Writing a marathon-length historical play that leaves audiences caring about once-breathing people is a difficult task, but Bernardo Solano has succeeded superbly in his sweeping epic spanning the fiery four-decade friendship between African-American poet Langston Hughes and Cuban poet laureate Nicolás Guillén. With the invaluable aid of director Nancy Cheryll Davis, also credited for the conception of this world premiere—featuring music and dance, and factoring in some of the two writers' most enduring poetry—Solano has created a remarkable piece of theatrical literature.
In Act 1, Justin Alston and Chris Rivas portray, respectively, the younger Hughes and Guillén. After intermission, the more mature Brian Evaret Chandler and Armando Ortega take over those roles. Solano conjures the often-problematic camaraderie between these two amazing mixed-race artists, beginning in Havana in 1930 when Guillén meets Hughes, a man he considers the "future of the black race" in America. Guillén, weary of living in a country where blacks were only a serving class, and "tired of being exotic," connects and often quarrels with Hughes on almost every issue facing their era, including lynchings in the South and Castro's brave liberation of Cuba.
Solano and Davis have fashioned a masterful production, smartly designed by Nathaniel Bellamy, splendidly costumed by Nancy Reneé, and featuring a contagious original score by Dane Diamond that even sets one of Hughes' most noteworthy poems to music. The wide but shallow Adler stage, made solid by Bellamy's expressionistic video backdrops, is ambitiously filled with a decidedly mixed-bag cast of 17. Some of Davis' players are clearly stage veterans, and some are just manifestly sincere at what they do—yet truly, this occasional lack of more-seasoned acting chops proves to be something as infectious as the work of the more-experienced performers in such a heartfelt and colossally determined project.
Alston and Rivas are the most triumphant as the comrades in their passionate youth, while Chandler and Ortega seem as though they'd rather resort to a firm handshake than explore the nature of the poets' much-disputed physical relationship, which later Guillén tries to explain to his suspicious wife as "something ancient, something immediate" two men often feel for one another that can last a lifetime. This reluctance makes Act 1 far more interesting, the second part of this project still a bit of a work-in-progress—albeit a fascinating one.
Presented by Towne Street Theatre at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. April 9–May 2. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (213) 624-4796. www.townestreet.org.