Artists pay tribute to Langston Hughes

Saturday, Feb. 1st marked the 112th anniversary of Langston Hughes’ birth, as well as the beginning of Black History Month.

Joined by actor/poet Malcolm Jamal Warner and four student musicians acting as the latest iteration of the Ron McCurdy Quartet, Dr. McCurdy honored the work of Langston Hughes by adapting his 12-part jazz-poem suite “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods For Jazz” in Bovard Auditorium.  The event was hosted by USC’s Visions and Voices program. The piece is not one of Hughes’ better-known works, due partially to the fact that he passed away before he could perform it. Now, 54 years after the penning of “Ask Your Mama,” McCurdy and his team have blended 21st century musical, poetic, and cinematic media to realize Hughes’ ambitious artistic vision in ways that would never have been possible when he was alive.

Many remember Warner as the teenage son “Theo” from The Cosby Show, but he has been busy since, making a name for himself through other artistic paths. As the bass player and front man of the group Miles Long, Warner takes a Hughes-esque approach to his art by standing at the intersection of poet and musician. Setting his spoken word pieces to the jazz/funk sounds of his band, Warner refuses to be defined by one or the other.

“I feel like I’m an artist. I’ve been very blessed to have different avenues with which I can express my art … express myself, really,” Warner said. “Obviously, acting is a big part of what I do and it’s my first love. You know, that’s how I make a living, but it’s also nice to have music be a love, a passion and a viable way to express myself in ways that I cannot necessarily do as an actor or a director.”

Though he left the bass playing to a student performer, Warner showcased his diverse vocal talents during passages that turned from spoken to sung. As an artist and performer, Warner prefers to operate in the liminal zone between forms.

“Obviously [poetry and music] are two different forms of expression,” Warner said. “In poetry, there’s a lot of musicality. So I think the poetry and music dynamic can work very well together. You know, being a bass player, this piece was that much more intriguing because [Hughes] was working with Charlie Mingus. So, you know, poetry, jazz, bass — that’s all … that’s me all day long.”

The pressure to give a proper tribute to Langston Hughes — as well as the risks inherent in adapting it to live performance — seemed not to hold back any of those involved. The main drawback of spoken adaptation is that Hughes’ densely nuanced and subtle tricks of language go by quickly. If they are not heard and understood correctly the first time in a live performance, they are lost to the listener, whereas a reader could go back.

On the other hand, McCurdy and Warner’s familiarity with the text and the historical context of Hughes’ work often enhanced the understanding of those in the audience who were not quite as familiar. During his reading of “Mood 1: Cultural Exchange,” Warner brought to life Hughes’ fantasy of black icons being named to public office. The pause for emphasis during his description of them idly “sitting on their wide … verandas” implied the joke of what else they were sitting on. These subtle cues are only picked up with repeated study of the poem, and the audience members who had never heard it before greatly benefited from their inclusion.

There are plenty of comedic passages in the original text, and the laid-back dynamic between Warner and McCurdy did these passages justice. As per usual with Langston Hughes, however, there is a certain darkness to this humor, which is often used to make it through hardships of being black in United States. The musicians and poets successfully captured this subtle aspect of Hughes’ poetry. During a light-hearted exchange in which the bald McCurdy drew laughs with his delivery of the line “Hair blowing back in the wind (and I never had that much hair),” the ominous supporting music served as a constant reminder to the audience of the solemn subjects at hand in the rest of the poem.

Though the poets and musicians were constantly entertaining and adaptive, the visual aspect seemed to lag behind at times. Of the three forms employed in the expression of Hughes’ vision — poetry, music and film — the film clips were surely the weakest. Black and white clips from the era of the Harlem Renaissance felt appropriate, but it often deviated to stock footage of peach flowers on a branch or other equally cliché images. At times, the screen merely played a slideshow of images of the musicians mentioned in the poem. This made it seem more like a PowerPoint presentation from a lecture in a jazz history course than an artistic interpretation.

Audience participation was encouraged, fostering a strong interaction with the text.  McCurdy instructed the audience to, “treat the performance like a good ole’ Southern Baptist sermon,” explaining it was all in the spirit of Langston Hughes. No matter their creed or color, everyone who witnessed and participated in the performance has tightened society’s grip on Hughes’ dream, driving away the barren, frozen fields of oppression and ushering in the sunny dawn of freedom promised by the founders of our nation.