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Review: ‘Are you now, or have you ever been…’ at MetroStage

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In the current political zeitgeist, which includes Russian hackers manipulating opinion through Facebook ads, playwright Carlyle Brown’s Are you now, or have you ever been… is germane to the truism that paranoia and fear of “the other” is a recurring theme in the civic arena. With crisp direction by Thomas W. Jones II and original, fervent blues music by William Knowles, MetroStage’s Are you now, or have you ever been… is stage poetry—full of motion, history and music.

The musical examines incomparable Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) as he composes a poem on the eve of his March 24, 1953 appearance before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Music, singing, and a sharp, stomping choreography (created by the Helen Hayes-nominated Jones) was added in this second production of Brown’s play, making it a dynamic ode to a Hughes few of us knew certain details about. (We learn among other bits of trivia, that he was hired by a company in the Soviet Union as a screenwriter.)

Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes in Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… Photograph by Chris Banks.

The sheer beauty of how this show wove Hughes’ poetry onto the stage, both technically, through the use of projection onto five scrims, and through its performances, was breathtaking. Projection Designer Robbie Hayes used those scrims to dial up everything from Harlem brownstones, the U.S. Capitol, and Hughes’ in-motion, typewritten words.

What enthralling words they were. A common refrain throughout the musical were lines from Hughes’ poem “Georgia Dusk”:

“Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk

That cries and cries and cries

It’s lonely pity through the Georgia dusk

Veiling what the darkness hides”

The performances were precise perfection. Marcus Naylor’s Hughes portrayed an artist of color with the troubles of the world on his mind. Naylor powerfully brought the emotional heart of Hughes poetry to life when he explained the intent of Hughes poems in his testimony scenes. (His poem “Goodbye, Christ” was an attack on organized religion, not Christ.) Naylor, who has a good physical similarity to Hughes, was also able to evoke the responsibility Hughes must have felt to stare down McCarthyism. “When writers go, society starts to go. We are the canaries in the coal mine.”

In a bit of cross-gender casting, two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Marni Penning played the infamous Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy’s red-baiting right hand. Penning’s scenes with Naylor were some of the most absorbing I’ve seen this year. The questions Cohn came up with in his back-and-forth with Hughes reminded me of the recent McCarthyism-themed film Trumbo.

Michael Sharp, Wood Van Meter, Josh Taylor, Marcus Naylor, Marni Penning, Russell Sunday. Photograph by Chris Banks

Wood Van Meter, who played McCarthy’s consultant G. David Schine, displayed excellent vocals in the various poems-set-to-songs, including “Georgia Dusk”. Van Meter looked especially crisp in his double-breasted suit, thanks to Costume Designers Sigridur Johannesdottir and Michael Sharp (who is also in the cast).

Russell Sunday brought a studious officiousness to his role as Senator Everett Dirksen. His proverbially nose-to-nose scenes with Naylor were dynamite. Sunday has appeared at MetroStage in Closer Than Ever and Broadway Christmas Carol.

Hughes’ NAACP affiliated, Washington, D.C. lawyer Frank D. Reeves was played with a steady professionalism by Josh Thomas. Helen Hayes Award Winner Sharp, though only present as McCarthy in a few moments on stage, was powerful as the senator.

The use of rolling lecterns to simulate the U.S. Senate floor, and Hughes’ rolling desk were minimalist masterstrokes by Set Designers Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan. Helen Hayes winning Music Director Knowles’ keyboard skills made Hughes’ poetry sing. Jones, who excelled in directing Blackberry Daze, excelled directing this show as well. Are you now, or have you ever been… is an immersing look at a controversial time in American history, an incredibly acted exhibition of personal and political drama.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Are you now, or have you ever been… plays through November 5, 2017 at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.

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