Chicago Theatre Review
A Sizzling Drama About Survival
East Texas Hot Links – Writers Theatre
Eugene Lee is known as a seasoned television, film and stage actor, who’s also written for every form of media. Called a “Wilsonian Warrior” for his work as an actor in many of August Wilson’s plays, this talented writer has learned much from his stage time. As a playwright, Lee is particularly wonderful in creating realistic dialogue, seasoned with poetic phrases, that tumble easily off his actors’ tongues. In this 90-minute one act drama, he’s written a character study of seven men and one spunky woman that’s a portrait of rural African-American life in Texas during the Jim Crow years. It’s ultimately a tale of survival during a very turbulent time in history.
The play opens in the rustic, rundown Top o’ the Hill Cafe, set deep within the pine forests of eastern Texas. It’s 1955, years before integration and the Civil Rights Movement. This is a bar bearing a sign that says “For Colored Only,” just as drinking fountains and schools in the South during this time were designated “For Whites Only.” Charlesetta is the proprietor who keeps a baseball bat beneath the counter, just in case. She serves moonshine and Pearl Beer, along with pickled pigs feet and a heaping helping of warmth and companionship. Her regulars meet in this tiny tavern to nourish each other’s loneliness, expound theories of life and playfully annoy their friends.
Among this close-knit community gathered at Charlesetta’s drinkery are Columbus Frye, a man who’s seen much of life and works as a landlord. One building he rents to his single, somewhat irritating young brother-in-law, XL Dancer, who works for a white road construction company. XL mostly keeps to himself, but he’s filled with secrets and surrounded by rumors and information that he doesn’t dare reveal to his peers. Mr. Frye shares his table with a blind companion and old friend named Adolph, who has also seen his share of life and, before going blind, has read a number of great books. Living in eastern Texas and once a student at the local college has made Adolph a respected prophet, of sorts. Between Columbus and Adolph, information, advice and judgment are doled out by the glassful to all who listen.
Roy Moore is another member of this tight community, a young, carefree man who mostly enjoys flirting with Charlesetta and mouthing off to everyone else about everything. Buckshot is a larger-than-life presence who spent three years incarcerated. While in prison, he spent time meditating on his existence. Now he’s as quick with his wit and temper as he is with a hunting knife, but Buckshot still enjoys life and all it has to offer. Delmus Green is a young, educated man who’s fallen for the preacher’s young daughter. He would like nothing more than to snag a decent-paying job with the road construction company, for whom XL works, buy a car and move away from this tiny town with his girlfriend. Last to arrive at the Cafe is Boochie Reed, a financially secure giant of a man who has a unique gift for telling the future.
For three-fourths of the way through Lee’s drama, wisecracks and opinions flow between glasses of moonshine, alternating between bawdy humor and thoughtful, homely advice. Then, almost without warning, the story erupts in violence. Suddenly these eight characters, who we’ve come to trust and care about, reveal their true colors. The play immediately turns deadly dramatic and the audience feels as if they’ve taken a punch to the stomach.
Ron OJ Parson has smartly directed this taut production with an air of comfort juxtaposed with a sense of impending doom and sorrow. If perceptive from the beginning, audiences may find themselves on the edge of their seats as they start to see the slowly burning fuse that’s set to erupt by the final curtain.
Parson’s technical team is in top form, as well. Scenic designer Jack Magaw has created an authentic-looking backwoods tavern surrounded by a forest that extends out into the audience. The place looks as if it’s been there forever. It’s exactly like any of those small town saloons one sees in rural Texas today. It’s fashioned from old, weather-worn lumber, painted in dull, faded earth tones. Even the floorboards look like they’ve born the countless footsteps of bygone generations. The designer’s attention to detail is meticulous, caressed by Kathy A. Perkins’ beautiful lighting plot. Especially sensational is the battering ram effect of headlights, as cars approach in the darkness. Ms. Perkins’ work is matched by the excellence of Joshua Horvath’s spot-on sound design. From his bluesy pre-show music that gradually dissolves into the jukebox speakers, to the deceptively comforting sound of crickets chirping outside the screen doors, and the terrifying growl of car engines as they approach in the night, Horvath’s sound design is superb.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Tyla Abercrumbie sports a perfect balance of flirtatious femininity and maternal care, combined with a fierceness that would frighten any unwanted guest. Namir Smallwood, such a force of quiet strength in the Gift Theatre’s recent “Grapes of Wrath,” is excellent as the brooding, secretive XL Dancer. Luce Metrius brings a likable youth and energy to his portrayal of Delmus Green. He turns in a performance of great stature as a young man with dreams and goals, but for whom fate will throw a curveball.
Alfred H. Wilson, whose talent has graced many Chicago stages in past years, is a gentle, paternal Columbus Frye. His quiet optimism and belief in the good of everyone, until proven otherwise, is admirable and sweet.
Willie B., another veteran of the stage, is honest and lovable as Adolph, the blind sage who freely administers advice and bon mots from his years of experience. Kelvin Roston, Jr., who’s equally at home in dramas as he is musicals, creates a lasting impression as Roy Moore. The young man, for whom “no”simply implies a challenge, is as likable as he is strong and persistent. Antoine Pierre Whitfield brings it all to the stage as Buckshot. Using his powerful voice and ample body, he creates a jolly giant of a man and a force with whom to be reckoned. And A.C. Smith, an actor with more inspiring credits than any six actors, wields the strength and authority as the Cafe’s true ringleader and guide, Boochie Reed.
These Hot Links aren’t to be confused with sausages. They are the explosive racial attitudes that link together the members of this community and that link each of them to the white power, that’s as close as the burning cross one character sees in the distance. It also relates to the links in the food chain, with Adolph noting how wild dogs will eat the runt of their litter, and how egos consume other egos. The young feed on the old for their knowledge, and the whites…well, it becomes obvious through this gut-wrenching play who they eat in this sizzling drama about survival.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 19-January 22 by Writers Theatre on the Gillian stage, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other Chicago area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.