Early on in Carlyle Brown's exploration of Langston Hughes and his testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations (the Joseph McCarthy-led anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s), the poet notes that the subpoena he received left the reason for the "invitation" blank. He knows that it boils down to his writing, especially his poetry. He's been asked before a congressional committee to explain and defend being a poet.
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been..., presented at the Guthrie by the playwright's own Carlyle Brown & Company, essentially puts the writer's life and essential act of creation on trial, not just from McCarthy and his cronies but the harshest judge of all — the writer himself.
Brown's probing, deep, and rich work never attempts to truly answer the question at the core of the play, but it does provide a springboard for a conversation — one that mainly involves Hughes and his thoughts. In a move that could easily provide a turgid, didactic evening, Brown leaves the actor playing Hughes alone onstage for the first two-thirds of the play, sharing his thoughts on life and writing with us, the audience.
How well it works is a testament to the script and an absolutely arresting performance by Gavin Lawrence as Hughes. The cliché is that in a one-person show, you forget that there is just a single actor. Here, for the first hour of the show, you are always aware of just the one person, but Lawrence so fully inhabits Hughes that you could listen to him talk — about the writing process, his life, his experiences as a black man in early 20th-century America — for hours. And the moments when Hughes's poetry comes out are just magical, as the jazz rhythms and probing text merge with Lawrence's terrific performance.
You can also give plenty of credit to director Noel Raymond and the overall design, which isolates the actor but nicely illustrates the rich, creative world inside of his head.
We open on Hughes alone in his apartment. It is late night or early morning, and the floor around him, clichéd enough, is full of discarded starts of his current poem. Through the play, when inspiration strikes, the character will stop for a few moments and type up new lines or revisions of the piece, which will eventually grow into "Georgia Dusk."
Through this long night, Brown and Lawrence probe into the man behind the words, uncovering the layers of his creative process and political views along the way. Alone with his thoughts, Hughes certainly is confident that he is part of a longstanding conversation between the writer and audience, but the exact nature of that is slippery. He may be confused and conflicted, but Hughes is also free in his musings.
The shift comes in the final third, when the rest of the cast join in: Hughes's attorney (played by the playwright himself) and four members of the committee, led by a mostly silent McCarthy and his favorite bulldog, Roy Cohn. Here, the rich confusion of writing fiction and poetry — where holding multiple points of view at all times is essential — comes head to head against the black-and-white world of a U.S. Senate committee. They aren't interested in nuanced looks at the experience of race in America or the complex satire of "Goodbye Christ," just whether or not he believed in radical pursuits, was antireligious, and had been a member of the Communist Party.
Lawrence continues to work the stage like a master, showing us the complex character at the heart of Hughes, bringing out the confusion and building anger of a character who is being badgered with excerpts of his life's work by people who are not interested at all in any of his thoughts, just that he act like a good, upstanding American.
Much of this comes from Cohn, played by John Middleton (his second slimy character in one of Brown's plays this spring). Like the rest of the tribunal, Cohn is a bogeyman for Hughes — the voice of a conservative who wants to stamp out anything that doesn't fit into his view. Middleton does what he has to here, making Cohn a man who honestly thinks he is doing what is best for the country. The same goes for the other three actors, Steve Hendrickson, Matt Rein, and Peter Rachleff. Tellingly, the stage is set up in such a way that Lawrence never looks at them. Even before the committee, the debate rages on as much in his head as in the outside world.