A special project for the Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Below, Tracie Morris writes about a performance of Robert Lowell’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno with Roscoe Lee Browne and Frank Langella. It was recorded at 92Y on December 21, 1998. Posted on Aug 1, 2019
Last year I had the tremendous honor of being invited to perform at the 92nd Street Y by my long-time pal Tyehimba Jess as part of a bill of poetry and performance. Not only was it wonderful to be invited anywhere by the Pulitzer Prize winner with whom I’ve shared the stage on many an occasion—but it meant a great deal to be invited to the Y in particular with its storied history of extraordinary literary events.
In happily confirming that I would be able to attend the event, I mentioned to Poetry Center director Bernard Schwartz that my first deeply memorable experience at the Y was attending the staged reading of Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno with my family in 1998. Bernard said that it would be almost 20 years exactly from the date of that performance to my reading. I saw that as a bit more than kismet and decided right then that I had to create something special for the occasion. More on that in a bit.
On December 21, 1998, my family and I were excited to attend the staged reading of Lowell’s adaptation of Melville’s novella primarily to see the collaboration between two acting luminaries, the incomparable Frank Langella, whom we’d seen in several theatrical productions over the years, and the extraordinary Roscoe Lee Browne, whom we knew from decades in film and television. Lowell’s heightened dramatic language about a covert slave ship rebellion performed by these two masters was quite the draw, and the Y was packed for the reading of this rarely presented play (itself a fictionalized account of an actual event chronicled by mariner Amasa Delano).
As the play starts, we experience the perspective of the American captain and crew members opining on the superiority of America and their thoughts on Europeans. As the setup was established, I remember waiting, tension building, for the first words spoken by the broken “captain,” Cereno, and self-emancipated slave, Babu, playing subservient. The first word, actually the first sound in Cereno’s first phrase—the “the” in the query: “The Good Samaritan?”—infused the entire play with a sense of death. I’ve never forgotten how breathtaking that utterance was, how Langella made us all forget that we were viewing the reading of a play. We were all on the ship together. The extraordinary sound of his voice has continued to haunt me for twenty years.
Then Roscoe Lee Browne, the late, great and influential thespian to generations of actors (particularly as a guidepost for Black actors), seductively enters the conversation, playing on the stereotype of childlike innocence. His character is describing what “tragedies” have befallen the ship, listing illnesses including scurvy and yellow fever to explain the absence of sailors and the majority presence of slaves on the ship’s deck. Browne’s voice fascinates differently than Langella’s. Browne, the person, was known for his extraordinary elegance, especially his speaking voice and tendency toward the formal. (For example, legend has it that he encouraged the actor Laurence Fishburne to use his full first name and stop using the nickname “Larry” to be taken seriously in his career after he transitioned to an adult actor.) In his portrayal of Babu, Browne sounds plausibly subservient to the characters who are biased toward hearing him as such in the play, but we also hear his performance as a studied playing at being the slave.
The ability to convey this type of duality through the voice, playing both against type and as expected, is something few could pull off as successfully as Browne. He was, throughout his career, an embodiment of a great actor who refused to demean himself to work. You can hear that in the characterization even as he is convincing in his “false role.” Both Browne and Langella are exceptional at demonstrating two or more things at once (I have seen Langella do this to great effect in Noel Coward plays, for example). Watching them play these multiple roles and playing off one another was thrilling to the audience and has stuck with me ever since.
For my own modest presentation at the Y in December 2018, Bernard sent me the original audio recording of Benito Cereno for my reference in generating new work. I felt I had to bring my best and to bring something new. Upon hearing the play again, even after all these years, I am still shaken by Langella’s hollowed voice and remain in a state of admiration for Browne’s silky dissembling.
My poetry is usually experimental and political and recently has included publicly available images as part of my presentation. Toward the end of my “set,” I put up a composite image of Browne, Langella, Melville and the original cover of Moby-Dick. I wanted to set up a series of contrasts that together created an interesting whole. Enter Nina Simone.
I grew up listening to Simone in a household brimming with cultural pride. In fact, it wasn’t until I was a young adult that someone told my brother and I that “Pirate Jenny” was not a Simone song about a slave’s revenge fantasy, but from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. (Although I have heard many stunning interpretations of “Pirate Jenny,” Nina Simone owns this song, in my humble opinion.) She certainly knew how to perform original songs meant for musical theater; as she mentions in her intro of “Mississippi Goddamn”: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it — yet.”
For me, the idea of someone pretending to be a slave when they are actually in control started with the Simone recording that I heard as a child. In creating my homage to Benito Cereno, the artists who presented the staged reading (including the director and other castmates) and the Y itself, I started with an excerpt of Nina Simone’s cover and ended with clips of Langella and Browne’s voices from the play (with my sound poem in between). There was also a series of images of people who suffered for freedom from all over the world in different time periods.
In the years since I first experienced Benito Cereno and the months since I was honored to present work at the Y (with poets LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and Douglas Kearney, poet/musician Janice Lowe and her fellow musicians), I have felt that the Y has become an important part of my ecosystem of hearing and performing uttered word in poetry, song and theater. Melville’s language, Lowell’s language, Langella’s language, Browne’s language, Simone’s language are all interpretations of events, persons, meanings, our values, our country and our world. Each creation is an aspect of a totality that elevates our understanding, reminding that none of us is free unless all of us are free. This is what great art, well-(re)presented, does.
Tracie Morris is the author of seven books, including Who Do With Words (second edition, 2019), Hard Kore/Per-Form (2017) and handholding: 5 kinds (2016). She is currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop.