Monday, September 24, 2012

Guthrie Theater's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?"

A suiting introduction to Langston Hughes and the McCarthy era

Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s
No phrase more appropriately describes Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? better than this stanza from Langston Hughes’ poem “Georgia Dusk.”
Like so many of this year’s shows, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? details the problems of race and politics in the 1950s. This story, at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through May 20, follows Hughes through his trial in front of the McCarthy committee during the Communist witch hunt in Washington, when so many of the nation’s great artists, politicians and citizens had careers, lives, families and more destroyed at the merest breath of a ‘heretical’ opinion.
Throughout the first half of the show, Hughes (played winningly by Gavin Lawrence), describes the political climate as he simultaneously writes “Georgia Dusk.” Between these two narratives, he also interjects full and partial recitations of his other poems. The second half is entirely comprised of Hughes’ Senate hearing, where both defendant and prosecutor face the audience with grim determination.
The conclusion of Hughes’ hearing is never fully revealed, although his feelings about the process certainly are. Lawrence does an excellent job of enacting the fragile line Hughes had to walk between keeping himself from a deadly incrimination and refusing to compromise his values for a corrupt political system. His frustration and determination are explicit, and when the final poem is projected at the end of the show, it clearly reinforces Lawrence’s portrayal of Hughes’ inner conflicts.
As a whole, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? is a perfectly adequate show. There isn’t anything particularly surprising about the narrative, but there doesn’t need to be. Lawrence is wholly sympathetic, just as his senatorial foes (portrayed by Steve Hendrickson, Matt Rein, John Middleton and Peter Rachleff) are offensively brash and accusatory. And Carlyle Brown is a silent, stoic presence as Hughes’ lawyer Frank Reeves. Lighting, sets, costumes, etc. are all true to the period and well arranged.
But while this may serve as a good introduction to Hughes and the McCarthy trials for viewers who are relatively unfamiliar, it may be too simplistic for those who already know this story and its protagonist.
It would have been nice to see a more diverse, contemporary reaction to Hughes’ poetry than solely the McCarthy opinion, and to hear the words of other artists who were persecuted for their views. Eloquent as Hughes is, he was the only one to get swept up in the red storm, and a fleshed out context would enhance the show for viewers unfamiliar with the subject.
The blood from McCarthy’s prosecutions, both physical and emotional, still courses through American culture today. As the prescient Hughes wrote, it has “scattered hate like seed,” and as Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? displays, only when we can atone for McCarthy’s legacy will we be able to return to a less suspicious form of politics.
+ Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? is a Carlyle Brown & Company production It continues at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through May 20. For more information visit