There has been a bit of a hullabaloo the past couple weeks on social networking sites and in the media over the announcement of the Guthrie Theater's 50th anniversary season. Criticisms have stemmed from the lack of playwrights and directors who are female or of color in the upcoming season.
While the Guthrie may have a long way to go before it reaches a diversity of voices that matches our state as a whole, it should be noted that this week quietly marks the opening of Carlyle Brown's Are You Now or Have You Ever Been... about the Langston Hughes's McCarthy trials, while Penumbra Theater's production of The Amen Corner is in previews. So if you haven't written off the Guthrie entirely, this would be a chance to show support of the theater for presenting this kind of work.
Carlyle Brown, fresh from the recent run of his play American Family at Park Square, says that Langston Hughes, "the original jazz poet," has always been an inspiration for him. But there has been a fear preventing him from using Hughes in his own work.
Part of the difficulty was that Brown felt that Hughes's writings were too close to home for him. Hughes is often used in pieces about the difficulties and uncertainties in a writer's life, just as Brown faced many similar uncertainties, going through periods where "the money wasn't coming in."
However, in recent years, Brown has enjoyed some success, and he says he wrote Have You Now or Have You Ever Been... during a year when he had a number of commissions coming in, and felt that a play about Hughes was "something I wanted to expunge."
Aside from centering on the McCarthy hearings and its impact on artists, the play also focuses on the relationship between "the artist and his work," Brown says. Hughes's licensed work appears in the play as the character of Langston is distracted by a poem he is writing. This reflection on "a poem in the making," acts as a meditation on how the artist is "in some way separate from his writing," Brown says. The artist becomes a conduit, and a work of art is seen as "a living organism."
Photo by Carl Van Vechten
Brown believes that the current political climate makes it an ideal time to present the play. Just as the McCarthy era of the 1950s was a period of repression and suppression, today politicians also use language that consists of dualities where only two choices are presented. Artists are suppressed under such conditions, Brown says.
For research, Brown studied the Senate-committee transcripts, and had some help from Macalester history professor Peter Rachleff, who plays McCarthy in the show. Rachleff created a research guide that included other snippets of testimony from artists such as Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht.
Brown says he's using the play to look at the nuance and complexities that artists grapple with. For example, Langston Hughes's relationship with the Communist Party (he was never an official member) is a complex one, and to understand it you need to understand the social and political forces of the period. At the time, "there were no white people who did anything for social justice for black people, except the communists," Brown says. More broadly, Brown says the play illuminates the relationship between the citizen and the government.
As for the recent outcry about the lack of diversity in the Guthrie's season next year, Brown reflects that much of the work that people are expecting the Guthrie to do is already being done very well by other companies, such as Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Mu Performing Arts, and so forth. "If the Guthrie isn't used to doing diverse plays, what makes us think they can do it well?" he asks.
Taking the longer view, Brown says, "the world is changing. The white guys are going to go away anyway. Audiences are changing. The whole thing is going to take care of itself."