Jane Hardy looks at the work of Harlem radical Langston Hughes.
Simply Heavenly stands in very sharp contrast to most of the musicals to be found in the West End of London. Set in a bar in Harlem, its focus is the lives of ordinary black Americans. The music is a mixture of gospel, blues and jazz and the dialogue is quick and witty. However, through the main character, Jesse B Semple (known affectionately as Simple), it portrays the struggles of eking out a living in Harlem. Finding and keeping work, paying the rent and trying to make a better life are daily battles.
The story and lyrics were written by Langston Hughes, who was one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. This was the African American artistic movement of the 1920s which celebrated black life and culture. In 1926 Hughes wrote an essay that was considered a manifesto for the renaissance, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The essay called for the coexistence of racial pride and artistic integrity. He wrote, 'We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame... We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.'
He believed in using his art to get across his feelings about politics and injustice. He wanted to tell stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter and language. Simple, the main character in Simply Heavenly, was a fictitious character who was the basis for a weekly column in the Chicago Defender, the most influential black newspaper in the US. Simple represented the average urban black working man, who loved beer, bars and girls, but his conversations dealt with much wider issues that affected black Americans. Racism, repressive authority and the general exploitation and denigration of black people were all obvious targets for tales. At the same time Hughes used the character to engage with the difficult domestic problems faced in the tenements of Harlem which struck a chord with millions of readers.
Hughes's focus on working class and poor blacks led to attacks on his work. In some quarters it was lambasted as a 'disgrace to the race'. Not all blacks liked his use of dialect, his interpretation of jazz and blues and his vivid and sensitive portrayals of workers. Hughes faced harsh criticism, including being branded not as poet laureate, but as 'poet low-rate' of Harlem. But to his mind polished and educated blacks were not the only blacks worth putting on paper. The people who captured his imagination and featured in his work, he said, were 'the ordinary Negroes [who] hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance'.
In the 1930s, in response to the Great Depression and his visit to the Soviet Union, he wrote some of the most radical poetry that had been published in the US. It called for radical political action which looked towards working class unity. In 1937 he spent several years in Europe, including a long stay in besieged Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Here he wrote poems about the International Brigade. In 1938 he returned home to found the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, which staged his agitprop drama Don't You Want To Be Free? The play mixed black nationalism, the blues and socialist ideas. The same year a socialist organisation published a pamphlet of his radical verse, A New Song.
In the post-war years he settled in Harlem where he lived for the rest of his life. He wrote about the experience of black Americans, including lynchings and rent parties. Hughes captured the huge diversity of ordinary working class blacks by setting his work in night clubs and factories, and on poor farms. His subjects were factory workers, bellboys, washerwomen, road workers and beggars.
Hughes's poetry was innovative. Much of the inspiration for his work was from the blues, 'the pulse beat of a people who keep on going'. Some of his verse was inspired by the complex jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In his later work he drew on other black music, and his poems Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) picture the desperation of urban black communities using the discordant rhythms of bebop jazz.
In the 1960s the Black Power movement criticised Hughes for being too conciliatory towards whites. Hughes responded with a book about the civil rights movement, The Panther and the Lash, which was published after his death. His work continued to be a seething condemnation of racism, including an angry poem, Birmingham Sunday, about four young girls killed by a racist bombing.
Hughes's biographers do not settle the questions of the poet's sexuality. However, it is accepted in many quarters that Hughes was gay and lived a secret life in the closet. Given the prejudice and discrimination of the 1940s and 1950s it is not surprising that the fear of coming out could last a lifetime, particularly for public figures.
From the 1920s until his death in 1967 Langston Hughes produced a huge body of literature which included poems, plays, novels, essays and anthologies to publicise the work of black artists. Although much of his writing was an attack on racism, his politics had a much wider focus. Condemnations of colonialism, class and fascism were all themes running through his work.
Simply Heavenly is a great evening out. Above all it is a testament to Hughes's commitment to writing about the black experience in language that ordinary people, both black and white, could understand, learn from and enjoy.
Simply Heavenly by Langston Hughes
Trafalgar Studios, London