Since today is the first day of Black History Month as well as Langston Hughes' birthday, it's the perfect day to make Langston Hughes our playwright of the day.
There is so much history and context behind Hughes' works that it's hard and a little terrifying to try to summarize his significance in a simple blog post. To begin with, I should probably remind you that Hughes is a notable scholar, poet, novelist and political activist. His contribution to the theatre is vast but it certainly doesn't overshadow the various other facets of his legacy.
Hughes was a notable member of The Harlem Renaissance, a movement towards a higher-standard of living for African-Americans. The movement began to take off around 1910. In 1917 a play entitled Three Plays for a Negro Theatre, written by White playwright Ridgley Torrence was released and praised for its intelligence. The play contributed to the Harlem Renaissance in that it hired an all Black cast and each character had a full range of emotion. Despite being directed and produced by a White production crew, the show was a huge step away from Blackface and other offensive portrayals of African-American culture, never mind the fact that it ignored many facets of African-American life including their occupations, matters of their conversation and the fact that they have actual social lives. The show ran for one month and then was shut down due to racial uprisings. Despite its short run its popularity in the press empowered a series of works written by African-American playwrights.
African-American playwrights began writing and producing "People's Theatre", works that were written by Black writers for Black audiences. Hughes contributed to the movement by opening The Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938. The theatre was the first stage to be theatre in the round in New York City. Hughes intended for there to be a wide variety of experimental works performed there. Most of the shows performed at the theatre were written by Hughes including Don't You Want to Be Free (1938), an experimental, poetry piece which featured the poetic works of Hughes and the musical talents of local African-American musicians.
Prior to opening Harlem Suitcase, Hughes had already made his name known through the opening of his Broadway play Mulatto (1935). I highly recommend reading this play. It is incredibly lyrical, thoughtful and moving. It's written in poetic verse and it centers around a conflict between a son of mixed racial descent and his White father. The coolest part about this play, to me, is that Hughes chose to write it from the father's perspective. It is a brave work considering it's place in National history but also considering that it comes from Hughes' personal tensions that he had with his father. It really is a must read. If you have the opportunity, take a couple of hours and read through it in honour of Black History Month.
Hughes' other works include Mule Bone (1931), Tambourines to Glory (1956), Black Nativity (1961) and Jericho Jim-Crow (1964).
For many works and many years of brilliance, we honour Langston Hughes on what would have been his 101st birthday.