Review: A.R.T.’s “The Black Clown” finishes its world premiere, leaves lasting influence

Performers dance to celebrate the end of slavery during the world premiere of the American Repertory Theater’s “The Black Clown,” a staged musical performance based on the Langston Hughes poem of the same name. Courtesy photo by Maggie Hill

By Jenny Rollins
BU News Service

Last week the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge packed up its vaudeville lights, following its well-praised world premiere of “The Black Clown,” but its music and words still echo in my head.

The show, based on the Langston Hughes poem of the same name, was a staged musical presentation that portrayed the nuanced experience of being “black in a white world,” in the history of the United States.

The show was directed by Zack Winokur, choreographed by Chanel DaSilva and performed by a phenomenal all-black cast whose lead, Davóne Tines, represents the “black clown” in Hughes’ poem and takes a journey through black history in America.

The original poem is divided into two columns, one that is labeled “Mood” that reads almost like stage directions, telling the character what to do and what music should be playing, and one labeled “Poem” that has the narrative.

Looking at the poem, it lends itself to the stage with the directions and with the story that moves through both the pains and the brief joys of living in a world of discrimination. However, the real genius within this performance was the music and the choreography.

Although Tines’ vocal style and outfit remains the same throughout most of the show and he rarely joins in the dancing as much as the others, they change around him.

They shift through vocal styles seamlessly, using the music and vocal techniques from old spirituals, ragtime, jazz, funk, soul and old-school hip-hop.

Each performer managed to completely blow the audience away with their musical talent and the voices came together in stunning harmonies that could break your heart and pierce your soul with a simple chord change.

Tines was particularly talented, performing every note flawlessly and with such raw energy and emotion that I was moved to tears more than once, especially during “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” which came with the representation of slavery and families being beaten and taken away.

But the choreography was what really drove home the message of the poem and demonstrated the black experience.

DaSilva mixed styles like samba, ragtime, and Broadway styles to create the illusion of going through different periods of time.

First the characters performed African-style freeform dancing with sudden bursts of energy and emotion, but then one by one they were stilled and added to a chain of slaves that shuffled its way across the stage, heads bowed and shoulders slumped.

Next was a depiction of slavery, creatively using sheets and shadows to show the oppression of the slaves with shadowy slave masters, larger than life, beating people down and separating them from their families.

After a period of depression, one of the characters dressed as Abraham Lincoln emerges on stilts and passes out a human-sized copy of the Emancipation Proclamation because, as the poem reads, “Abe Lincoln done made me free.”

In a poignant, gut-wrenching moment, the cast members dance around in bright colors, using the chains that bound them as jump ropes.

The curtain is quickly drawn and then opened to see the same celebratory scene — confetti still falling — but with segregation signs. The lead sings, “then sadness again.”

Though the poem is only about a page and a half, the show was about 75 minutes long, but each of those minutes was needed. They did not add a single word to the poem, but the music repeated the phrases with musical acrobatic skill until they each took on several different meanings.

Every single moment was riveting and deep. I wish that I could have watched it again and again and again to capture and soak in every minute detail of the seven years of work that went into this show.

Having read the poem and studied Langston Hughes, I expected the ending of the show to be about power and about overcoming the prejudices that had continually knocked down black Americans, but the ending changed me more than anything else.

Tines as the “Black Clown” delivered his last lines, surrounded by his cast members. He casts off the clothes and image of the clown while saying, “I was once a black clown/ But now —”

He repeated the “but now” with the other cast members echoing him in a call and response type action until he reached the last line: “I am a man.”

Tines chose to stand and deliver the line with power but without drama. It was a mere statement rather than a performance, shaking off the flat two-dimensional character of a clown and leaving a raw, vulnerable human being.

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