Playwright and poet David Mills encountered the work of legendary American writer Langston Hughes in the way that most American children do – through grade school educators. But what he eventually did, and continues to do, with Hughes’ work is extraordinary.
For the past 16 years Mills has been performing a one-man play based on the life and work of Hughes. And he will be performing the play on Friday, Feb. 19 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Richard J. Ernst Cultural Center in Annandale as part of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Harlem Renaissance Fair. The event, an evening of Jazz, dance, poetry and displays, will feature The Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra, The Guardian Dance Company, living history vignettes, exhibits, hor d’oeuvres by Margaret’s Soul Food and Mills’ show.
Mills said he got the idea to create the play when someone he knew suggested that he perform a play based on a black writer. And since Mills spent three years as a writer-in-residence in Hughes’ Harlem residence, a New York City landmark, he decided to base play on Hughes. Mills said that he worked and lived among artifacts from Hughes’ life, like a typewriter Hughes used, a chair he used to sit in and some plates he used.
Also he said that, relevant to this region, a photo of Hughes working as a busboy at what used to be the Wardman Park Hotel – but is now the site of the first Busboys and Poets, named after Hughes, restaurant on 14th and V Streets in Washington, D.C. – hung on a wall of the house when he was a writer-in-residence there.
“It was pretty intense working and living there as a writer of color and actor and being inspired by these effects and his cultural and natural resonance,” Mills said. When he started building the one-man show, Mills began with Hughes’ poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Mother to Son,” which he already had memorized and added other well-known pieces to the show. And over the years he’s added performances of Hughes’ characters, short stories and lesser known poems to the show.
Mills said that his relationship with the life and work of Hughes has transformed as he’s created, changed and performed the play over the years. “I have much more profound respect for what I consider the populist or every person voice in his aesthetic,” Mills said. “I didn’t always trust that, just on paper, but I see when presenting the work its impact and I think Hughes made deliberate aesthetic choice to write in a populist voice….That’s a thing that by doing the performance I’ve grown to appreciate about his writing.”
Another thing Mills has grown to appreciate about Hughes’ catalog are his short stories, two of which, “Rock, Church” and “Thank You Ma’am,” he’ll perform at the Harlem Renaissance Fair. “When you mention Langston Hughes people say ‘Oh, he’s a poet’ but he’s also phenomenal short story writer,” Mills said. “And he doesn’t get the credit, unless it’s in some academic circles, for that ability….Most people could not name one Langston Hughes short story or didn’t know that he wrote them and he’s a craftsperson par excellence as a short story writer.”
Mills encouraged area residents to come out to see the performance to support the legacy of Hughes, who was discovered as a writer while living in Washington D.C.
“Hughes has some roots there,” Mills said. “Like I said, he worked at the Wardman Park Hotel, so coming to support this is also supporting a part of Hughes’ time and life whereby he was connected with the D.C. area.”
• For more information about The Harlem Renaissance Fair, visit tinnerhill.org/events/harlem-renaissance-fair.