CARL HANCOCK RUX: Ideas, Words, All Spilling Off the Table


Ideas flow out of Carl Hancock Rux like bubbles from a water fountain. No thought stands alone fully formed each one swims in an ever- emerging swirl of overlapping, refining, competing perceptions. This 34-year-old writer, poet and recording artist has brought his restless imagination to the stage with Talk, a three-hour Foundry Theater production directed by Marion McClinton that opens on Tuesday at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. 

Talk convenes a panel of experts a filmmaker, a jazz musician, a talk-show host, a literary critic and a performance artist to discuss the legacy of the fictional Archer Aymes, an African-American
writer who created a literary sensation with his first and only novel in 1959 and died an apparent suicide in prison 10 years later. 

Perched in a stairwell smoking cigarettes during a rehearsal at the Public Theater, Mr. Rux speed-rapped about some of the impulses he sought to contain in Talk. "Basically, I was constructing a play of ideas that challenged my desire to write essays about culture," he said. "I'd written a play on commission from the Public Theater called Smoke, Lilies and Jade, whose central figure was Richard Bruce Nugent, a poet and painter in the Harlem Renaissance. He was a friend and contemporary of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston but unlike them never became famous. At the turn of the century, the political ideology supported artists who explored African-Americanism. Nugent operated outside of that. He was more interested in being a modernist than in being a New Negro. I wanted to explore race, identity, fame who gets to make it and who doesn't. 

"With Talk, " he continued, "I decided to take that a step further. I wanted to look at how that turn-of-the-century idealization of the African American is played out over the rest of the 20th century,
from the Surrealists' fixation on the performance of blackness to Norman Mailer talking about the White Negro. Beyond that, it's about 10,000 years of culture and its influence on American art production.
We say as an American culture and society we owe so much to the Greeks. What does it mean to be a marginalized figure living in a great house of antiquity? What does Euripides mean to James Baldwin?"

Furthermore, said Mr. Rux: "In order to be critiqued well, to be accepted, to be financially successful, an artist has to make work that looks something like the art that already exists in the marketplace. But
what if someone says, `I don't want to do that, I want to do something else?' "

The question is clearly personal. Mr. Rux's career defies pigeonholes. He has written a number of plays, published a volume of poetry and prose called "agan Operetta, put out a CD of music and poetry
recitations called Rux Revue on Sony Records, and, recently, written and performed texts for dance-theater pieces by Marlies Yearby and Jane Comfort. 

Talk was commissioned by the Foundry, an adventurous Off Broadway production company started in 1994 by Melanie Joseph, and developed last summer at the Sundance Theater Laboratory in Utah. The cast includes Reg E. Cathey, James Himelsbach, Karen Kandel, John Seitz, Maria Tucci and Anthony Mackie; the set, by James Noone, looks as if it had been sliced from a forgotten antiquities museum. 

In the play, Mr. Rux purposely alludes to Plato's Socratic dialogues by naming his characters Crito, Ion, Apollodoros, Meno and Phaedo. (Mr. Mackie plays the Moderator.) In the course of the play, their
discourse ranges from spirited philosophizing to comic out-of-control intellectual grandstanding. And the mythology that unravels around Archer Aymes (a composite of numerous 1950's writers, most notably
Anatole Broyard) intersects with the mother-son drama at the heart of Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae.

Under the play's many layers of theory and ritual lies a glimpse of Mr. Rux's own family drama: he is someone whose mother was mentally ill and who was brought up in foster care. "I grew up with a great
sense of mythology," he said, "wondering who my mother was, why she did what she did, why she was crazy, who was my father, what did he look like. Difficult as it was to grow up that way, it made it easy for me to make art in a nontraditional way."

New York Times, April 7, 2002