Even so, “The Black Clown” has a strong connection to better-known Hughes poems like “A Black Pierrot” and “Heart.” The character of the clown recurs throughout his early work — a means of exploring race and sexuality, as well as vaudevillian blackface. In many instances (though not “The Black Clown”), Hughes directly refers to Pierrot, the naïve, sensitive commedia dell’arte clown who inspired Picasso, Schoenberg, T.S. Eliot and other modernists of the early 20th century.
For Hughes, the figure of the clown was a theatrical analogue to jazz, which he called “the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.” Pierrot, Mr. Tines said, “a plastic figure that many people can find themselves mirrored within.”
Contemporary audiences may also see in the clown a reflection of “code-switching,” the practice of altering one’s speech and behavior to fit different social situations.
“We’re getting at this complex dynamic where people in African-American cultures are forced to perform and put on multiple consciousnesses,” Mr. Schachter said. “There’s an element to the show where no matter how we try to escape it, the audiences at Lincoln Center and elsewhere probably are going to be predominantly affluent and white, looking at black Broadway performers entertaining onstage.”
This presents a challenge, he added: “How can we do that in a way that does honor to the history and intensity of the poem’s message without also being admonishing?”
That message — a celebration of common humanity coupled with an unflinching look at humanity’s collective failings — remains timely in an era of resurgent ethnic nationalism and metastasizing income inequality.
With “The Black Clown,” Mr. Tines said, “Hughes was tapping into and providing a blueprint for how social justice has happened in the past, how it needed to happen in his time, and how it needs to happen today.”
The Black Clown
Wednesday through July 27 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Manhattan; 212-721-6500, mostlymozart.org.