REVIEW: ‘LANGSTON HUGHES VS. JOE MCCARTHY’
at the 2017 Hamilton Fringe Festival
Ron Weihs’ play, ‘Langston Hughes vs Joe McCarthy,’ now gets a full production as part of the 2017 Hamilton Fringe Festival. This two man play digs deeply into a very dark period of American History that remains shameful to us today, although with the polarization and division in the United States in the era of Donald Trump, its relevancy is clear.
The script itself is based upon actual testimony given when Harlem poet Langston Hughes was called to testify before Congress during the Communist ‘witch hunts’ of the early 1950s.
Back then, anyone who had ties to socialism, communism or even just leftist sympathies were blacklisted, vilified and forced to recant their views. Many of the artists and writers who were called to testify, even some of those who attended and just used their constitutional right to plead according to the Fifth Amendment, were unable to find work in their fields afterwards; many committed suicide, moved abroad or even, worst of all, they named others in order to be exonerated. Uncooperative witnesses were imprisoned. Refusing to testify – to name names of others – created heroes such as the ‘Hollywood Ten’ which included Dalton Trumbo. We revere their courage to this day, as evidenced by the number of films, plays and books that remind us their story.
This is the era in which the play lives.
From the opening moments, tidying up his desk and organizing his thoughts for the session ahead, Howard Jerome as Senator Joe McCarthy drives this production with his articulate and persistent attacks. His voice has a wonderfully raspy quality to it, that got under your skin.
Called to testify is poet Langston Hughes (in this production played by the mercurial Learie McNicolls). He responds to McCarthy’s questioning by relating his experiences grown up in Missouri, and by sharing his poetry, he gives a basic lesson in creative writing and attempts to explain, correctly, that the narrative voice in a poem may not necessarily be the author’s own.
It is often hard to stage poetry. This production presents eighteen of Hughes poems as part of the story; they are presented as dance pieces, and slipped seamlessly into the dialogue of both actors. “A poem is not testimony” Hughes asserts, perhaps not, but it can convey truth and meaning.
We might wax nostalgic for a prosecutor who at least tries to establish actual facts in a legal case; in this our era of Trump’s 140 word ‘covfefe’ tweets, truth can be hard to find. But the agenda here is much the same, to silence those who do not subscribe to the politics of bigotry and hatred of the ‘other’.
An additional character is created in this production, by the use of very cleverly chosen period photographs. In the exact same way that carefully chosen music works to underscore a scene, the images presented behind the onstage action become a powerful commentary. They evoke the time, the place, and the people brilliantly.
A fine play, well staged, with a powerful message that is so important in our ‘here and now.’ What more could one ask for? A cool drink perhaps. This venue is licensed and you can enjoy a beer, or a glass of wine, while you watch.
— BRIAN MORTON, Contributor
‘Langston Hughes vs. Joe McCarthy’ (Artword Theatre, Hamilton)
Writer/Director: Ronald Weihs
Cast: Learie McNicolls and Howard Jerome