"What Broadway needs," said the author of Simply Heavenly before its opening in 1957, "is a real good old-time coloured singing and dancing HAPPY show." The sentiment, which many at the time found dated and offensive, is, one might think, archaic today. Yet when Josette Bushell-Mingo's production of the musical, set in Harlem, opened in London last year, the happiness of a little girl who jumped out of her seat to jive in the aisle was echoed in raves from reviewers. Audiences (about half black, half white) who filled the Young Vic during the limited run enjoyed it so much that the show is now coming to the West End, with the same cast, headed by Rhashan Stone, as the bar-room philosopher Jesse B Semple, and Ruby Turner and Clive Rowe as a raucous courting couple. The reason for its success, Bushell-Mingo says, is the down-to-earth affectionate humour of its author, Langston Hughes.
One of the "niggerati", as the intellectuals and artists of Harlem in the 1920s called themselves, Hughes (1902-67) has been overshadowed by the more outspoken black writers of the Fifties and later. But, as playwright, short-story writer, essayist and, primarily, poet, Hughes was the most important black American author of the first half of the 20th century. His great achievement was to use the language of ordinary men and women - regional, colloquial, musical, sometimes lewd and violent - for "serious" poetry. Whites and blacks alike called his work "indelicate". He replied: "So is life." Scorning pleas from genteel middle-class blacks that black artists should forswear portraying their race as vulgar or immoral, he said: "Every 'ugly' poem I write is a protest against the ugliness it pictures."
A Langston Hughes poem could sound like an angry protest (a child, scorned as a "little yellow bastard", cries, "I am your son, white man!") or a weary blues ("This mornin' for breakfast/ Chawed de mornin' air./ But this evenin' for supper,/ I got evenin' air to spare"). But even in such a painful lament as "The Negro Mother", Hughes calls the mother's oppressor "the white brother", and he wrote, about white people, "I feel as sorry for them as I do for the Negroes." His compassion, though, was always backed up by a stern righteousness, as in the four-line poem "Personal": "In an envelope marked: Personal/ God addressed me a letter./ In an envelope marked: Personal/ I have given my answer."
Bushell-Mingo, the artistic director of Push, whose aim is to get more black representation in mainstream theatre, says that she believes Hughes was right in insisting that black people should be portrayed "in all our guises", genial and gentle as well as desperate and defiant. Striking out at such fiction writers as Richard Wright and Chester Himes, Hughes called for "a good novel about good Negroes, who do not come to a bad end... who never murder anyone, or rape or get raped or want to rape, or lust after white bodies... or go crazy with race or off-balance with frustration". Bushell-Mingo concurs: "That is a very important statement. We need to see the complete picture, not the same thing over and over again."
Asked about Elmina's Kitchen, the trite, melodramatic play that won respectful and enthusiastic reviews at the National last year, she says, "I have no quarrel with the play per se. But if the National is going to put on only one play a year that deals with black people, why does it have to be about drugs and murder in Dalston?"
The quarrel between the meliorist Hughes and the revolutionaries two generations his junior was more complicated, of course. James Baldwin, though he later repented, denounced Hughes as a relic of the days when black men had to suppress their manhood, so as not to be considered a threat. While Hughes wrote about sex in his fiction, he himself had no sex life that anyone knew about. For his part, Hughes liked to point out that the fiery black American writers who scorned him had all moved to Paris, some of them taking advantage of their exotic appeal to white women, while he continued to live in Harlem, write school textbooks about black history and do speaking tours, trying to persuade white audiences of the need to end segregation.
In 1942, Hughes found a way to fulfil his long-held ambition to reach black people who had no interest in poetry, as well as to express himself in demotic speech that did not have to conform to the demands of verse. In his column for the black newspaper Chicago Defender, he introduced a character whom he would write about for the next 20 years. Jesse B Semple, his name the advice blacks followed to stay out of trouble, popped up at a Harlem bar, holding forth in a good-natured but occasionally biting manner about the way black people lived. A huge hit with black readers, and, when the columns were reprinted elsewhere or collected into books, with whites as well, Semple was seen as an uptown character, drinking and gambling a bit more than was good for him, and dodging the matrimonial demands of his ever-lovin' sweetie, Joyce. But, as well as musing on jazz and bantering with his friends, Semple would say that Martin Luther King ought to run for president. Semple denounced the cruelties that made a mockery of the American pledge to "liberty and justice for all", but he also criticised the "spokesmen" for his own race who were careful to say nothing that would frighten the New York Times and the earnest academics who had no sense of rhythm.
By 1957, Hughes, who had spent many years trying to establish a black national theatre, and had had a long career as a playwright and lyricist wrote a musical featuring Semple, Joyce, and such other bar regulars as the outspoken maid Mamie ("Git outa mah face!") and Joe, the persistently amorous watermelon man. Reviewers praised the charm and warmth of Simply Heavenly, but it had only a modest run. Reading the script, and listening to the original-cast recording, one can see that the lack of stars was not the only reason. The music, by Dave Martin, is inconsequential, the singing is tame, and the language used in this portrait of earthy Harlemites is very mild. In his newspaper writing, of course, Hughes had to bow to his era's prohibition of profanity, but when he put his creations on the stage, he did not let them take advantage of its looser language. Nor does any of them make an emotional outburst against racism or express a political challenge. One of the characters does reproach the others for being frivolous, and behaving in a stereotypical way, but he is slapped down by Mamie, who says black people should wear red or eat watermelon if they want to, and not worry about self-conscious killjoys. Now, of course, when black teachers and celebrities denounce the far more vicious stereotype that dazzles and destroys their children, one regards with wry nostalgia a time when a bad example was someone who wore loud clothes and ate messy food.
In England the following year, Simply Heavenly ran for only three weeks, and was dismissed by the critic Kenneth Tynan as having "a score that harks back to the Thirties and lyrics that hark back to the ark". When Bushell-Mingo read the play that David Lan, director of the Young Vic, wanted her to do, she found it "dated, but I thought that's not a reason not to do it. I felt that the characters were speaking to me." With actors who infused the play with several megatons of energy, and with new, livelier orchestrations by Warren Wills, Bushell-Mingo made Simply Heavenly not only likeable but irrepressible. "Warren didn't just change the music a bit," she says. "He found it at A, and he lifted it all the way to Z. When you get the audience whoopin' and wailin', that's Warren."
While gratified by her success with Simply Heavenly, Bushell-Mingo, now working on a theatrical project based on the literature of black America, agrees that the show is also a sad reminder that, half a century on, portrayals of the lives of ordinary, decent black people are still a rarity. (Ironically, the week we spoke, the latest novel in the enormously popular Ladies' Detective Agency series was published. The books, set in Botswana, use the mystery genre for just what Bushell-Mingo is seeking, but their author, Alexander McCall Smith, is a white man.) Is the problem the perennial one of making virtue interesting? Are black playwrights, like most audiences now, too enamoured of shock and sensation? For whatever reason, we all await what another black poet called the "black and unknown bards" who can catch "that note in music heard not with the ears".
'Simply Heavenly', Trafalgar Studios at the Whitehall Theatre, London SW1 (0870 060 6632) from Tuesday to 5 MarchReuse content