The Black Clown
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Mass., (617) 547-8300
The 1931 Langston Hughes poem that inspired this exuberant new musical is far from a relic, said Zoë Madonna in The Boston Globe. “Its words still sound with acute prescience in the America of 2018,” reminding us that the culture still pressures black Americans to assume the role of entertainers, and often to play the clown. Davóne Tines, the show’s librettist and star, worked with composer Michael Schachter to create a show that pays loving tribute to many black musical traditions, yet often emphasizes the blurred line between black self-expression and the need to commodify such arts to survive. With his “stirring” voice, Tines takes the lead in asking audiences to think harder about that line, while the show’s exceptional ensemble spins and stomps through “songs of joy, grief, and rage.” The effect is electrifying: After a “devastating” rendition of the 19th-century spiritual “Motherless Child,” the opening-night audience leaped to its feet.
“A future production might make better use of its performers by cutting down on the razzle-dazzle,” said Robert Israel in ArtsFuse.org. The show is by necessity a study in contrasts, but its “ferocious itch to entertain doesn’t give us time to reflect on the shadows.” Still, “there are many indelible moments.” In one dance sequence, the performers throw off their chains as if they were “as light as feather boas.” Later, a ladder descends from on high but proves impossible to climb. Though at times the sting of Hughes’ message is blunted by the production’s showbiz flourishes, The Black Clown “expresses the longing of many who yearn to be respected in a land that promises equality but cruelly withholds it.” ■