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Soul Brothers

Martin Luther King Jr. meets Langston Hughes at Pikes Peak Center



By all accounts, poet and writer Langston Hughes and Rev. Martin Luther King never met. Still, it's hard to deny that in many philosophical ways, the preacher and the poet were brothers of the soul.

"Their relationship was primarily cultural, not personal," said actor Felix Justice, who will portray King in this weekend's performance of An Evening with Langston and Martin, along with his more famous friend and colleague, Danny Glover, at the Pikes Peak Center. A separate reception for $75 also benefits the Pike Peak Urban League, the Imagination Celebration and UCCS's Theatreworks.

"But their messages were strikingly similar," added Justice, who has portrayed his hero for audiences for more than 10 years. "Langston believed in desegregation as did King. For the most part, [Hughes] adhered to nonviolent direct action. He came down much closer to MLK's philosophy than to the kind of aggression and violence being espoused by others."

Hughes did live to know of King, the Montgomery bus boycotts and many of the minister's other protests. But the poet died at age 65, roughly a year before the younger civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis. At the time, King was supporting the very kind of broad platform Hughes had written about for decades -- one of dignity and rights for workers and the poor.

But while theatrical and political tracts traditionally juxtaposed Malcolm X's militant views with King's more Ghandian approach, An Evening with Langston and Martin promises a rare glimpse into the historical continuity, and philosophical divergences, between these two great voices for freedom.

"What Langston and others did kind of set the stage for MLK," said Justice. "Langston tended to speak in the black vernacular and King tended to use a more prophetic tone. But stripped bare, their messages were basically the same."

Consider one of Hughes' more popular verses, "I dream a world," from a libretto he wrote about Haiti in the 1930s, and see if you hear any themes, turns of phrase, and broad philosophical idealism that King echoed decades later in one of his more famous oratorios.

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
and peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day....

Like King, Hughes was never content to advocate for the mere granting of equality from the white man. His verse was transcendent, speaking against injustice and of replacing with love and peace humanity's propensity for greed, vanity and hatred.

Because King and Hughes didn't know each other, Glover and Justice do not try to weave their own rapport into a simulated dialogue between the minister and the poet -- though the two actors have been friends for decades.

Rather, the duo offer up two solo acts, with Glover stepping out of character from time to time to provide important context for Hughes' work. Because people are more familiar with MLK, Justice says he stays in character throughout his performance, re-enacting many of the speeches that don't get top billing in civil rights retrospectives.

The 90-minute script gets amended regularly, said Justice, so he wasn't promising exactly which speeches he would chose to re-enact. But be assured that the actor will quote well beyond "I have a dream" and "I have been to the mountain top," the speeches most often re-aired during MLK retrospectives.

Expect lesser-known sermons, including those that decry poverty and the Vietnam War, which King came to oppose soon before he was killed -- words that won't necessarily make the audience feel warm and fuzzy. "A prophet's job is to make people cringe," Justice said of MLK's more soul-wrenching talks.

Justice speaks of himself as a disciple of King, an instant convert after hearing King speak in Los Angeles in 1960 when the actor had just ended a tour with the Air Force in Germany. "I had heard of the Montgomery bus boycott. But I really didn't know much about King at the time.

"I came out of the black church and I was used to having eloquent oratory, but King's intellectual range was amazing, citing the Bible, Greek myth," he noted. "I was extremely impressed. I was 21 years old at the time and became an instant King disciple."

To this day, Justice says he's a believer in what he called "radical Christianity, to fight evil with love, fusing doctrine of direct political action with personal practice of peacefulness toward other people."

Like King, Hughes also took a stand against the wars of his day, most notably World War II. To Hughes, it seemed strange to fight for freedom across the globe when blacks in America were still far from equal under the laws and practices at home. "Look like by now/Folks ought to know/It's hard to beat Hitler/protecting Jim Crow," he wrote in one jibe.

Langston and Martin have other things in common as well. Both were tracked as "subversives" by the FBI, and accused by the right-wing forces of their day of being communists. They both felt the double heat of racial and political persecution.

Though Hughes never joined the Communist Party, by the 1940s, he had drawn the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee to the Committee on Un-American Activities. In a backroom deal with McCarthy and committee legal pitbull Roy Cohn, Hughes agreed to distance himself from an earlier fondness for socialism, testifying that he fully supported the American form of government. In exchange, Hughes was not asked to finger any other communists.

Coming after the McCarthy era, it's no wonder that MLK steered clear of socialist and communist rhetoric. And there are other differences, too.

Already a literary giant by the time King came along, Hughes came of age in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, gravitating toward theater, jazz, radio and Broadway. For his part, MLK came of age in the 1950s, more influenced by the church and his faith in God than Hughes, who penned many poems questioning God.

Indeed, Hughes was often far more blunt and his tone more acerbic than the preacher, who often tried to appeal to the higher-minded instincts of his oppressors. There're no warm fuzzy feelings to be found in Hughes' poems.

One poem, "Christ in Alabama," got Hughes into a heap of trouble for pointing out that Christ himself had more in common with the oppressed black than the so-called Christians who practiced slavery, Jim Crow, etc. etc. But to many, Hughes' poems are not an attack on Christ or Christianity per se, but on the hypocrisy of Christians who espoused racism.

In any event, Hughes' politics and religious views are only one part of a complex, rich and relatively long career when compared to King's truncated life. Over his five-decade career, Hughes extended his writing talents to songs, librettos, essays, newspaper columns, short stories, novels, plays, speeches, radio scripts, even movies.

All the while, he not only skewered the practitioners of injustice, he celebrated the deep musical, artistic and cultural history of those with African decent, both here and abroad.

An early Pan-Africanist, Hughes traveled to Africa and Europe and became a cultural ambassador of sorts to Latin America, translating works from Latin American and Caribbean writers. By the 1960s, somewhat disheartened that his goal of racial equality was still far from complete, he wrote "Flotsam," his last poem to appear in the NAACP journal, The Crisis, in 1967.

On the shoals of nowhere
Cast up--my boat,
Bow all broken
No Longer afloat

On the shoals of nowhere,
wasted my song--
yet taken by the sea wind
And blown along

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