Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Playwright Carlyle Brown depicts Hughes the night before he is to testify, looking back on his life to that point and trying desperately to write a poem that crystallizes his beliefs, followed by a nightmarish look at the hearing where he testified. The heightened atmosphere comes not just from Naylor's simmering performance, but also from the presence of five other performers who both play major roles and serve as phantoms in Hughes' mindand from the fluid direction of Thomas W. Jones II, who keeps everything in constant motion.
Brown allows Hughes' own words to speak for him throughout, set to an affecting blues and jazz score by William Knowles (who also performs live on keyboard). The poems, acted out and embodied by the performers, recount the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and, later, the poet's political consciousness.
The first half of the production is sensuous and seductive as the actors slink and sway and Hughes' words swirl in Robbie Hayes' projections on screened panels. In the second half, set in a surreal version of a Senate hearing room, the projections become more realistic while the activity becomes more threatening.
As Hughes attempts to testify, the other performers converge on him and chase him around the stage, led by lawyer Roy Cohn (a totally convincing performance by Marni Penning). They quote from Hughes' more political works and accuse him of writing anti-American screeds rather than "propagandizing the American way of life" as he should.