The Black Clown World Premiere at A.R.T

September 30, 2018 | By Gillian Brown

“You laugh / Because I’m poor and black and funny…” speaks a lone man into a standing microphone, lit by a single spotlight, center stage. “The Black Clown.” He begins again, singing the lines of Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name. And thus, a truly unique and emotional theatrical experience begins. “The Black Clown” never feels like a traditional musical. It’s an artistic retelling of a collective narrative set to music.

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Photo Courtesy Maggie Hall, American Repertory Theater

The world premiere musical is an adaptation of Hughes’s 1931 poem and was shown at the American Repertory Theatre from Aug. 31 to Sept. 23. Described as a “dramatic monologue” by Hughes, the poem reads 17 stanzas, with accompanying stage and musical directions entitled “The Mood.” The 70-minute musical features 15 songs written by Michael Schachter and encompasses a wide range of genres from vaudeville to jazz to spirituals. 

Davóne Tines plays the titular character and pours his heart and soul into the show. Tines has a low, powerful voice that perfectly conveys the emotional depth of the piece. He’s accompanied by an all black ensemble of 12, each of whom are dynamic, expressive, and equally talented. Together, they  journey through songs of joy, sorrow, rage, and hope. 

Director Zack Winokur’s staging is simply incredible, and is enhanced by Chanel DaSilva’s sensational choreography, which is as varied in style as Schachter’s music. Scenic and costume designer Carlos Soto utilizes a minimalist set, which creates remarkable versatility. Soto also employs monochrome costumes. As the show progresses, color is added and by the end, the eveningwear is replaced with modern day attire. John Torres’s dazzling lighting design features dramatic shadows and spotlights that intensifies Soto’s scenic design.  

One of the most mesmerizing scenes came during the song “Three Hundred Years,” where the history of slavery in America is depicted. A white sheet stretches across the stage and shadows transform the set, taking audiences back in time. The power struggle is shown as silhouettes grow into towering figures, disappearing and reappearing in seconds. Families grasp hands as they’re ripped apart and beaten, slaves work in the fields, and fugitives run for their lives. It’s sharply evocative and unforgettably breathtaking. This innovative shadowplay is a recurring feature of the show. A few times the silhouettes break through the fabric and become a three dimensional human again, bringing the story back to the present. This is one of Soto and Torres’s greatest feats in the show. 

A unsettling cheerfulness ensues during “Freedom!”. The Emancipation Proclamation is presented. President Lincoln is a towering figure on stilts, a circus spectacle surrounded by copies of the Proclamation floating in the air like confetti. Dancers twirl with chains in their hands and nooses on their necks, smiling as if they only wield decorative scarves. This joy is short lived, for they soon realize that they’re a “Black Man in a White World,” and that freedom does not necessarily mean free.

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was another standout number. The lyrics are sung over and over and over, each ensemble member taking on a different melody, a new cadence. First one by one, then all at once, overlapping into a chaotic choir of voices singing, “sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” walking in a solemn parade through the audience. The repetition is mournfully captivating, drawing people into their harrowing reality. The procession is hopelessly stuck in the same refrain, the generations of African Americans stuck in a shackle of oppression. 

When it comes to powerful imagery, “The Black Clown” doesn’t fall short. At one point, the Clown climbs a luminescent ladder that lowers with every step, illustrating being “forever pushed down,” as Hughes writes. In another scene, Tines stands center stage, his hands creating shadows on the white screens behind him. His hands morph into dozens of hands. It becomes a shared story, a shared experience spanning generations.

One of the last songs, “Say to All Foemen,” feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s a deeply uplifting piece. The cast changes into brightly colored modern wear and soulfully sings, “You can’t keep me down!” The one thing that can never be taken away is spirit and hope and strength, which are the threads that unite generations. 

“The Black Clown” is a visually striking production that tells the story of an ongoing battle, spotlighting the divide within the supposed United States. The show features stellar performances by every single cast member, each of whom get their own moment to shine throughout the piece. Every note sung, every move made, every word spoken is thoroughly felt. The show is living, breathing poetry on stage. This adaptation doesn’t just honor Hughes’ poem, but instead brings it to life as a new, insightful lifeform of its own. It brilliantly portrays the complexity of racism and our country’s tendency  to dehumanize and marginalized minority groups. 

Changing minds, countering ignorance, conquering prejudice doesn’t all happen within a day. “The Black Clown” is a sharply relevant work of art that holds a mirror up to an ugly past that bears a disturbing resemblance to our present.

Like the poem, the show concludes with the ultimate act of rebellion. It isn’t until the very end that the Black Clown “tears off the garments \ That make [him] a clown.” In the most empowering moment of the show, he sheds the societal constraints put upon him, he renounces the degrading roles tasked to him. He will no longer be a black clown. In a final moment of defiance, he confidently declares, “I’m a man!”