Portraying Langston Hughes in Theatre Lawrence show is ‘full-circle moment’ for KU professor and playwright
photo by: Theatre Lawrence
Langston Hughes has always been a part of playwright Darren Canady’s life, and now Canady is portraying him on stage in Theatre Lawrence’s latest production.
Canady, who is also an associate professor at the University of Kansas, remembers reading Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as a young boy growing up in Topeka. Canady said it “blew my mind” when his mother told him the poem was by a famous Black poet who grew up in Lawrence and Topeka.
“That left such an imprint. It really did just kind of blow me away, even then,” Canady said. “And so, this is a little bit of a full-circle moment in that respect.”
Canady is portraying Hughes in Theatre Lawrence’s production of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” which was recorded by the theater this past week and will be streamed virtually this weekend. The play, written by Carlyle Brown, is about Hughes’ experience being called before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations to answer questions about communist influences in his writing. The play’s title refers to what investigators on the committee called the “$64,000 question”: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”
Mary Doveton, executive director of Theatre Lawrence, said “it seemed like the stars were all coming together” when they settled on the production and the time frame for the show. Not only is February Black History Month, but the show will be streamed just a few days after Hughes’ birthday, Feb. 1.
“It was a play that was really, really interesting that I had not been familiar with before,” Doveton said. “We were able to get the rights, and what better time to do it than Langston Hughes’ birthday?”
photo by: Theatre Lawrence
“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” opens with a 40-minute monologue from Hughes the night before the committee meeting. Hughes is tense, because he recognizes the damage the hearing could do to his career, said Piet Knetsch, who is directing the play. The second act of the show is the actual committee meeting. Knetsch said that Brown, the playwright, went through the transcript of Hughes’ hearing with McCarthy and included information from that transcript in the show.
Canady doesn’t consider himself an actor, even though acting was how he first got involved in the theater as a child. He said he was approached for the role of Hughes by Doveton and Knetsch, and that part of the reason he took it was that he had met Brown and considered him a mentor.
And, of course, his connection to Hughes played a role. Canady has been working on a documentary on Hughes’ life for the past few years, and he doesn’t think it is a coincidence that Hughes keeps popping up in his life.
“(Hughes) just has always been there. And he continues to be there. I don’t think he’s going anywhere, apparently, as relates to me,” Canady said.
Doveton said that prior to the start of the production, slides would be shown with information about Hughes from the Watkins Museum of History. The pre-show programming will also include clips from a Zoom interview with Knetsch, Canady and Brown.
Brown told Knetsch that he planned to watch the show this weekend and that he enjoyed seeing his work interpreted in different ways, Knetsch said. Having the playwright watching the production doesn’t make Knetsch nervous, though.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Knetsch said.
For Knetsch, the show speaks to how easily the government can overstep its authority, abuse its power and destroy people’s lives. Canady said he believes Hughes’ character makes a compelling argument that art cannot be separated from politics, as art evolves out of the human experience. He also said he believes the show asks viewers to confront how the government treats its private citizens.
“We have to be thoughtful about how groupthink and being a marginalized person can easily set someone up to be a political target,” he said. “We have to create a space where dissent and where thinking about human interconnectedness is not automatically a sign of suspicion, which is part of why Langston was essentially on trial.”
The recorded performance of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” is streaming online this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Evening shows all three nights are at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. In addition to Canady, the show also includes Daniel Denton, Jim Tuchscherer, Dan Heinz, Michael Ostermann and Mario Bonilla. Tickets are $30 for an individual and $50 for a household and can be purchased online at theatrelawrence.com.