A Multitude of Voices

AUG 24, 2018

An interview with The Black Clown Co-Adaptors Davóne Tines and Michael Schachter

Davóne Tines is an internationally acclaimed bass-baritone who originated the role of Freddie Stowers in Crossing, which premiered in the A.R.T.’s 2014/15 Season and was featured in the Brooklyn Academy of Musics 2017 Next Wave Festival. Michael Schachter is a composer, pianist, and scholar whose music has been commissioned and performed by ensembles around the country. In this interview, A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick talks with them about adapting Langston Hughes’ poem “The Black Clown” for the world premiere production at the A.R.T.

Langston Hughes published “The Black Clown” in 1931. What drew you to the poem, and how does it speak to you today?

Davóne Tines: When I first read “The Black Clown” it was like 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. I identified with this clown whose forced role represents a wholesale relegation of Black existence to something less than human, a farce of a being, a fool only playing at being real. Hughes names this existence, then situates it within the larger context of history to show that the oppression of the present is inextricably linked to the failures of the past. Hughes’ clown is able to transcend his oppression by calling on the strength and spirit of his entire ancestry.  He connects to a greater mandate from all of time and the universe that humanity is inexorably his to claim. This was a story I knew I needed to live and relive and share.


Davóne Tines and the cast of The Black Clown in rehearsal.


How did you two start working together on this project?

DT: I was singing for the choir of The National Shrine in Washington, DC. It’s a Catholic church with a professional choir, and they sing a lot of beautiful, old liturgical music.  It was not the most inspiring job in terms of personal connection. So I sent Mike a note saying I really want to sing something that I feel deeply connected to. Not something that is just beautiful in an aesthetic way or wonderful in its artistic merits, but something that I feel a personal connection to expressing. So we started on this journey of what it would be to realize Langston Hughes’ words in song.

Where did you first encounter the poem?

Michael Schachter: Davóne and I had been talking about Hughes years earlier when we were undergraduates together at Harvard, and when I got his email from church I flipped through a collection of Hughes’ poems that my then-girlfriend, now-wife had given me. I was struck by two things about “The Black Clown.” The first was its immediacy—it seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The word choices, the issues Hughes writes about, the false promise of what freedom means to marginalized Others in this country seemed just as palpable in 2010 as they did in 1931—and I would argue even more palpable in 2018. And the second thing that struck me was the poem’s experimental form. On the right side of the page, Hughes wrote the poetic text, “THE POEM,” and on the left side he wrote an italicized side bar, “THE MOOD,” in which he explicitly described an imagined dramatic presentation with musical accompaniment. So it felt like this project would be fulfilling something that was originally envisioned by its creator. We were really struck by the form of the poem, which partly came out of Hughes’ frequenting the speakeasies in Harlem at the time and seeing spoken word performances.

Early on in the development of this piece you were thinking about the presence of a chorus, and one of the central elements of this production is a twelve-member ensemble. Why was the idea of a chorus important to you, and what role does the ensemble play in the show? 

MS: In the poem, Hughes fleshes out his character by connecting his feeling of himself with the experiences of a multitude. So we thought that it was crucial to animate that in the show with the interplay of one voice and many voices. And sonically it just enriches the experience.


Michael Schachter and Davóne Tines in a developmental workshop for The Black Clown.


DT: The “Black experience” is very complex because it’s the meeting point of a multitude of things. It’s not one idea; it’s not one way of being or having been present in this country; and it can’t be explained or expressed as a monolith. We have other people in the show to reveal different facets of what it is to exist in this context. Langston Hughes was deeply a people person and interacted with a multitude of the movers, shakers, and makers of his day, especially in Harlem. His work catalogues the brilliance and complex humanity of the people around him. So the character of the Black Clown, in bringing this poem to life, activates a symbolic multitude of voices of people who have traveled these paths and are also on this journey along with him in order to further explicate it.

Davóne, could you describe the work that choreographer Chanel DaSilva has been doing in the rehearsal room with you and the ensemble? What’s it been like to work with her?

DT: It’s been amazing working with Chanel because she really is able to activate through movement the complexity of the idea of what it is to joyfully express oneself, but then also enact other aspects of life that are atrocities or byproducts of oppression. For example, one of the big numbers, “Freedom,” is an honest engagement of the promise of emancipation, expressed as real exuberance of what that moment could have been: you are here in this country; so many things of a terrible sort have happened; and now we can actually celebrate. And through many different styles of dance—whether that’s the cakewalk or the jitterbug or tap—we can joyously and directly celebrate. And then she’s able to shade that through movement and ideas that subvert that joy.

Mike, what musical traditions have you drawn from and been inspired by in composing the score? What instruments are you using in the orchestra?

MS: The blues is a major influence. In certain moments I made references in both the music and the orchestrations to performers from the Harlem Renaissance, specifically Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith. “Three Hundred Years” is set as a work song, and “Say to All Foemen,” which is an exuberant, uplifting number towards the end, is set as a gospel number. Other songs come from New Orleans second line, the spiritual tradition, and Black choral traditions from the late-nineteenth into much of the twentieth century. The orchestra is modeled on the theater orchestras that were common in the 20s and 30s. So it has three reed players who are doubling on flutes, clarinets, and saxophones; two trumpets; a trombone; a pianist, Jaret Landon, who is also the conductor and Music Director of the show; and a rhythm section of bass, tuba, drums/percussion, and banjo.

Is there anything you’ve been reading or watching recently that’s inspired your thinking about the show?

MS: Most recently Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America,” which was deeply troubling for the violence it portrayed, and also fascinating for how he used music and very distinct cuts between different styles and sonic palettes to amplify and illustrate that. Also, the podcast Still Processing, with Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham at the New York Times, which examines critical approaches to what it means to be an American through the lens of race and from the perspective of Black America.

DT: In terms of popular culture, the film Get Out is a very strong touchstone for a character who is finding themself in the context of a trap and trying to escape it. Similarly, the Black Clown character finds themself in the trap of the ongoing trajectory of oppression of Black people in America, and finds a way to escape it by connecting to the strength and legacy of his community.

Interview by Ryan McKittrick, A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg.


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