Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been at the Guthrie

Quote of the Day:  Powerful people want two choices, the right one and the wrong one. Writers challenge another viewpoint, not just one or the other. This makes them the enemy. Paraphrase of a line in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been by Carlyle Brown.

Harlem Rennaisance poet Langston Hughes was put on trial during the McCarthy era communist witch hunts. His work was brought under scrutiny, his character examined, and his loyalties questioned. All because of his words.

If you're a writer, you might be next.

I felt a little chill when he said those lines. Why writers? What do we do? Ah, it's the power of the written word. People fear what we can put into print, what we might bring to light, how we challenge the powerful and their need for their one right way to be accepted. Writers don't see things in black and white. We are the what if sayers. We are the question askers. A writer has a natural curiosity of life. (line from the play)

This is a play about poetry. You get lost if you get literal. Carlyle Brown, playwright

The stage was divided into two parts to accent the two parts of the play. In the first half, the action takes place, audience left. We see Langston Hughes languishing over his words. The floor is strewn with discarded pages. He's in his pajamas and scratching his head. He paces. He types. He talks to us. The audience is a character in the play the way readers are the unseen audience to isolated writers. We see you and feel your presence even as we write in solitude.

Gavin Lawrence played Langston Hughes with the passion and rhythm of a poet and jazz musician. He recited a poem about jazz that stirred my musician's soul. I even swayed a little and felt like applauding when he was done, the way we applaud in a musical after the singing. Regretfully, I held back. During the discussion with the playwright and historian/actor after the play, I asked if some audiences applauded after the recitation of the poems. They said, Yes, some did.

Sometimes, we saw his words on a screen as he typed them. Sometimes, they got bigger and bolder, especially as the tension grew. Sometimes, there was silence.

The second half of the play moved to our right. I felt like the senate interrogation committee was trying to silence Langston Hughes. They pulled words and phrases out of his poetry and demanded explanations and yes or no answers. Hughes kept saying, No work can be fully understood if taken out of context.

Can you imagine being put on trial for your work, your art, a line of your poetry, or a sentence in a book?  I kept thinking, asking a writer to explain a choice of a word is like asking a painter to explain the choice of color in her painting. Why? Because it felt right at the moment. It worked. I was inspired. A senate committee had no time for such answers.

Carlyle Brown said of the poet, He is the conduit, not the creator.

We don't choose the words. The words choose us. Langston Hughes was chosen to defend his words, poetry, and his very life.

This play gave me even stronger convictions of how important we are as writers and artists of all kinds. What we do makes a difference.

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt:  Have you ever felt fear about exposing your art, or even creating it?

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been is playing at The Guthrie through May 20.

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