Adaptation of “Anthology of Negro Poets” Rekindles the Lights of Live Theater

Thomas Edison is said to have conducted over 6,000 unsuccessful experiments before landing on the material most optimally suited as filament in what would become the incandescent electric lightbulb. By contrast, it took Kenna J. Moore, associate artistic director of Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, and her honor roll of ingenious collaborators, exactly one try to rekindle the lights of live theatre during the COVID-19 pandemic with a formal innovation described by her as a “theatre/cinema hybrid.”

Inside Le Petit, the historic playhouse that’s been a mainstay of live theatre in New Orleans since 1922, two Ninja-like cameramen trail five actors on the stage, into the pit, the house, up and down the stairwells, to the Romeo and Juliet balcony and the alleyway leading to the street. The spatial exploration reminds us, if we’ve forgotten, that the theatre, however we can access it, is vital for our communion with the essential human work of the dramatic arts.

Because of the show’s witty pleasures and skillful performances, our longing to return to the bricks and mortar theatre becomes intertwined with another longing— that the truths of Black experience be waiting for us whenever we do get back inside.

A half hour in duration, this show begins with a youthful Langston Hughes hovering over a turntable, languidly spinning a jazz fanfare in a shadowy upstage corner of the proscenium, placing and lifting the stylus on the vinyl, starting the trumpets and silencing them to allow the words of his poem to take up where the music leaves off.

He recites The Negro Speaks of Rivers into a standing microphone with a shock mount attachment, giving voice to “Negro poetry” as a bold speech act. As he orates, thinking and smiling as the words form on his lips, this lover of wordsmithery seductively invites us to wade and float into this material, to let it lift and carry us.

The set brightens from sienna and ochre earth tones to the amber of crystallized fossils containing ancient DNA, which in the instance of the poem, holds the memory of the watery transfer of Black bodies from the African continent to the diaspora, and specifically to New Orleans. Our journey has begun at the beginning and landed us where we actually are.

Read the review at Bayou Brief