Langston in Harlem – Off Broadway Theater Review
THE RETURN OF THE NON-BLAND MUSICAL
by Alexander Harrington
published April 18, 2010
Langston in Harlem
now playing Off Broadway at Urban Stages
through May 2
Fifteen years ago, a play called Rent opened, purporting to be a rock
musical, yet containing anemic pop songs that would not be out of place in a dentist’s office.
In its wake followed plays with similarly milquetoast scores (Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, Next to Normal – let’s face it, kids today have wimpier tastes in
music than their parents did). The New York Shakespeare Festival’s revival of Hair reminded us that a rock musical score could be rhythmic, stirring, and complex. Finally, a musical containing songs that are hard-hitting, edgy, rhythmic, and multilayered has arrived
in New York. Despite one Hendrix-like number, Langston
in Harlem, with music by veteran Broadway composer Walter Marks and lyrics taken from Langston Hughes’ poetry, is not a rock musical,
but a jazz/blues musical, and teens and twenty-somethings should rush to it and grow a pair.
The beginning of the show sends out conflicting signals as to whether it will have guts or will follow the same tame
trail as its alleged “rock” brethren. The pre-show music played by the live orchestra directed
by John DiPinto holds out promise, and there is one driving song (“Beat Me Daddy, Seven to the Bar”) during the opening moments of the
play. However, the other three early numbers led me to fear we were headed down the primrose
path. “Between Two Rivers” and “Whom Am I?” are so damn happy, I began to wonder if I had
wandered into production of Godspell. That
suspicion was dismissed when the eleven-o’clock-number wailing note extensions of “Crystal Stair” convinced me that I was either at
Dreamgirls or in the studio for American
Idol. The music became livelier, if not more original, with the
Dixieland/Chicago-Style “The Gospel According to Madam – Verse 1.” The music hits its stride
with “Genius Child.” After that, composer Marks rarely stumbles.
The two most powerful songs of the evening are “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” and “I Am a Negro.” “Sweet Flypaper” is sung by Zora Neale Hurston (Kenita Miller), when she urges Hughes to come out of the
closet and find love, and the song deals with the moral greyness of life. While I am not
familiar with the poem, some of the lyrics (“Lookin’ for love/ But don’t know where to find it”) suggest that Hughes was, indeed, writing
about his sexuality. When I heard an earlier lyric in the song (“Life ain’t always sanitary/
Like you wish it would be./ It’s a crazy messy puzzle/ Wrapped up in ambiguity”), I thought “This is as good as Sondheim!” Then I thought “You idiot! It’s Langston Hughes”). “I Am a
Negro” charts Hughes’ progression toward greater racial militancy and toward communism and is a mixture of speech and song accompanied by
the percussive stomp of aggressive dancing. To single out these numbers is not to diminish the
rest of the score. Despite three weaker songs, this is the best new music I’ve heard in the
theatre in over a decade.
Langston in Harlem shares with Hair not
only the drive, beat, and intricacy of its music, but also the slightness of its script. The
book is credited to Hughes, Marks, and director Kent Gash. It is a flimsy skeleton on which
Marks and Gash hang recitations and musical settings of Hughes’ poetry and Reader’s Digest
accounts of significant transitions in Hughes’ life. Two arguments between Hughes (Josh Tower)
and his white patron (the African-American Francesca Harper) about race and politics has the potential to be a far more nuanced and
challenging discussion of such issues than the those in the other plays of the season dealing with racial relations (Race and Clybourne Park. None of these plays really deal with the most taboo aspects of race: persistent poverty, crime,
single-parenthood, and drug use in the black community, the delight white people like me take when black people raise these issues
themselves, and white America’s responsibility for these problems. Tackling such questions is
not Langston in Harlem’s brief; it is the brief the other two plays because they have pretensions
to being “incendiary.”) However, the play quickly moves on to other events and themes in
Hughes’ life and does not develop these arguments.
The song “You’ve Taken My Blues” deals with the white appropriation of African American culture by such works as
Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones, Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth, and Swing Mikado. Listening to this song, I began to wonder if Marks and Gash are not guilty of something akin to what the
song is attacking. Marks is white and Gash
black. Sitting in the theatre, I didn’t feel I missed anything, and I didn’t feel at all
alienated or uncomfortable. Not so when I’m watching or reading an August Wilson
play. It is not surprising that the writers depicted in the play (Hughes, Hurston, and
Countee Cullen) speak a very literary form of standard English. So, too, however, do Madam (a
domestic worker) and Simple (a former bar room tap dancer now living hand-to-mouth). There are
no dialects in this play. Again, August Wilson manages to write in dialect without
slipping into caricature. The absence of earthier language is particularly ironic since
Hughes, Hurston, and Cullen mock W.E.B. DuBois for criticizing them for depicting the “sordid” and “foolish” aspects of African American
life, rather than fulfilling their duties as members of “the talented tenth.” I wonder what
audience Marks and Gash are targeting.
To return to the skeletal book: yes, it is a fault, and Langston in
Harlem would be a better show if it had a better script. But, as with Hair, the music is so good that I am glad that the authors came up with an excuse to write and perform
The choreography by Byron Easley is exciting.
Particularly thrilling are the percussive dancing for “I Am a Negro” and a series of social dances including a kinetic and frenetic
Charleston. The choreography for “Havana Dreams,” the number in which Hughes has his first
homosexual experience, is genuinely erotic and a little bit titillating, but still enhances the aesthetic experience of the
show. Though this number, like the second act of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, includes bare-chested men, unlike that show, its titillation is integrated and does not
Josh Tower gets over-the-title billing. At first, he comes off as a
pleasant but bland pop musical presence. Surprisingly, in “I am a Negro” and other later
songs, he carries off Hughes anger and militancy very well. The standout performer in the
production is Kenita Miller, who stops the show with “Sweet Flypaper of Life.” As the white
patron, Francesca Harper manages to get humor out of bougie, white uptightness, while still making her character sincere and intelligent in
her political and racial arguments with Hughes. As a whole, the cast is solid.
Emily Beck has designed a set that is so integrated into the theatre that I, who have never been in the space, was
unsure what was architectural and what had been installed. Her placement of the orchestra ( I
assume in collaboration with Gash, musical director DiPinto, and sound designer Jason Fitzgerald) in an alcove behind pillars is possibly
the best location for a band I have ever seen. For the set’s sittable and walkable elements,
Beck elegantly employs the Off Off Broadway simplicity of moveable cubes and platforms. She,
projection designer Alex Koch, and lighting designer William Grant III lend visual richness to
the production with images projected onto the walls. These range from white on black line
drawings, to black and white photos outlined in black and white ink or paint, to the dust jackets of Hughes’s books, to splashes of
The play’s time period spans the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights Movement. Austin K. Sanderson’s costumes, hair, and make-up split the difference between being specific to being
suggestive of several different periods. Most of the costumes seem to be from the 30s and 40s,
but Hurston and Cullen’s clothes are very much in a 1920s style – this is a little confusing.
The actors wear contemporary hairstyles that are, for the most part, suggestive of the 20s.
Basically, this works. However, as Hughes’ mother, Gayle Turner’s very contemporary and upscale
hair, make-up, and jewelry belie her housedress and apron. Since she was the only actor other
than Tower never to play another part or sing and dance in the ensemble, and since she belted several gospel-like numbers, I assumed she was
a grand dame of gospel who had the clout to limit her role to show-stopping cameos and wear whatever hairstyle, make-up, and jewelry she
wants. She’s got a lot of Broadway credits, but somebody should tell her to tone down the
make-up and lose the gold. Her singing is strong if a bit clichéd and sentimental.
Sound designer Fitzgerald has chosen to amplify the singers. I understand that, in musicals, it is always difficult to make the singers heard over the instruments;
however, in Langston in Harlem, they sound over-amplified. Despite the reinforcement of the singers, when percussionists come out of the orchestra alcove and play on
stage for “The Negro Mother,” the voices are nearly unintelligible, even though the actors wear those distracting Rent-style headset mics.
So listen to me, you crazy kids: despite the show’s problems, you should pull out the pabulum-spewing ear buds of
your iPods and run to Langston in Harlem to hear
music that’s as bad-assed as the music of your parents’ time.
alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Ben Hider