Entertainment » Theatre

The Black Clown

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 6, 2018
The Black Clown
  (Source:Maggie Hall)

Beautiful and wrenching; transfixing and indelible. Davóne Tines & Michael Schachter's "The Black Clown," playing through September 23, is all of those things. It's a thumbnail sketch of America's dehumanizing history around race, and it's a cri de coeur, but it's also 70 minutes of high energy, emotionally charged musical theater.

The show is based on the Langston Hughes poem of the same title. That single work yields thirteen songs, most of them based on a single stanza from the poem and titled after the first line of the stanza. Schachter's work spans a range of styles, but he retains a keen sense of the emotional intelligence that drives Hughes' writing. "I am the fool of the whole world," Tines sings;

Laugh and push me down.
Only in song and laughter
I rise again - a black clown.


The key is how the word "laughter" is conveyed: Here, in song, it sounds like a howl of grief and fury.


  (Source:Maggie Hall)

The theme remains intact, that theme being the way a majority (be it white, or male, or heterosexual, or what have you) has a way of disempowering minorities and casting them in terms diminutive and demeaning. Our history has ugly passages that are remarkably repetitive and even predictable; a targeted demographic comes in for portrayal as subhuman, brutish, and dangerous. (Irish immigrants, for instance, were depicted this way a century or so ago; look now how a fresh wave of immigrants are likewise dismissed as "animals" by our nation's leadership.) After that, acceptance comes in degrees - and usually swaddled in layers of dismissal and humiliation. But from those oppressed roles is culture born, and if its highbrow route is literary, its popular progress is theatrical. Both are evidenced abundantly here.

In a sense, "The Black Clown" takes its own medium as the subject of its critique. Even today, African Americans are most broadly accepted if they are entertainers of some stripe: Comedians, rap artists, athletes. (It's no coincidence that LGBTQ people have, of late, pried their way into the mainstream in just this fashion, with "Ellen," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and "RuPaul's Drag Race." It's also no coincidence that "Will & Grace," once in the vanguard of gay mainstreaming, is now back on television in the Age of Trump and Pence, a time marked by a return to homophobia, among other virulent prejudices.)

Tines and Schachter know about this progression, and they take it to heart, depicting it on the stage. Early in the runtime, the stage becomes a juke joint haunted by shades the like of Billie Holiday and Ma Rainey; as song and dance continue to propel the proceedings, those shades become more literal in nature as actors retreat behind a screen, their shadows flitting across screens of fabric, creating illusions of people that grow and shrink, pop suddenly into existence or disappear. When, finally, those shadows rip through the screen and emerge, human sized and in three dimensions, you have a feeling that history is being de-mythologized, de-fabled, and perhaps deconstructed, only to be reconstituted as something present and palpable.

And that's where the real fun... and horror... begins. Take the song "Freedom," which follows up on the "Three Hundred Years" of slavery that America has yet to atone for. Abe Lincoln, represented by a paternalistically smiling man on stilts, delivers the Emancipation Proclamation; "Abe Lincoln done set me free," the song recounts. "One little moment / To dance with glee."

Then, of course, came the scarring, unforgivable sins of Jim Crow. Chanel DaSilva's choreography is zesty and light as this passage plays itself out; the cast dancing and smiling, but the props they wield are chains and ropes knotted into nooses. Your jaw drops, your heart breaks, and though the show carries on with a deeply ironic cheerfulness you find yourself swept up in grief and rage - all the more so given the political moment we face right now, with the Supreme Court about to lose its swing vote and the justice who opened the door to marriage equality being replaced by a man who, by all accounts, is deeply antithetical to sexual minorities. "One little moment," indeed. Three years ago the quote of the day came from "Les Miserables" - "Can you hear the people sing?" - but come this time next summer it's liable to be Hughes' lament from this very show: "Then sadness again."


  (Source:Maggie Hall)

That sadness is presented in ways so brilliantly innovative and atavistically powerful as to be poetic and iconic in equal measure. Not all of the show's songs derive from Hughes' poem; to see "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" presented as a second line funeral procession is to understand, at a visceral level, the chafe and bereavement of lives denied the chance to flower fully, and there's a rendition of "Nobody Knows" that only deepens the show's existential ache. Carlos Soto, who created both the show's scenic design and costumes, keeps the settings simple, even when they feature striking set pieces, but he also knows how to create wardrobe that stands out against, and is set off by, minimal scenic work. (Of the scenic elements that we do see, microphones have a way of showing up over and over again; this is a presentation, after all, about how even a silenced people can find a voice.)

The design work feels drawn from varied motifs, but director Zack Winokur fits all the elements into a whole, often with stunning effect - never more so than in the song "Yet Clinging to a Ladder." This comes from Hughes' text, and is presented with astonishing visual immediacy as the title character attempts to ascend a fluorescent ladder to higher levels of social acceptance and personal prosperity, only for the ladder to sink away and vanish below him, rung following rung into oblivion. He's working hard not to make progress, as it turns out, but simply to continue to exist.

There are other, even harder, twists of image and expression; be prepared to take the warning included in the program seriously: There are "racial slurs and stylized representations of violence." There is also, however, a soaring message that white supremacists have, in a manner of self-sabotaged selective perception, never apprehended: That while a person, or a whole community of people, might be beaten down, minimized, marginalized, and demonized as objects of fear and menace, only caricatures - not people - remain forever downtrodden. Humanity has a way of climbing to its feet. Hughes' poem, and this show - a revue of pain, hope, and conscious cataloguing of the absurdities embraced by the biased - rouses itself, and us, to a ringing triumphal declaration.


"The Black Clown" continues through September 23 at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. For tickets and more information, please go to https://americanrepertorytheater.org/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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