Q: Langston Hughes published "The Black Clown" in 1931. What drew you to the poem, and how did it speak to you?

Davóne Tines: I first knew of Langston Hughes when I was younger—I received a small volume of his poetry as an award for a poetry recitation contest in fifth grade. It was like "Wow, cool—there are poems in here about Black boys!" And I loved the woodcut etchings that showed Black people in Harlem dancing the blues.

When I first read "The Black Clown," it was incredibly striking that Langston Hughes had put words to the feelings, thoughts, and ruminations that I had held deeply, internally, and personally for a very long time. As a young, Black, curious person, you start to understand that there is a larger diaspora of thought in terms of engaging the reality of human experience. As an artist, I should be as honest as possible when I stand in front of people. That means I need to find an explicit connection to the things I say in song and in concert. This poem was so far beyond song— it was inevitable that I would need all the forces of opera and theater to attempt to do it justice.

Q: How did you two start working together on this project?

DT: I was working a few freelance jobs in arts administration and singing in the choir of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. I was at a life juncture wondering if I should to go to business school, but knew I really connected to art-making and always wanted to perform. A career in performing, however, is a long shot for anyone. In 2010 I wrote a very long email to Mike [Schachter] because I needed an outlet. I told him that while sitting in Catholic Church choir rehearsal, I had daydreams of being a professional solo singer and wanting to sing music that was soulful, whimsical, and profound, but most importantly I wanted to sing music that was new and that I directly connected to. I suggested Langston Hughes as a starting point. He replied enthusiastically that his new wife (my college friend Allie Schachter) had recently and uncannily urged him to buy an edition of Hughes's complete works. Three weeks later, after tossing ideas back and forth, he suggested "The Black Clown." I read it and it was a revelation.

"...the issues Hughes writes about, the false promise of what freedom means to marginalized Others in this country seemed just as palpable . . . as they did in 1931."

Q: Michael, where did you first encounter the poem?

Michael Schachter: Davóne and I had been talking about Hughes years earlier when we were undergraduates together at Harvard, and when I got his email from church I flipped through a collection of Hughes's poems that my then-girlfriend, now-wife had given me. I was struck by two things about "The Black Clown." The first was its immediacy—it seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The word choices, the issues Hughes writes about, the false promise of what freedom means to marginalized Others in this country seemed just as palpable in 2010 as they did in 1931—and I would argue even more palpable in 2018. And the second thing that struck me was the form of the poem, which partly came out of Hughes's frequenting the speakeasies in Harlem at the time and seeing spoken word performances.

Q: Michael, what musical traditions have you drawn from and been inspired by in composing the score?

MS: The blues is a major influence. "Three Hundred Years" is set as a work song, and "Say to All Foemen," which is an exuberant, uplifting number towards the end, is set as a gospel number. Other songs come from New Orleans second line, the spiritual tradition, and Black choral traditions from the late-19th into much of the 20th century.
 

A Multitude of Voices
Photo by Maggie Hall
The Black Clown

Q: Early on in the development of this piece, you were thinking about the presence of a chorus, and one of the central elements of this production is a 12-member ensemble. Why was the idea of a chorus important to you, and what role does the ensemble play in the show?

MS: In the poem Hughes fleshes out his character by connecting his feeling of himself with the experiences of a multitude. So we thought that it was crucial to animate that in the show with the interplay of one voice and many voices. And sonically it just enriches the experience.

DT: The idea came out of multiple meetings we had with the American Repertory Theater's Executive Producer Diane Borger and Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick, who warmly encouraged us to develop the project. With our director, Zack Winokur, we realized that an ensemble could take on so many roles that are suggested in Hughes's poem; we could go deeper into all of Hughes's ideas and we could have other people and their voices and experiences expand upon his words.

We had already done a music workshop and had settled on a version of the score we thought was pretty great. Then we got to the stage workshop where we had, for the first time, an all-Black cast of incredible performers with a plethora of capacities. There was a wealth in all of these people—we would have been foolish not to fully embrace all of it and allow them to take over this poem because it is a shared and common experience.

The ensemble opened up so much in terms of what the piece could achieve in terms of the virility, veracity of expression, and also just more points of connection and points of reflection for the audience. These people have made the piece—there's no piece without this ensemble.


Interview by A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick, with additional editing by Karissa Krenz. A version of this interview was originally published in the American Repertory Theater Guide.