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The musical celebration of Langston Hughes’s poetry by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and director Nancy Rhodes takes its title from a tight, tender poem called “Luck”:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Like much of Hughes’s work, these eight lines contain a bitterness the poem seeks both to expose and to mitigate. Whether the heaven flung like a bone to those who are never loved offers a supreme reward to the suffering, or merely the somber release of death, is subject to debate. That “only” at least raises questions about how cheery a reading one might construe.
But Rhodes and Gordon’s 90-minute pageant—in which four first-rate singers robustly fill Gordon’s rich harmonies—practically fixes an exclamation point to the title, as if Only Heaven! both cited a marquee quotation about the show itself, and described the life of African Americans Hughes so intently chronicled. Where Hughes combined a studied naïveté with a cunning critique of America, Rhodes and Gordon latch onto the simplicity alone and graft it to Broadway razzle-dazzle. Even a song about a lynching, while intoned beautifully by soprano Sherry Boone, is sold with a smile.
While the score grows repetitious, it does have soaring operatic stretches, intricate harmonic layers, and flashes of melodic surprise. But the staging tugs against the music’s willingness to let Hughes’s language be heard. Almost every song is filled with business that builds a little narrative scene that more often than not undermines Hughes’s complexity. “Port Town,” in which the speaker of the poem calls, “Hello, sailor,/Come with me!” is played not—god forbid!—as a spunky gay pickup, but as a conniving robbery by two gyrating female prostitutes. Stranger yet, while making full use of his finely shaded tenor to sing “Dream Variations,” Keith Byron Kirk has to mime coming home from work and settling into a rocking chair to read The Wall Street Journal. Opening its large pages is probably not what Hughes meant by the desire “To fling my arms wide,” and buppie bliss does not quite capture the tweaked Whitmanesque aspiration to “Rest at pale evening . . . /A tall, slim tree . . . /Night coming tenderly/Black like me.”
Only Heaven offers an image of Whitman that Condoleezza Rice could love: purged of urbanity, free of tormented sexuality, and emptied of leftist leanings.
Hughes himself was, of course, interested in the relationship between poetry and music, especially in the poetry and music that surged within black vernacular speech, and, more generally, in the unselfconscious beauty of an authentic voice. This spirit is captured more ardently in two short solo pieces by composer-performer Rinde Eckert—though William Butler Yeats is Eckert’s muse.
Eckert’s characters journey by means of music, which functions as metaphor even as it is the material stuff of the drama. In Dryland Divine Eckert portrays Fletcher, who murdered his brother and spent 12 years in prison, where he learned to play the accordion. He vanished after being paroled.
Fletcher divines for water, for life itself, somewhere in a netherworld between language and the preverbal, between the holy and profane. An accordion breathes in the dark as Eckert squeezes and releases it, and the surf-like huffing becomes one of many motifs that reemerge in the 10-minute play. High-pitched hums, tremulous airs, hurdy-gurdy grunts issue from Eckert’s throat; he sings full out a dissonant chant against an oom-pah-pah waltz on the accordion. Crooning traditional spirituals—”Amazing Grace,” “Keep Your Hand on That Plow”—he keeps the phrasing of the original tunes, but sails into arch and ethereal new melodies.
Eckert extends this expedition in the more ambitious The Idiot Variations. Brilliantly inventive, he plays a nomad traversing a via dolorosa of musical instruments that invite him to explore them, and, through that investigation, to find his own voice. He lumbers from station to station: piping an aria out of a slide whistle; blowing tentatively into the mouthpiece of a baritone horn, then mimicking its stentorian tones by tooting into the air through pursed, spurting lips; picking a complex bluesy song out of a small guitar. In between, he discusses his journey in chatty anecdotes, told in a phony Irish accent—which he apologizes for but keeps up. Part idiot-savant, part Yeatsian hero, he eventually drums his way past innocence, surprising himself by beating it with such martial aggression. Found music brings him into self-consciousness, and thus into the awareness that he is located inescapably—and perhaps, ineffectually—in history. Eckert animates this subtly political and metaphysical theme with a grace and fervor worthy of Langston Hughes.