Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Little Ham

Call & Post - April 2, 1936
Gilpin Scores in “Little Ham”

Offering the premiere of Langston Hughes’ newest vehicle, the Gilpin Players of the Playhouse Settlement have made another step froward. The Karamu Theatre has been filled to capacity for every performance since the play opened last Tuesday. A vivid portrayal of life in Harlem.
Little Ham is hilarious. I mean, it’s hysterical. Reading the cadences of these richly drawn, broad characters, it was impossible not to hear them, to see them. Maybe, hopefully, someday I will. I have been enamored of Hughes as a poet. I had not experienced any of his plays. I was wildly surprised.

Hamlet Hitchcock Jones is a player, but that is not to judge, everyone in this show is a player in one form or another and it is a world that does not condemn anyone for how they choose to make their way through life. Gambling, promiscuity, lying any which way to can to ingratiate yourself with anyone to get whatever it is you are looking for, it’s all the same to everyone.

It’s a comedy, and a period comedy at that. Written in 1935, it is set in the late (“roaring”) 20s in a version of Harlem where the people may be poor, but they are eternally optimistic. “Little Ham” as he is known (he is, uh, a short young man) is a charming shoe-shiner and numbers runner and by the end of the evening there have been songs, fist fights, a Mae West impersonation, live gunfire, and a dance contest live onstage - and Ham avoids several self-inflicted scrapes to end the night with everything he wanted as though he had it all coming to him.

Now I must read Mulatto - not as though that were a chore, but it is another of Hughes’ plays which was currently running in New York. That one is a drama, and after reading so much “non-colored” press, I feel the need to read something … less cartoony. Hughes’ work is full of fun and delight, and inoffensive because the characters, though ridiculous in their way, are not the subjects of derision. Not like the black maid in Merrily We Roll Along, who, though so many characters in that show are beneath contempt, is one of two people in the piece who are entirely disposable, who exist as decor. The other would be the Japanese houseboy Ito (why are all Japanese houseboys named Ito?)

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