Philosopher talks


Langston Hughes’ The Simple Stories


Conceived and Adapted by Sandy Moore and Charles E. Gerber

Directed by Charles E. Gerber

WorkShop Theater Company (

Jewel Box Theater, 312 West 36 St., 4th Floor East

Equity approved showcase (through February 16, 2008)

Review by David Mackler


It seems a little obvious for Langston Hughes to have called his tales about Jesse B. Semple The Simple Stories, but as presented in Sandy Moore and Charles E. Gerber’s adaptation at the Workshop Theater Company, Semple is the kind of street-corner philosopher beloved by authors whose point is less about character and more about philosophy. And the stories are obvious, structured by a writer rather than really lived by a character, so a lot is riding on Sandy Moore’s shoulders as he portrays Semple and the various people around him in Hughes’ vignettes.


But, damned if he doesn’t pull it off. First as Hughes himself, sitting at a typewriter, who advises the audience that his characters are not really based on specific people but there are lots of people like them – white folks, colored folks, just folks. And it’s all set in a bar called The Wishing-Well. That’s quite a load to lift, but when Moore slides into Semple, the heaviness of symbolism and metaphor become easier to overlook. So the story “Feet Live Their Own Life,” which starts out with the observation that “you can know a man by his feet” becomes more about the interplay between Semple and his friend Boyd, his more-educated, less-drunk conversational foil. “‘Is that when you took to drink?’ ‘Drink took to me!’” and the unsurprising revelation that Semple likes his beer and likes his women makes Moore make Semple real.


There’s also plenty of post-WWII history here, and “A Toast to Harlem” gives a glimpse of what Semple’s life is like. A rumination on how he ended up in a furnished room in Harlem turns into the joy of being surrounded by people like himself, the joy of seeing a Negro drive the A train, and greeting Duke Ellington on the street. “Semple Prays a Prayer” is heavy-handed, but becomes more real with Semple’s acknowledgement that a job is required for there to be happiness between a man and a woman. It’s Hughes going on about religion and war, but when the character peeks through, the point is pointedly made. “Income Tax” also has a point buried in a tale about a cab driver who as a soldier was mistreated at a Mississippi army base. Moore knows the story is about anger and pride, and when the story gets there, it’s powerful.


He’s also powerful in “Last Whipping” which eventually becomes about Semple’s relationship with his Aunt Lucy, and his first moment of maturity. Again, Hughes gets to the point eventually, and by now the audience knows that where one of Semple’s stories starts is rarely where it ends. “Banquet in Honor” is also a bit of preaching to the choir, but it also gives Moore a couple of other great characters – Semple’s girlfriend, and the banquet’s guest of honor: a crotchety, irascible old man who tells off his honorers.


The set (designed by Gerber, set dressing by Carli Beardsley) is deceptively simple, some chairs, a bar, a table, but its silver gleam sets it off well in the black box theater, and the lighting (also by Gerber) unobtrusively shifts mood and attention. Gerber and Moore have worked well together here, but focusing a little more on the historical aspect and less on the ‘wise’ utterances of the outwardly foolish man might make for a more completely fulfilling experience.


Box Score:


Writing: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2



Copyright 2008 by David Mackler



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