Arts & Entertainment Editor
This Friday, Scuppernong Bookstore in downtown Greensboro held an exceptional one-man performance of “Simply Langston.” Presented by Drama is Life Productions, Inc. Don Miller, the star of this show, retold stories of the famous Poet Laureate – Langston Hughes. Coordination with the musicians of The Langston Hughes Jazz Trio made this show anything but small.
Anticipation for the show was high, as there was not a single empty seat. Lula Burns, one of many in the audience, knew the actor personally and remarked, “[Don Miller is] really good at what he does…this should be fabulous.”
After introductions by Dr. Diane Moffett commenced, majority owner of the store, Brian Lampkin, told the audience that this show was part of the 2017 series of James Baldwin incorporated events. Though James Baldwin was not at the forefront of this show, his writings and teachings were intermingled in the show’s major subject – race. Lampkin also stated, “This might be the most exciting event of the year.”
The show took place in the back of Scuppernong Bookstore, curtained off from everyday shoppers. With the limited space in the bookstore, there were only a few props used for the show, including a table, typewriter, phone and a couple magazines. The jazz trio, a lovely complement to the emphasis on black culture in this performance, began with a smooth and swinging opener. Then came out Don Miller, dressed to the nines and playing the strong role of Langston.
As the sun shining through the window dipped lower, a sense of seriousness arose, especially with the topic of World War II and Jim Crow being discussed. Each scene was constructed poetically, as anything demonstrating the life of Hughes should be. Miller would sit at his typewriter, telling the crowd his feelings toward the demeaning laws of Jim Crow. He would talk as if he was thinking aloud, in the same segmented way one does when they are writing. As portraying Hughes, Miller posed questions like, “Will victory change your antiquated views?” in response to the race relations that took place in America during the late thirties and early forties.
Many would assume a one-man performance might become boring, but not with Miller. His voice was loud and reverberated to the back of the intimate audience – his voice demanded attention. Solemnly, Miller spoke of historical facts, such as the segregating of equipment when giving blood to the American Red Cross, and the Scottsville Rape case that incarcerated nine young black men after two white women accused them of gang rape. Miller garnered the full attention of the crowd, with many nodding their heads in agreement to his rhyming words.
Throughout the show, there was an interesting and recurring personification of Jim Crow as a bird. Miller would speak of the bird losing its feathers, each feather tearing off as if it were the law’s indiscretions. Miller would also tell the bird to fly away and leave minorities alone.
Some of the best scenes incorporated the jazz trio’s soulful sounds while overlaying Miller’s powerful speech. “Baby Blues,” was the most beautiful scene, showing off the soft yet voracious singing of the trio’s drummer, Darryl Strickland. As Strickland sang, Miller said, “I’ve got the weary blues and I can’t be satisfied.”
Not only was the trio’s drummer talented, but both pianist, Keith Byrd, and guitarist, Charles Burns, were coordinated to perfection. There was not a foot still in the audience, nor a head not moving to the music. Yet, show-goers were not the only people loving the band’s sound; so were the trio members themselves. Their smiling faces, rocking heads and closed eyes showed they were thrilled by the music they were performing.
In light of the Charlottesville terror attack, the play spoke to that transgression in an indirect, and sometimes explicit way. In the opening scene, Miller says, “let America be great again,” a blatant tie to President Trump’s slogan during his candidacy. The jazz trio also played the Star-Spangled Banner, a less obvious attack on our nation, about what the song should mean to us Americans.
To finish off the performance, Miller recited one of Hughes’s most famous poems, “A Dream Deferred,” which concluded the show on more of a hopeful note. A standing ovation finished off the show, as well as a meet and greet with the multi-talented actor.
Originally created in 2009, “Simply Langston” offers so much. Miller remarked, “This play must be reintroduced to society…this message still needs to be heard.”
Though this was a one-night performance, Don Miller hopes to continue playing the part of Langston Hughes; after all, he was Miller’s own inspiration to start writing.
Overall, “Simply Langston” was a candid tribute to Langston Hughes, one of the first black artists to officially make a living solely from writing. His work will go on, and be repeated for generations to come. This show assists in doing just that. My only complaint is that the show was not longer.