Jordan Barbour, Jonathan Burke, Francesca Harper, LaTrisa Harper, Dell Howlett, Krisha Marcano, Kenita Miller, Okieriete Onaodowan, Josh Tower, Gayle Turner, Glenn Turner, C. Kelly Wright
Every now and then a show off-Broadway comes along and inspires the audience. Langston in Harlem is one such rare shows. It entertains, informs, and pulls you emotionally into new experiences. This is a world premiere that people will be talking about for a long time to come.
Langston Hughes was a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, the period of new modes of expression in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. Langston was the master of spoken word poetry, predating current trends in both slam poetry and rap. This show has taken Langstons poetry and set much of it to music of the period; blues, jazz and gospel.
But Langston in Harlem is much more than Langston Hughes words set to music. It uses his work to trace the arc of his life Langston matures in Harlem and sees both the community’s growth and its containment. He transforms emotionally from a state of wide-eyed wonder, eventually embodying empathy, anger, revolt and finally acceptance, all in the space of less than two hours.
The show is the sum of so many wonderful performances it seems wrong to highlight just a few, but there are some real standouts in this cast of excellent performers. Josh Tower is a stage veteran that brings to his Langston Hughes a humanity, joy and sense of wonderment that keeps the emotional heart of this play beating loudly. The character does hit some dark moments late in the show, but Mr. Towers spoken word rendition of I Am A Negro pulls the anger and angst into raw feelings that everyone can understand.
C. Kelly Wright as Madam and Kenita Miller as Zora are both given the opportunity to shine in individual numbers, and shine they do. With both faces and voices that rend at your heart, these characters anchor Langston and the audience in the moment. These two ladies stand out, but there isnt a bad performance in the show.
The simple set at Urban Stages is augmented wonderfully by amazing lighting design by William H. Grant III and by projections designed by Alex Koch. Walter Marks provided most of the music for Hughes’s lyrics, and the musical choices are excellent, highlighting the words appropriately.
The direction by Kent Gash is excellent, keeping the show moving swiftly early and then giving some time for the more complex emotions to shine through late in the show. Mr. Gash also uses spoken word poetry sparingly but effectively to show Mr. Hughes’s genius.
Langston in Harlem often reminds one of Aint Misbehavin’, sharing a similar style of music, but where Aint Misbehavin’ shined was in showcasing the music of Fats Waller, Langston in Harlem shines by reflecting our lives and dreams in the passionate words of Langston Hughes.