The Lincoln Center Festival was a prominent summer festival here in New York, begun in 1996 and ended in 2017. The Mostly Mozart Festival has been around (in some form) since 1966. It is still going strong, and, in fact, stronger: because, when the Lincoln Center Festival folded, Mostly Mozart expanded—in duration and scope.
Last night, Mostly Mozart presented The Black Clown, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (part of John Jay College). What is it? What is The Black Clown? A musical, a pastiche, a revue? It’s hard to say. I will quote publicity material:
Fusing vaudeville, gospel, opera, jazz, and spirituals, The Black Clown brings Langston Hughes’s famed 1931 poem to life in a stunning new music-theater piece. Powerful and prescient, the experience of a Black man’s resilience against a legacy of oppression unfolds, featuring baritone Davóne Tines in the title role. He’s joined by an ensemble of 12 and a chamber orchestra performing a vibrant score by Michael Schachter.
There you have it. This is a good idea: a show based on a poem.
Our program booklet featured a warning, where the Hughes poem was printed: “Please Note: This work contains the use of a racial slur.” There was another warning—a fuller warning—elsewhere in the program: “Please Note: This production contains racial slurs and stylized representations of violence—particularly related to slavery—as well as haze and bright lights.”
Apparently, we are delicate flowers, contemporary Americans. It occurs to me that we are a nation both trigger-happy and triggerable.
The poem, “The Black Clown,” begins, “You laugh,/ Because I’m poor and black and funny—/ Not the same as you.” The show begins the same way: with those words.
As I listened, I thought of a song that Leontyne Price used to sing: “Minstrel Man,” by Margaret Bonds. The words begin,
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
This morning, I looked up that song. To my embarrassment—I’m sure I once knew—the poem it sets is by . . . Langston Hughes, who else?
In The Black Clown—the show, I mean—there is wonderful music. There are also longueurs, in my opinion. Some of the music is original, I gather, and some of it is arranged. A spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” is a high point. It’s amazing what can be done with so few words and so few notes.
One piece in the show, I objected to. It mocks the Emancipation Proclamation and emancipation itself. Lincoln is depicted on stilts, and he wears his big top hat. He is a figure of sport. Emancipation is a joke, you see: a mere prelude to lynching and Jim Crow. (A big noose is shown, just in case anyone misses the point.)
In my view, this does a profound injustice to emancipation, to Lincoln (who paid with his life, remember), and to the countless people to whom emancipation meant a great, great deal.
But does the piece—this part of the show—reflect the Hughes poem accurately? I don’t think so. But this is open to interpretation, and interpreters need to have their head.
The aforementioned Davóne Tines is the star of the show, and, last night, he performed in star-like fashion. But The Black Clown is very much an ensemble show. Moreover, each member of the ensemble has a star-like turn. There was not a weak link in the bunch.
Don’t forget the orchestra—which, under Jaret Landon, was spiffy.
Last but not least comes the production. Not least at all—maybe even most. The director is Zack Winokur, the choreographer Chanel DaSilva. At every turn, the stage looked fabulous, or, in any case, right. (You do not depict oppression with fabulousness.) Eye matched ear. This, in my opinion, is what productions in lyric theater—opera, Broadway, whatever—must aim for.