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You might already know that The Ways of White Folks, a co-presentation of EgoPo Classic Theater and Theatre in the X, has been sold out since it opened last Thursday. This show is easily the most buzzworthy piece of art in the city right now. Word of the production wild-fired through Philly with stories in almost every major media outlet (when is the last time you saw a playwright on the 6 o'clock news)? This love is organic and necessary and deserved.
When I agreed to write this review, I thought, Langston Hughes—he’ll never disappoint.
A few days later, I met a sweet-smelling man who told me he’d never seen a play in his life, and I invited him to come along as my date. I figured this would be very fun or very awkward.
It’s not too late
Even if you haven’t read this 1934 book of short stories, you’ve likely read something by Hughes; he promises and he delivers—in poems, fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, and now this unconventional experience, with scenes from his story collection reimagined into immersive theater. In it, tour guides lead audiences into different worlds happening in room after room of the Glen Foerd estate on the Delaware River, an eclectic Victorian mansion, which the production overlays with African masks and mudcloth and drumming and a gong.
My date showed up early. In my anxiousness (or foresightedness), I’d told him 6pm when the play started at 7pm, so we had the entire mansion to ourselves for almost an hour. He wore his best turn-of-the-century attire, a three-piece suit in muted earth tones, a pocket watch on his large lapel.
When we think of the Harlem Renaissance (the entire EgoPo/Theatre in the X season is dedicated to this theme, so even if you miss this show, be ready in April for Plum Bun), Langston Hughes is our guy. In her 1989 essay, Turning into Love: Some Thoughts on Surviving and Meeting Langston Hughes, Alice Walker said that Hughes, who mentored her (and so many of our other literary lighthouses including Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Margaret Walker), writes as a duty and a devotion. For that she asks, “How do we honor him?”
Walker shares that when she first met Hughes, she had never read a single one of his books and ignorantly told him so. Without reprimand or rejection, he handed her a stack and said it’s not too late. “There are not many people with that kind of grace,” Walker said. So if you haven’t read any of Hughes’s work, or just not enough, it’s ok. It is not too late.
Killing—and loving—the other
I knew the show would be Hughes, but I didn’t imagine Hughes like this. The Ways of White Folks brings together two directors, two theater companies, and two distinct racial groups—white folks and Black folks. And it doesn’t try to oversimplify the complexity of what it means to live with, work with, and sometimes fall in love with, people who you also somehow don’t like, kind of despise, and maybe even hate. The Ways of White Folks turns a sharpened eye onto the social dilemma of forced coexistence—beams a light at it, burns a hole through its soul—and asks what it's like living with, working with, and sometimes falling in love with “the other” today, a hundred years after Hughes’s Harlem.
I may have loved the show too much. I can’t stop thinking about it and telling people about what it was like to have a monologue performed by three men, sometimes speaking in chorus, so close you can reach out and touch them. One of the men, sickly, coughing, and unkempt, lies before us dying in his bed. My sweet-smelling date’s eyes swell in awe or disgust or a bit of both—not at the dying violinist—but at a society willing to kill a classically trained musician because he attempted to shake the wrong woman’s hand.
I can’t stop talking about Ontaria Kim Wilson, who co-directed (with Dane Eissler) and co-starred in this production. She delivers a piece on motherhood in the mansion’s makeshift kitchen. After offering us fresh-baked cookies, she laments the loss of children and the finding of oneself—under a single light, sometimes breaking the fourth wall and then putting it right back up again. In less than 10 minutes, I am broken—a cracked egg on her kitchen floor. So close, we make eye contact and she must see the tears streaming down my cheeks. My date puts his arms around my shoulder and squeezes, a gentle and welcome reprieve.
This is theater
The Ways of White Folks is alive and stimulating and moving and freeing and challenging in all of the right ways. “This is theater?” my date asked innocently as we traversed through the Glen Foerd mansion from library to living room, from basement to backyard. “THIS IS IT!” I said smiling and with a whisper. “But broken down, torn apart, and sewn back together as it should be from time to time.”
By the end of the evening, I was first in line to buy a copy of the book that inspired the show, but my sweet-smelling date insisted he wanted to buy it for me. I told him to ask Wilson to sign it, and she said yes, writing “Thank you, Jeannine for your support.” Wilson, thank you, my friend.
Without a doubt, Philly is having her own renaissance and Wilson has channeled Hughes to help her lead it. My hope is that funders and patrons take note from the show’s sponsors, Dr. Joel and Bobbie Porter, and build on this momentum.
But the big question is will there be a date number two? Regardless, I found love.
What, When, Where
The Ways of White Folks. Based on the stories of Langston Hughes, conceived for the stage by Lane Savadove; directed by Ontaria Kim Wilson and Dane Eissler. $15-$36. Through January 22, 2023, at Glen Foerd, 5001 Grant Avenue, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
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