles, from the barfly Zarita to the prissy Mrs. Maxwell-Reeves. Andrea Purnell, with her killer smile, is especially alluring as the sexy Woman in Red and Jesse’s elusive, high-toned girlfriend, Joyce.
Some of the fiercely poetic language is presented as a capella songs, and that works wonderfully. There isn’t much of a narrative arc, though Jesse straightens up a bit by the end and vows to give up his philandering, so he can properly court and marry Joyce. “Life is fine,” he concludes, “fine as wine.” And so are the jazzy creations of Langston Hughes.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.