On Stage: Langston Hughes's school days | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: Langston Hughes's school days 

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Five years ago University of Chicago Laboratory Schools drama teacher John Biser was talking about Langston Hughes with some parents at a school performance. The couple, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who'd been involved with the Weathermen in the 1960s, mentioned that Hughes had been a guest teacher at the schools in the 40s--a time when the poet was being blacklisted as an atheist and a communist.

"I majored in English and was an active reader and librarygoer and had no idea," says Biser.

When he looked in the schools' archives Biser found a gold mine--letters and notes left by the writer, apparently forgotten. "To actually see handwritten notes between him and Arna [Bontemps, a fellow writer] and Warren [Seyfert, then the schools' president] was exciting," he says. "I don't know if anyone has read them since the 1940s. I compare it to finding buried treasure."

Intrigued, Biser began reading Hughes biographies. "In every case, a good deal was made of his time here," he says. The archives steered him to a 1948 front-page Chicago Tribune article describing an incident at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, where Hughes had been asked to speak. "During the 30s he had gone through a communist phase, as just about all writers did at the time," says Biser. "He'd written poems like 'Goodbye Christ' and 'Put One More S in the USA,' which even mentioned the names of communist leaders in flattering terms. Even though it had been a good 12 years since he'd written and repudiated that, they had canceled his lecture. Many schools and institutions were doing the same thing. He considered his career as a teacher and lecturer, particularly in Chicago, dead."

But the Lab Schools, an institution that prided itself on being progressive, welcomed him. During the spring of 1949 he taught all levels, from kindergarten to 12th grade, as poet in residence. "In one of the letters to Arna he says that 'I'm a member of the unified arts department, and that means I teach everything,'" says Biser. "In the middle school he had them experiment with finding rhythms from everyday life, like the sound of brushing teeth or hopscotch, and then showed them how language had the same type of rhythm."

The archival sources, along with Hughes's poems, are the foundation of the play Langston's Lab, an account of the poet's experiences at the schools, which Biser originally wrote for his students in 1996 and which is now receiving a professional mounting at the Court Theatre. The dialogue among teachers is taken from Hughes's notes, and one of the scenes is based on a column he wrote for the Chicago Defender. Biser also spoke to the widow of Bob Erickson, a teacher with whom Hughes had taught a jazz class; some of the music they created is in the play.

In the play's central scene, which Biser says is largely fictional, a student discovers Hughes's early leftist leanings. "Hughes wanted the students to bring in articles from the newspaper and use that as a point of departure for a story," he says. "The kid went back a year and found the Tribune article, and without telling Langston read it aloud in class. He challenged Hughes on it."

Hughes asks the boy to find and read "Goodbye Christ," which he had written years earlier when he and Paul Robeson were part of a group that went to Russia. "After Hughes achieved a bit of fame, people went after everything they could find. They found these things published in a vanity-press kind of way that you have to live with when you become famous," says Biser. "It's like actors who have to live with their past in low-budget porno movies."

Though Biser spent eight years in the 70s in New York City pursuing an acting career, the seamiest roles he got were in soap operas such as Another World and One Life to Live. After graduating from New York University he landed at the U. of C. in 1983. Needing money while doing graduate work in English, he began teaching drama part-time at the Lab Schools. "I found that I was more interested in that than deconstructing language," he says.

But language issues are something that Biser still deals with. During his research he learned that Hughes encouraged his students to recite his poems in the black dialect he was using at the time. "He was saying that nothing was wrong with black culture, and that he didn't write his poems one way to have you speak them another," he says. Hughes took some flak from parents for his views. "In one letter he says that all of the leading Negro families send their children to the Lab Schools, and he's always bumping into the parents in the hallway. They are always asking him about the dialect and why he's portraying them in stereotypical ways.

"That's a pretty touchy subject. It's an even touchier subject among children from elite black families. Most of my students are white, and I have to tell them when they do a scene, 'This is what Langston Hughes wanted his students to do.' My problems staging the play were the same ones that Langston had in the classroom."

Prologue Theater Productions presents Langston's Lab tonight, tomorrow, and next Friday and Saturday at 8 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. Tickets are $12. Call 773-753-4472. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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