A Studio Theatre Production
March 20, 21 & 27, 28 - 8PM
March 22 - 2PM
When Langston Hughes returned from his assignment in Spain as a war correspondent, he told Louise Patterson of his idea for establishing a people's theatre. She suggested the hall of the International Workers Order (a leftist labor-cultural group) above Frank's Restaurant on 125th Street. This was the first home of the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, in 1937.
Named for its arena staging and lack of scenic properties, Suitcase Theatre was a peoples' theatre composed of amateur actors. The audiences were seventy-five per cent black; admission was thirty-five cents. The program was usually two or three short pieces; The Slave, or The Man Who Died at Twelve O'Clock, or several skits written by Mr. Hughes lampooning white chaicatures of blacks: Em-Fueher Jones, Limitations of Life, and Little Eva's End. The piece de resistance was always Don't You Want To Be Free? We had no play so the suggestion came up one evening as we were sitting there plotting the theatre, that Langston should do a play and why not a play of music-drama of many of his folk poems? So that he went home that night after we had had that discussion and sat up all night writing it and came back the next night with Don't You Want To Be Free? (from an interview with Louise Patterson by Norma Markman, 1969)
Although Suitcase Theater lasted only two years (it did not survive its transplant to the library basement on 135th Street) the idea of a Negro People's Theater spread to other cities. In March 1939, Mr. Hughes founded the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles.
The success of Don't You Want To Be Free?, which opened in February 1937 and ran for 135 performances, may be found in three factors: (1) the direct appeal to the problems of the audience (most businesses in Harlem were owned by whites and only one of every six employees of the businesses were black), (2) the simplicity and beauty of the poetry and songs, (3) the appeal to unite poor whites and blacks in a fight against exploitation by the rich.
Langston Hughes was so prolific that he seemed to be three-fourths print and one-fourth person. In reality, however, the man and his works were one. In his writing, Hughes tried almost every conceivable form men have used to arrange their words and thoughts on paper. Poems, songs, novels, plays, biographies, histories, and essays were the vehicles employed by him to communicate with his fellow men.
Known primarily as a poet, Hughes published many volumes of verse. Among them were Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, The Dream Keeper, Dear Lovely Death, Shakespeare in Harlem, Fields of Wonder, One Way Ticket, and Ask Your Mama. His novels were Not Without Laughter and Tambourines to Glory. For the theatre Langston Hughes wrote Scottsboro Limited and Mulatto; the later work was also staged as an opera, The Barries. In the field of biography Hughes books include Famous American Negroes, Famous Negro Heroes, and Famous Negro Music Makers. He also wrote books for juveniles and lyrics for William Grant Still, Elmer Rice, and Kurt Weill.
Langston Hughes was one of the most honored authors in America. He began by winning the Witter Bynner undergraduate prize for excellence in poetry for 1926. He was a Rosenwald and Guggenheim fellow, as well as a grantee of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1959 he received the Anisfield-Wolfe award and in 1960 he won the Spingarn Medal for contributions to the progress of the Negro.
A native of Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes has lived in many parts of the world including Haiti, Mexico, France, Italy, and Russia. No poet of the ivory tower, he worked as a busboy, clerk, cafe bouncer, and office boy with the Journal of Negro History. He was a part of the "Harlem Renaissance" and achieved a measure of fame during the twenties; however, he did not begin to depend on his writing for a living until 1930. He attended Columbia University (1920-21), obtained his B.A. from Lincoln University (1929), and lectured at schools and colleges before devoting full time to his chosen career.
The theme of his work was the common man, more specifically the ordinary Negro and his pleasures, joys and sorrows. Of the hundreds of poems written by him perhaps the best-known and most durable is The Negro Speaks of Rivers, part of which is reproduced below:
I have known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Why a play by Langston Hughes written in the 1930's? Surely this poet couldn't have written for the theatre. Well, at least not a play that would still be speaking to contemporary issues in America. But the play does speak to issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but are WE ready to speak to these issues yet! Will we ever really be ready to acknowledge these issues as the social ills that they are and work together for a cure?
Langston spoke to them in the 1930's. How about you? Are you speaking to them? Langston also saw unity and working together as part of the solution. How are you contributing to the solution.
Oh, I hope you enjoy the production as much as I enjoyed working with the students. Tonight's performance is the culmination of a process in which we worked and grew together.
Ron Himes, Saint Louis University Theatre Guest Director
Producing Director St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Return to The University Theatre 1997 - 1998 Season