Actor Gavin Lawrence and playwright Carlyle Brown have had a mutually beneficial collaboration over the past five years. Since 2007, Lawrence has starred in nine productions of Brown's historic drama "Pure Confidence," about freedom-buying slavery-era jockey Simon Cato.
Lawrence rode that horse on stages across the country -- from Denver and Sarasota to Louisville and New York, where his strikingly assured performance garnered an Audelco Award.
Earlier this spring, the two theatrical partners acted opposite each other in the premiere of Brown's "American Family" at Park Square.
Now they have teamed up again for Brown's latest play, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been ...," which premieres Saturday at the Guthrie Theater. The production, directed by Noël Raymond, is produced by Brown, who also acts in it. Lawrence plays poet Langston Hughes.
"As a playwright, my job is to create the action and the actor's job is to clarify it," Brown said earlier this week, explaining his admiration for Lawrence. "Gavin is a powerful, fluid actor. I can't say exactly what he does, but he's brilliant at it."
"Gavin is just so fierce," agreed Raymond, who directed two workshops of a play that Brown started writing in 2007. "He works really hard to find the inner life and the clearest expression of whatever character he's playing. He's always right there with you and wants you to share the moments onstage."
Joe McCarthy in the house
The action in "Are You Now" takes place during the Joseph McCarthy-led witch hunts of the 1950s. Set in Harlem in 1953, the play focuses on Hughes, one of the legions of artists called before Congress to explain his views and his work.
In the drama, whose cast includes actors Steve Hendrickson, John Middleton and Peter Rachleff, Hughes is having trouble sleeping on the eve of his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on un-American Activities. To deal with his insomnia, the poet tries to compose a poem. The play is a work of fiction, even as it draws on actual testimony that Hughes gave to Congress.
"My history plays are about the present, about things repeating themselves," said Brown. "A sure sign of repression in any era is that choices get reduced to binary opposites. You're either good or evil, for us or against us, as they did then for communism and as some are doing now with regards to terrorism."
But for artists, issues are never black-and-white, he said.
"Back in those very benighted times, the only white people interested in rights issues of blacks were leftists. For most blacks who were attracted to the left, they were not drawn by dogma. They were attracted to the idea that there are whites out there who accepted them as full humans entitled to all the rights and whatnot enshrined in the Constitution."
"Langston spoke up for the common man, and fought battles that we don't have to fight," added Lawrence, also a playwright.
The actor said that playing Hughes onstage closes a loop in his life.
"Langston is one of my formative heroes -- we go way back," said Lawrence, who emigrated to the United States from Guyana at age 8 and settled with his family in Washington, D.C. "I was in third grade when I first got exposed to Langston, and I was 11 when we created characters from his poetry in my first summer theater camp at Howard [University]. He's a big part of my consciousness."
Playing Hughes adds to the body of substantive characters that Lawrence, a Howard University graduate, has depicted across the country. In Cincinnati, he essayed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in "Thurgood," which starred Laurence Fishburne on Broadway. Lawrence called that 105-minute one-man show "a beautiful monster."
Lawrence played fiery trumpeter Levee in August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Arena Stage, and played ex-con and dreamer Sterling in "Two Trains Running" at Penumbra.
"All these characters are like me in that they're trying to create their own destinies, without losing themselves," he said. "Simon is proud of who he is. Levee wants to be valued, not cheated out of his creativity and art. Thurgood Marshall is a giant with a huge soul. Langston is up there testifying, and he faces some tough challenges between his private self and what he shows in public. He has to confront people who are searching for evil, but who come to embody what they hunt. Carlyle has written some powerful stuff."