Langston & Nicolás
Towne Street Theatre at the Stella Adler
In Bernardo Solano’s riveting new work Langston & Nicolás, now debuting from the Towne Street Theatre Company at the Stella Adler, when controversial African-American poet Langston Hughes visited Havana in 1930, he quickly discovered on a tour of hotspots in the city that he wanted to be “as black as the music” he heard all around him. But to Cuban journalist Nicolás Guillén, later to become the country’s post-revolutionary poet laureate after a lengthy political exile from his native country by dictator Fulgencio Batista, Hughes was the man with all the potential to lead his people, a man he considered to be the “future of the black race” in the United States.
Four years before the initial meeting between these two great men, Hughes had published what would be considered his manifesto, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in The Nation, considered in its time to be the flagship for the Left:
“The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”
There couldn’t be anything more difficult for a playwright than getting all the facts out there when writing a marathon-length historical play, while still leaving an audience caring about the real, once breathing people whose story is being told. Solano has managed to do just that superbly and without preaching in Langston & Nicolás, a sweeping epic spanning nearly four decades in the passionate yet often contentious friendship between Hughes and Guillén.
With the invaluable aid of director Nancy Cheryll Davis, founding artistic and producing director of Towne Street—who is also here credited for the conception of this notably imaginative construction featuring rousing music, spirited dance, and factoring in some of these two gifted writers’ most fervent and still enduring poetry—Solano has created a remarkable piece of theatrical literature.
With each of the title characters portrayed by two different actors (Justin Alston and Chris Rivas as, respectively, the younger Hughes and Guillén, replaced after intermission by the more mature Brian Evaret Chandler and Armando Ortega in the same roles), Solano conjures the often problematic lifelong camaraderie between these two amazing mixed-race artists that began 80 years ago when Guillén was assigned to interview Hughes during his trip to Cuba. Hughes was by then already a controversial figure in America for his bold early socialist leanings, particularly for writing an infamous poem proclaiming Karl Marx as the new Jesus Christ, a savior to a troubled world that, sadly, never listened to his advice.
Himself weary of living in a country where blacks were sick of being thought of as only a serving class and “tired of being exotic,” Guillén instantly connected with Hughes (“Questions often say more about the person asking, don’t you think?” he asks prophetically in Solano’s script) and the two men alternately agreed and quarreled on most every issue facing them over the years in their inequitable era of strange fruit swinging from trees in the American south and the courageous beginnings of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution.
As Guillén listened to Hughes’ suggestion to give up his structured life to focus on morphing into the contentious poet he was meant to be, becoming more and more radical in his writing over the years, the fearful Hughes began to instead modify his stance on affairs of state and America’s racial situation, partly from fear and partly from the increasingly more comfortable lifestyle to which he had happily become accustomed.
“I like to be selective about what I destroy,” he writes to his friend, who begins to realize in return that the “combative are exiled, the docile rewarded.” Until his death from prostate cancer in 1967, Hughes’ own increasingly timidity puzzled both he and Guillén, fracturing and alienating their nearly obsessive friendship and devotion to one another. In 1951, Hughes wrote honestly of his spiritual and political conundrum in his poem, What Happened to a Dream Deferred?:
“Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?”
Davis has fashioned a masterful production, smartly designed and lit by Nathaniel Bellamy, splendidly costumed by Nancy Reneé, and featuring an incredibly contagious original score by Dane Diamond that even manages to successfully set one of Hughes’ most famous poems to music. The wide but shallow Adler stage, made solid by Bellamy’s expressionistic video backdrops that take us from Havana nightclubs to the Brooklyn Bridge to Franco’s Spain in 1937, is impressively filled with an enormous cast of 17, sometimes in Davis’ hands leaving the impression that there are many more in the cast as they assay different characters and wind through Havana, Madrid, Europe, and Harlem over the course of time.
Ana Maria Lagasca is a standout as the suspicious young wife of Guillén and later as Hughes’ troubled mistress Elsie Roxborough, both Dane Diamond and Tené Carter Miller have memorable turns reciting Hughes’ provocative poetry, Leslie La’Raine dances like the wind to Nancy Reneé’s angular choreography, and potential Abercrombie & Fitch discovery Kyle Hamilton makes such a surprisingly stern-faced entrance as that notorious anti-Christ Roy Cohn ready to grill Hughes at the McCarthy hearings that one audience member when I attended let out an extremely loud and suitably panicky “Uh-oh.”
Yet, in all honesty, some of Davis’ players here are clearly stage veterans and some are… well… just manifestly sincere at what they do. Truly, however, this unevenness and occasional lack of more seasoned acting chops from some members of the ensemble proves to ultimately be something as quirkily infectious as the work of the more experienced performers in Davis and Solano’s heartfelt and colossally determined project.
Alston and Rivas are the most triumphant here as the poets in their more passionate younger days, while Chandler and Ortega seem as though they’d rather resort to a firm handshake than explore any of the more questionable nature of the poets’ much-disputed physical relationship, which later Guillén tries to explain to his mistrustful wife (Maggie Palomo) as that “something ancient, something immediate” two men often feel for one another that can last a lifetime.
This unwillingness of Davis and her two otherwise fine more seasoned actors to take a short hike at least up to the foothills of Brokeback Mountain leaves Act One of Langston & Nicolás far more interesting than the second half, which due to this reluctance still makes Solano’s masterpiece a bit of a work-in-progress—albeit a fascinating one.
Langston & Nicolás plays through May 2 at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 3213.624.4796 or log on at www.townestreet.org .