Paul Kwame Johnson’s Tribute to Langston Hughes By Allen Lang

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On May 4th, for the Tenth Annual Yonkers Arts Weekend, Sarah Lawrence College Theatre & Civic Engagement presented A Tribute to Langston Hughes, conceived and directed by Sarah Lawrence Alum Paul Kwame Johnson. 

A Tribute to Langston Hughes occurred at the Sarah Lawrence College Classroom on the Urban River at Beczak (CURB). CURB is located at 35 Alexader Street in Yonkers on the shore of the Hudson River. CURB aims to advance research, environmental knowledge, and education for the local community. It is also a welcoming community space for civic and artistic activities—ideal for an intimate Saturday afternoon performance.

Stepping into CURB for this homage to one of America’s literary goliaths, Langston Hughes, was like stepping through a portal where time, poetry, and performance aligned the past with the present, the old with the new.

Paul Kwame Johnson’s celebrated career spans over fifty years. He is a distinguished teacher, actor, director, playwright, and mentor in Yonkers, Westchester County, and beyond. Numerous awards from the City of Yonkers, New York State, and elsewhere acknowledge his many accomplishments that fill the walls of his lovely country home. 

Langston Hughes was photographed in Greenwood Forest Farms, Warwick, New York 1952. Photo by James Gilbert Johnson, permission granted by the family of Paul Kwame Johnson.

With a Tribute to Langston Hughes, Johnson draws from his unique lineage with Langston Hughes – Hughes and Johnson’s father were contemporaries who corresponded. Johnson shared, “My father met Langston Hughes when he vacationed at Greenwood Forest Farms in 1952 where we have our family home in Warwick, New York. My father took a wonderful photo of him here. I am proud to have notes on a postcard Langston sent to my father in our family’s possession.”

Johnson’s devotion to community work began as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence, studying with visionary faculty Emeriti,  Shirley Kaplan, whose Theatre Outreach Program is one of the first theatre education programs of its kind in the country and has reached thousands of people over the years.  Soon after, Johnson joined his friend, musician James Hill, at the Yonkers Community Action Program’s ‘School 12’, which led to the founding of Youth Theatre Interactions. This performing arts cultural institution still exists today. 

Paul Kwame Johnson is a recurring faculty guest at Sarah Lawrence in Theatre & Civic Engagement courses. He annually brings performances to campus to celebrate Black History Month, which, in recent years, has highlighted performers of all ages from the Theodore D. Young Community Center.

Photo by Allen Lang Cast – Sydney Collins, Denise-Smith Fraser, Paul Kwame Johnson, Brianna Coombs, Debra Brooks, and Makea Farley

Paul Kwame Johnson is a socially engaged theatre artist who weaves his intrinsic community-building skills and passion for social justice with his love for creating and sharing theatre. As a mentor, Johnson has terrific instincts for awakening the inner resources of those who study with him. Johnson has been working with the Tribute to Langston Hughes cast for two years, and for some cast members, this performance marks the beginning of their performance careers. This outstanding cast brings their lived experience, vitality, and pleasure for performance to the stage. Regarding Johnson’s exceptional mentorship, cast member Sydney Collins shared, “We trust and rely on each other.  Kwame picks poems that fit our personalities, and we go from there. But we love each other as a family.” 

Under his accomplished direction, Johnson reimagines Hughes’ poetry into inventive imagery for the stage. When asked why this piece, Johnson responded, “My love for the work of Langston Hughes started as a child at six years of age when my mother used to read me his poems at bedtime. When I was old enough to know that my father knew him and that he had visited my home and written postcards to my father, I became enthralled. As a director whose work has been based on mime, it was my intention to give the poems a powerful visual effect in order to help impact the audience with the power of Langston Hughes’s beautiful and poetic words”. The poems covered in the program include Merry-Go-Round, Ballad of the Landlord, African-American Fragment, I Too Sing America, Dream Variation, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Cross, Let America Be America Again, Yesterday, Mother to Son, Hold Fast to Dreams, I Look to the World, My People, and Harlem Sweeties. 

The remarkable ensemble of women performers rehearse with Johnson at the Theodore D. Young Community Center in Greenburgh, New York.  The actors Debra Brooks, Brianna Coombs, Sydney Collins, Makeda Farley, and Denise Smith-Fraser underline the poetry of their lived experiences with the resonance of Hughes’ timelessness, deeply with a clarity and openness that drifts effortlessly from poem to poem. 

Intergenerational theatre is a form of theatre that brings together people of various ages to create and perform. It can involve players of all ages and aims to break down barriers between generations and foster understanding and connection, and has been a trademark of Johnson’s for years. A Tribute to Langston Hughes features three generations of women, ages twenty-nine to seventy-five. This collaborative ensemble shares the stage seamlessly, creating a beautiful collage of voice and movement, and the pleasure and joy emanating from this lovely quintet is palpable. The women speak the words of Langston Hughes from the heart, as they do here, and the poetic imagery lingers in space like sculpture. 

A Tribute to Langston Hughes was presented without fancy lights, sound cues, and elaborate costumes, just the actors’ voices and the gentle background murmur of the aquariums housing various species of turtles and fish, but with the undeniable power of strong interconnected women telling their truth and allowing Langston Hughes’  words to speak for themselves. About her involvement with this project, cast member Makeda Farley remarked, “I was looking for something to do, and God brought me to this great group of women who have become my theatre family. I thank God every day for bringing me to this group.”  

In the program’s final poem, ‘Harlem Sweeties,’ the cast members joyfully celebrate their confidence, style, grace, and beauty with the audience. However, this being a Kwame Johnson show, the end is not the end but an invitation for the community to share their reactions to this Yonkers Arts Weekend show. Here is a sampling of the responses shared by the audience members:

 LaShann DeArcy Hall, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, opined, “As a black woman, I felt so empowered by this performance from five beautiful black women. As a resident of Sugar Hill, I loved the poem Harlem Sweeties, paying homage to the array of beautiful black women who inhabit Sugar Hill in Harlem.” 

A member of Pam’s Place Shelter in New York City spoke about the significance of this work by saying, “I came to this show to get out of the shelter, but it was God’s will that I see this beautiful production by these glorious women. Thank God I came here today.”  

Cast member Denise Smith-Fraser added, “I would like to thank Paul Kwame Johnson for his kindness, his patience, and his ability to motivate us to be the best that we can be.” 

Allen Lang is the Director of the Sarah Lawrence College Theatre & Civic Engagement Program and a Theatre Faculty Member

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