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Friday, December 3, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Slimmed `Love Langston' -- New Play Revives Words Of Langston Hughes, With Love

No one can argue that Loni Berry created the new musical play, "Love, Langston." He shaped the script, composed the music, and is even directing the piece.

But Berry cheerfully admits that he wrote not a single word of the show, which Seattle Repertory Theatre mounted in workshop form last spring and will officially premiere next Thursday. (It runs as a Stage 2 offering through Jan. 9.)

"Every line of dialogue is from a poem or short story by Langston Hughes," explains Berry. "What I did was weave Langston's words into a series of vignettes, with music. My goal was to make it all seamless, make each vignette seem like one continuous thought even though it might have 20 of Langston's poems in it."

Lucky for Berry, Hughes provided an abundant trove of raw material. One of the most famed and prolific African-American authors to emerge from the vibrant Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hughes left a legacy of over 500 published poems, dozens of short stories, and 13 plays. And since his death in 1967, at age 65, the man once called "the most grossly misjudged writer of major importance in America" has gained more literary stature than he enjoyed in his own lifetime.

Yet apart from several famous, much-anthologized Hughes poems - such as the searing "Dream Deferred" (from which Lorraine Hansberry took the title of her play, "A Raisin in the Sun") - the bulk of his output is not widely read today.

Berry's own appreciation of Hughes deepened in the late 1980s, when, at Brown University, he studied with George Houston Bass, an associate of Hughes.

"George gave me access to everything Langston wrote," recalls Berry, a puckish man in his late 30s. "I was familiar with Langston's work before, but my contact with George was very important. He really encouraged me to do the piece. After he died in 1989, I was even more determined to finish it."

The Hughes poems appealed first to Berry, "because they were written in three musical modes: jazz, blues and gospel. I'm always thinking in terms of music, so I read these verses trying to discover their rhythms along with the themes."

Kindred feelings

Berry, whose personal journey took him from tiny Leesburg, Fla., to a current Ivy League professorship at Williams College, also responded to the earthy wisdom, anger and ethnic pride so clearly expressed in Hughes's writings.

He points to a scene in "Love, Langston" where three actresses (Karen Angela Bishop, Ellia English and Melody Garrett) recite interlocking poems filled with motherwit, including the haunting "Mother to Son." ("Well, son, I'll tell you/ Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. . .")

"The message from those three women," Berry says, "is very much what my mother has said to me about life, about what's really important, about knowing who I am and not forgetting where I come from. The truth is, I'm using 67 poems and stories by Langston. But every word of the play is about me, and my own life and experience."

Scholars now laud the Missour-bred Hughes for his originality, early, artful use of black vernacular speech, and deep-seated humanism.

Yet in his own time, Hughes attracted much controversy. His political radicalism made him a target of Sen. Joe McCarthy's campaign against "subversives." A very private, often solitary person, Hughes also was frequently accused of being a homosexual - though no evidence supports that claim.

As a writer, he caught barbs from fellow black intellecutals who found his use of folk dialect demeaning and from white critics who thought his poetic style naive and simplistic.

Simply tremendous

Counters Berry, "It's the simplicity of Langston's work that impresses me most. In this simplicity is a tremendous profundity, a universality that always amazes me."

As for Hughes's sexual and political affiliations, Berry says they are irrelevant to his play, because "this is not an autobiography."

After staging early drafts of "Love, Langston" at Yale University and Williams College, Berry eagerly accepted the invite to do a workshop at Seattle Rep. Since then, "Love, Langston" has slimmed down to 90 minutes and acquired a mostly-new cast. Sharing the stage with Bishop, English and Garret are Tommy Hollis, Grenoldo Frazier, and Broadway star ("The Wiz") Andre De Shields, who is also the show's choreographer.

"I was amazed the Rep would take the risk on this first-time author," Berry says. "But they did, and I've had a wonderful time working here." So wonderful, in fact, that Berry is an Artistic Associate at the Rep this season, scouting out new scripts by other artists of color.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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