Review: ‘Are you now, or have you ever been…’

Review: ‘Are you now, or have you ever been…’
Michael Sharp, Wood Van Meter, Josh Taylor, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Marni Penning, Russell Sunday in “Are you now or have you ever been.” (Photo Credit: Chris Banks)

By Jordan Wright

The investigation and inquisition of Langston Hughes by the House Un-American Activities Committee is a deeply moving, profoundly disturbing probe into the mind of a successful black American poet. Under the guidance of Joseph McCarthy, these televised courtroom investigations were led by the notorious Roy Cohn, advisor to Richard Nixon and later mentor to Donald Trump.

The Senate Subcommittee’s search to uncover communists became a witch hunt the likes of which America had never seen. Like Hitler’s civilian spies, it turned the country into a nation of informants – people putting forth names of co-workers and friends to save their own skin. The investigation into, and blacklisting of, the lives of hundreds of actors, writers and gays ruined their careers, businesses and lives.

That many of those accused had no connection to the actual communist party, nor knew anything more than workers had rights in the Soviet Union, was of no consequence to these self-righteous senators.

In this newly developed treatment of Brown’s play, Composer William Knowles adds verve by adding original music to provide background to life in 1953 Harlem and, later, the needle-sharp drama of the hearings. Knowles incorporates period blues, jazz and cabaret songs to animate the rhythms and patterns of Hughes’ famous poems. It’s set in the period of the Harlem Renaissance when, as Hughes puts it, “Negroes were in vogue.” Until they weren’t.

It is a sinuous story set to music that weaves in and out of Hughes’ most profound thoughts, highlighting his poetry and underpinning his trial in dramatic fashion. For those familiar with Hughes’ poems it will be a pleasure to renew your acquaintance with “The Weary Blues,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Harlem Dance Hall,” “Good Morning Revolution” and others.

 Director Thomas W. Jones II does an outstanding job with a diverse cast that brings the necessary gravitas to the story. The six-member cast not only sings and dances in a number of styles of the period, but moves effortlessly through a number of roles and wardrobe changes, except for the lead actor Marcus Naylor as Langston, who tackles the role with virtuosity. The one-act play builds to a crescendo with Hughes’ interrogation by Cohn (played impressively by Marni Penning) who eviscerates the poet piecemeal. The parallels to today’s news are staggering.

Also notable is Wood Van Meter as David Schine, who has a wonderful voice and whose solos are explosive. Michael Sharp as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Russell Sunday as Sen. Everett Dirksen and Josh Thomas as Frank Reeves round out this excellent cast.

Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan employ an effective set design of large trapezoidal panels that allow for

Hughes’ words, plus photos and videos of the period, to accommodate designer Robbie Hayes’ evocative projections.

This play is highly recommended. An unforgettable night of theatre.

If you go

Run dates: Through Nov. 5
Location: at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St.
For tickets and information: 703 548-9044, www.