CAMBRIDGE — Though Langston Hughes’s poem “The Black Clown” was written in 1931, its words still sound with acute prescience in the America of 2018. Subtitled a “dramatic monologue,” its spare, short stanzas appear in parallel columns with a list of musical cues and snippets of stage directions. Now adapted for the stage by bass-baritone Davóne Tines and composer Michael Schachter, and directed by Tines’s American Modern Opera Company collaborator Zack Winokur, “The Black Clown” has made its grand entrance in a world premiere at the American Repertory Theater, with an opening night performance Wednesday that brought down the house.
Tines plays the titular character, surrounded by an exceptional all-black ensemble. The cast spun, stomped, and soared through songs of joy, grief, and rage with music and dancing that paid loving tribute to myriad black art forms and traditions. Schachter’s score follows Hughes’s directions in mood, drawing influence from New Orleans brass bands, jazz, swing, soul, gospel, blues, and the field hollers from which the blues sprouted. Chanel DaSilva’s choreography sent dancers strutting, struggling, and shimmying across the stage, with many a remarkable solo turn. High kicks and harmonies alike were tight and on point.
Tines’s star has been in rapid ascent in the past few years. He’s collaborated with composers including John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, and shaken local audiences with “Were You There,” his evening of song honoring black victims of police violence. In the program, the singer described reading Hughes’s poem as “receiving a revelation that gave name to the experience of my existence as a Black man in America that I had never been able to articulate . . . [The clown’s] forced role represents a wholesale relegation of Black existence to something less than human.”
With a stirring, clear, and versatile voice, Tines demanded that audiences think deeply about the words, and see the struggles he and other black Americans have faced and continue to because of the color of their skin. “Black — in a white world,” he sang.
The ensemble began the evening in exquisite vintage finery and ended up in modern street clothes, but this is no period piece. The more things change, it seemed to say, the more they stay the same.
Tines is an artist and entertainer by trade, but Hughes’s clown isn’t necessarily one; he’s forced into entertaining others as a way of life. Today, exaggerated, showy mannerisms are still intertwined in many facets of American culture. As writer Lauren Michele Jackson pointed out in a 2017 column for Teen Vogue, nonblack Twitter users often reach for gifs of black people — of which there are many — to humorously express extreme emotions. In Boots Riley’s recent film “Sorry to Bother You,” the black protagonist is pressured into performing a rap in front of an all-white crowd at his wealthy boss’s party. Not knowing what to do, he screams out the N-word to the beat, and the crowd eats it up. “You laugh — Because I’m poor and black and funny — Not the same as you,” writes Hughes. The black clown lives on.
The only laughter audible on Wednesday evening was someone’s quiet nervous chuckle in reaction to dancers using a giant noose as a jump rope during the simultaneously upbeat and disturbing “Freedom,” which began with genuine-seeming joy that was quickly dwarfed by grotesque, minstrel-esque accoutrements. If you’re white, expect to be made uncomfortable at some point. A scene depicting slavery put the ensemble in silhouette behind screens, their identities obliterated; later, Tines clung to a luminous white ladder that lowered him toward the ground faster than he could climb. Even in vibrant dance scenes, the border blurs between self-expression in community and commodification of culture as a means of survival.
Because so much conflict beat through the production, moments of meditation shone brightly. The show’s most searing moment was a devastating rendition of the spiritual “Motherless Child” that flickered to life after one of the darkest tableaux. As the ensemble processed into the aisle, the voices gradually joined in, interweaving and striving upward. During the long standing ovation that followed, an audience member leapt to her feet, waving her program in the air.
THE BLACK CLOWN
Adapted by Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter from the Langston Hughes poem. Music by Schachter. Directed by Zack Winokur. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through Sept. 23. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.