In May 2003, several volumes of closed-door testimony from Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations were released. These executive sessions laid the groundwork for the public McCarthy hearings and the House Un-American Activities Committee that would ruin many lives during the height of the Red Scare. Poet Langston Hughes was among those interviewed by the subcommittee. The University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players audio production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been… brings this event to life in an exploration of truth, authorship, and suppression.
Soliloquy and testimony
Carlyle Brown’s play is a disjointed piece that nevertheless works well in this audio format. The first half of the play is a fictionalized account of Langston Hughes (René Thornton, Jr.) the night before his hearing. Hughes talks about his upbringing, his often-fraught relationship with other figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and his anxiety about appearing before the committee. Weaving poetry by Hughes and others into the internal monologue, Brown fleshes out the literary world that the poet represents and hints at the nervous collage of thoughts racing through his head. Despite some at times overwrought speculative writing, Thornton captivates listeners during the long soliloquy.
The second half of the play is taken mostly verbatim from the transcripts of the hearing. The exchanges are highly dramatic. As McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn (Lee Ernst), probes Hughes with questions, it is a wonder to see how the poet stands his ground without incriminating himself. This sparring match is the highlight of the production. Thornton and Ernst are joined by Michael Gotch and Mic Matarrese as the senators on the committee. Director Hassan El-Amin plays Hughes’s lawyer.
El-Amin’s solid production benefits from the effective sound design of Eileen Smitheimer. His decision to have two actors, Elizabeth Heflin and Kathleen Pirkl Tague, read the stage directions and the poetry was distracting at first, but I came to appreciate the world they wove together through artful description.
While the poetry, monologue, and testimony might seem strange bedfellows, the power of Langston Hughes’s language makes this audio play a success. This format also allows El -Amin to avoid the problem of staging an hour-long monologue interspersed with poetry, and a 30-minute committee meeting in which all members remain seated. The action of this real-world drama occurs in the dueling rhetoric of Hughes and Cohn. REP should be commended for its smart curation of a piece for this tricky format.
Image description: A collage has a color image of a red, white, and blue American flag on the left, and a black-and-white photo of Langston Hughes’s face on the right.