On Nov. 5, Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré broadcast online a live performance of poetry, which was originally curated by Arna Bontemps, a prominent Harlem Renaissance writer and a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, in his 1954 spoken word album An Anthology of Negro Poets. Bontemps’ collection was adapted for the stage by director Kenna Moore of New Orleans.
Thomas Edison is said to have conducted over 6,000 unsuccessful experiments before landing on the material most optimally suited as filament in what would become the incandescent electric lightbulb. By contrast, it took Kenna J. Moore, associate artistic director of Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, and her honor roll of ingenious collaborators, exactly one try to rekindle the lights of live theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic with a formal innovation described by her as a “theatre/cinema hybrid.”
Inside Le Petit, the historic playhouse that’s been a mainstay of live theatre in New Orleans since 1922, two Ninja-like cameramen trail five actors on the stage, into the pit, the house, up and down the stairwells, to the Romeo and Juliet balcony and the alleyway leading to the street. The spatial exploration reminds us, if we’ve forgotten, that the theatre, however we can access it, is vital for our communion with the essential human work of the dramatic arts.
Because of the show’s witty pleasures and skillful performances, our longing to return to the bricks and mortar theatre becomes intertwined with another longing— that the truths of Black experience be waiting for us whenever we do get back inside.
A half hour in duration, this show begins with a youthful Langston Hughes hovering over a turntable, languidly spinning a jazz fanfare in a shadowy upstage corner of the proscenium, placing and lifting the stylus on the vinyl, starting the trumpets and silencing them to allow the words of his poem to take up where the music leaves off.
He recites The Negro Speaks of Rivers into a standing microphone with a shock mount attachment, giving voice to “Negro poetry” as a bold speech act. As he orates, thinking and smiling as the words form on his lips, this lover of wordsmithery seductively invites us to wade and float into this material, to let it lift and carry us.
The set brightens from sienna and ochre earth tones to the amber of crystallized fossils containing ancient DNA, which in the instance of the poem, holds the memory of the watery transfer of Black bodies from the African continent to the diaspora, and specifically to New Orleans. Our journey has begun at the beginning and landed us where we actually are.
The adaptation for the digital moment was dictated by the necessity of a still advancing pandemic,* which has been so tragically lethal to Louisiana’s Black communities. Offered as medicine for healing, Moore’s hybrid delivers much of the experience, excitement and unpredictability of live performance, but with the enhanced visual intimacy and framing made possible by cinema.
She says she was inspired by Birdman, a film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, in which cameras follow Michael Keaton around a theatre where he’s rehearsing a farce that becomes a fiasco. Earlier in the season, Goat in the Road Productions presented The Uninvited, an immersive theatrical experience in which audience members followed the actors in and around the historic Gallier house, located not far from Le Petit. In that experimental production we were both the camera and camera operator, directing our own participation, entrusted with the exercise of our own autonomy to define our vantage point and level of engagement: A rare and liberating experience in a theatre or any public space for that matter.
Lit with densely saturated jewel-toned color designed by director of photography Nick Shamblott, and undergirded by an original soundscape composed by Ghazi Gamali–by turns exuberant and hauntingly unsettling–Moore’s staging of the Anthology channels the intellectual prowess of revered and beloved writers in the Black literary pantheon, five urbane poets of the Chicago and Harlem Renaissances.
Langston Hughes (born Feb. 1, 1902?, Joplin, Missouri—died in New York City, May 22, 1967)
Claude McKay (born Sep. 15, 1889, Nairne Castle, Jamaica, British West Indies—died in Chicago, May 22, 1948)
Sterling Brown (born May 1, 1901, Washington, D.C.—died Jan. 13, 1989, Takoma Park, MD)
Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1950 (born June 7, 1917, Topeka, Kan.—died in Chicago, Dec. 3, 2000), and
Margaret Walker (born July 7, 1915, Birmingham, AL, U.S.—died in Chicago, Nov. 30, 1998)
The production also structures their work in a narrative theatrical expedition, both supple and open-ended, which as it progresses becomes a dialectic getting at the relationships between metaphor, motion and movement building as Black American history continues to be uncovered and freed from white nationalist mythologies. It’s an urgent project.
People die in these poems, lives are lost; we’re told of a British soldier who falls on the Russian front in 1944 with one of Claude McKay’s poems in his uniform’s pocket. On his knees, in a Jamaican lilt, McKay reads:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
Breaking down, he tears up the poem and collapses in grief for his lost reader and for a human race so easily programmed toward its own destruction. Moore says she understood actor Renaldo McClinton’s bold choice as McKay repudiating a “success” he would rather not have had. It is an emotional climax of the play.
Moore luckily found Arna Bontemps’ 1954 album of curated recordings made during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, a Smithsonian Folkways release, at an estate sale in Uptown New Orleans. It’s hard to resist an almost metaphysical sentiment that the treasure was waiting for her, that the record itself wished to exert its agency in order to go home with this very filmmaker: an LSU graduate with a degree in theatre, who holds a coveted artistic leadership role in one of the South’s most distinguished professional theatres, and who also brings to this work a keen and unapologetic sensibility in matters of racial justice.
Using about half of the material Bontemps presented, the show’s sequence is: The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes; The Tropics in New York by Claude McKay; Long Gone by Sterling Brown; A Song in the Front Yard by Gwendolyn Brooks; I, Too by Langston Hughes;If We Must Die by Claude McKay; The Preacher Ruminates by Gwendolyn Brooks; Old Molley Means by Margaret Walker; Ma Rainey by Sterling Brown; and For My People by Margaret Walker.
Bontemps, who was himself a poet from Alexandria, Louisiana turned Harlem librarian, writes in his instructive liner notes that the poems seemed to him “written for the ear rather than the eye.”
The poems function theatrically like monologues in a pared down play that we ourselves can supplement and embellish in our imaginations. In mine, The Anthology of Negro Poets became in part a play about an irrepressible theatre in the French Quarter, too long shuttered by a pandemic, where past productions echo, reverberate and inform each other, like it or not. Where we’re in the presence of an augmented reality in which our attention is the only technology required to trip the invisible waves and activate other less obvious dimensions that become newly apparent and accessible.
Though Sterling Brown’s character is the only one about to board a train with a loosened necktie and an open bottle of hooch, Tierra Patterson’s beautifully tailored period costumes suggest comfort, ease and freedom of movement, suitable for travel between states but also states of mind—curiosity, transgression, accursedness. Thoughtful attention to sartorial details is rewarded with potential clues to the characters’ psychology, motivations and preoccupations: Was a beige beret for Brooks a nod to the self-described Chicago housewife’s desire to discover the European capitals or bohemian lifestyles in the world beyond her front porch? Were the suspenders for Hughes meant to draw attention to the broad shoulders on which contemporary poets like Carl Williams and Jericho Brown so stolidly stand? Were the wide cuffs on McKay’s trousers a visual pun commenting on how his poems in particular fold us back into memory, while cuffing to puncture a prevalent willful blindness to Black experience?
The kind of obliviousness that affords a white arsonist in Landry Parish a privilege of deep ignorance so profound that he can burn three Black churches and absurdly assert he did it because they were made of wood, and not because they were houses of worship for Black Lousianians?
The poems are from two generations ago; their work to verbally crystallize and cauterize the many wounds not yet allowed to heal is clearly not complete. Their creators were closer to the historical experience of the Jim Crow South, the Great Black Migration to the North, and the precursory beginnings throughout American cultural discourse that Black is indeed beautiful, an irrefutable aesthetic fact furthered by the production of this remarkable show by Black makers.
Moore makes us aware, in a video montage that begins after the first stanza of the final poem, Walker’s For My People, of the ways in which the atrocities and triumphs of the past have shaped the current context of the Floyd rebellion and the unstoppable movement for Black lives. The klieg lights fade to dark on a powerful stage picture of all five poets standing together (proximate, but safely at a distance) as Walker unveils her face as well as her innermost self to declaim her secular prayer, which ends:
…Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.
If you missed the live broadcast of the show on Nov. 5th, tickets to screen the video recording are still available at the theatre’s website.
The honor roll:
- Justin William Davis as Langston Hughes
- Renaldo McClinton as Claude McKay
- Tommye Myrick as Margaret Walker
- Constance Thompson as Gwendolyn Brooks
- LeBaron Thorton as Sterling A. Brown
- Original Curation by Arna Bontemps
- Directed by Kenna J. Moore
- Production Manager: James Lanius III
- Stage Manager: Kit Sternberger
- Director of Photography: Nick Shamblott
- Camera Operator: Zuri Obie
- Sound and Video Design: Ghazi Gamali
- Props and Costumes: Tiera Patterson
*A COVID officer monitored the health and safety of the participants over the three day rehearsal period ensuring that no theater artists, essential workers to a one, were harmed in the show’s making.
Images from the production courtesy of Le Petit Theater