CAMBRIDGE — When Davóne Tines was in fifth grade, he won a poetry reciting contest. The prize was a Langston Hughes collection called “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems.” As an African-American boy growing up in Virginia, it spoke to him. He saw himself in Hughes’s elegant verse.
Years later, he was fascinated by “The Black Clown.” Written in 1931, the poem contextualizes the African-American experience throughout the nation’s history, illustrating how a black man needs to subjugate his identity through clowning. “He shows what it is like to eke out one’s humanity in a way that still resonates today,” Tines says.
In 2010, Tines contacted his college classmate, the composer Michael Schachter. Both graduated from Harvard University in 2009 and had worked together on the American Repertory Theater’s Run AMOC! Festival in 2017. They decided to set the poem to music, working on and off on the project while building their careers. (Tines is an opera singer and Schachter is a composer and scholar). Now, eight years later, their musical adaptation is making its world premiere at ART, beginning previews Friday and running through Sept. 23.
The poem — subtitled “A dramatic monologue to be spoken by a pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown, to the music of a piano, or an orchestra” — is only two pages long. Its structure is unique: It is written in two separate columns. The first, called “The Mood,” gives instructions on how the words should be performed. The second, called “The Poem,” runs through history, from bondage (“A slave — under the whip,/ Beaten and sore”), to the Emancipation Proclamation, to Reconstruction, to the Harlem Renaissance.
The first lines set the tone: “You laugh/Because I’m poor and black and funny.” The collaborators decided from the beginning that they were only going to use the words of the poem — with the exception of incorporating spirituals cited in “The Mood” section (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”).
So how do you take a two-page poem and turn it into an 80-minute piece of musical theater?
“We wanted it to be more than just a song recital,” Schachter says. “We wanted to explode it in all directions to create the world of the poem.”
They showed the material to director Zack Winokur, co-director of the American Modern Opera Company and a colleague on the Run AMOC! Festival. A light bulb went off, and he signed on immediately. He envisioned the title character, played by Tines, beginning to speak the poem, followed by notes from a lone piano and then the full sound of an orchestra. Characters from 1931 Harlem appear, and then the piece moves back through history. “It is like an Alice in Wonderland feeling,” Winokur says. “Davóne falls further and further into the rabbit hole.”
Tines is onstage with an ensemble of 12 singers and dancers, who bring each era of history to life. The words are linked through movement, with choreography by Chanel DaSilva. “I dove into the language of movement in Harlem in the 1930s — Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers — to create the easy swagger of that time,” DaSilva says. She mixed it with her own 21st-century style, which she describes as earthy and grounded. The fusion, she says, mirrors the essence of the piece.
“I was interested in smashing together the opposing ideas of freedom, joy, spectacle, and oppression,” DaSilva says. “We talk about the Emancipation Proclamation. They were ‘freed.’ But what does that freedom mean? What does it mean today?”
The musical, by design, is also a collision of light and darkness. “There are moments of extreme exhilaration and joy, and there is also the truth of the darker parts of history,” Tines says.
The score is a blend of jazz, opera, gospel, and spirituals. It begins with a jumping jive, with jubilant dancers living it up. “There is also an ecstatic gospel moment,” Winokur says. “Hughes writes, ‘Look at the stars yonder/ Calling through time!’ We hope to be one of those stars.”
The collaborators say the piece moves from amusement to abasement and back again and that it takes place in four dimensions — given the time travel. The production, they say, mirrors that shift. “We start on a blank white page and end up in a technicolor sculpture, if that is the right word,” Tines says.
The entire creative team says the poem, although written 87 years ago, still resonates today. “There is this idea that we have moved forward, but have we?” DaSilva asks.
Yet the point is not to lecture, but to enable people to simply experience the poem, which is not one of the “famous” ones taught in every American literature survey class. “We did not want it to feel like preaching or finger-wagging,” Schachter says. “It should be fun, but with extreme darkness, so the audience is brought along as opposed to being moralized.”
“I hope the audience will leave totally transformed,” DaSilva says. “Some might ask questions. Some might be moved to tears. Some might feel uncomfortable. It is our job as artists to challenge society.”
To anyone familiar with the poem, the last line — “I’m a man!” — is one of affirmation and redemption. “In many ways, the point of the play is the point of the poem,” Winokur says. “It is about how to assert one’s humanity and identity in the face of derision and dehumanization. It is a cry for empathy.”
Tines, who has been thinking about this poem since he won that contest in elementary school, thinks Hughes would have been pleased to see it performed onstage. “He connected the past to his experience, and his experience connects to mine. I think he would be excited to know that people in 2018 can use his poem as a guide to understand their own existence and claim their own humanity.”
THE BLACK CLOWN
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Aug. 31-Sept. 23. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.