Langston Hughes and Anne Frank never met. But Johnson State College professor F. Reed Brown is bringing the Harlem Renaissance poet and the teenaged wartime diarist together on stage - along with Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson and Helen Keller - in a new play called Voices. Brown has fashioned a script from the historical figures' own words. Another JSC prof, Diane Huling-Reed, has set several poems to original music, which a chorus of four singers will perform.
Brown has been incubating the project for almost two decades, but returned to it in earnest two years ago. What unifies these five figures? "The jumping-off point is that they were all writing in isolation," Brown says. "And that intrigued me." The Nazis drove Frank into hiding - literally, in a cramped Dutch attic. Keller's disability limited her interaction with other people. Both Hughes and Dickinson were unable to live openly as homosexuals. Thoreau deliberately chose to remove himself from society.
Yet, Brown found, all five shared a deep need to express themselves prolifically, in poems, letters and journals. "Our look into their souls is through what they wrote," he explains.
Organizing the material was a time-consuming process, involving "a lot of Post-It notes," he shares with a laugh. "I started to look for the big universal things on the human condition. They spoke to love, marriage, passion, death, family . . . It's been hard whittling it down."
On stage, the characters wear period costumes and wield the historically correct writing implements. (The Thoreau family owned a pencil factory, so Henry was a pencil man, for example.) They don't interact often with each other, but their words flow naturally together. "They all spoke to all of those big issues," Brown notes.
In the play's epilogue, Dickinson summarizes the mission of Voices. "The poet lights the lamp and then goes out himself. But the light goes on - and on." Brown believes the impact of Anne Frank's life demonstrates this most poignantly. "Here's this 14-year-old girl whose light was extinguished in a concentration camp, yet her light goes on and on," he marvels. "The universal themes that this girl wrote about: It's sort of mind-boggling."