Chicago Theatre Review
Congo Square world premiere brings passion, urgency to ignored reality
Hobo King – Congo Square Theatre
“I’ll just say it. Chicago has a homeless problem,” writes Anthony Irons, the director of Congo Square Theatre Company’s terrific world-premiere play ‘Hobo King.’ And indeed, Irons is not exaggerating. According to an ABC News report, there were roughly 140,000 homeless people in Chicago last year, and they counted among their ranks scores of people from disparate backgrounds – moms, dads, survivors of abuse, veterans, schoolchildren, and citizens with mental and physical disabilities.
Such nuance, though, is rarely captured in local media’s coverage of the homeless – think of how broad and meaningless the term “homeless” really is, how it fails to capture the lives it affects – and that is why ‘Hobo King’ is yet another triumph for Congo Square.
A richly detailed, intimately observed work following the lives of six homeless Chicagoans on the city’s North Side, the narrative of ‘Hobo King’ is set in motion by the death of Lazy Boy, a charismatic member of the homeless community who was shot by the police. Following his death, the remaining members of the community – such as Preacher Man (the compelling Lyle Miller), Blind Man (the charismatic Lionel Gentle), and Slim (the dynamic Edgar Sanchez) – begin reassessing their place in the city, society’s complete ignorance to their existence, and how they can speak truth to power to improve their lives.
Indeed, much of ‘Hobo King’ is grim. Playwright Javon Johnson (also a company ensemble member) explores his protagonists’ lives with great passion and empathy, and we learn how Slim, for instance, left a nearby homeless shelter after his body became infested with bed bugs. How Freda (a very passionate, funny Velma Austin) slowly descended into madness after losing her baby. How Toothpick (multitalented Brian Keys) was alienated from an early age by his adoptive, white parents. And why Doodlebug, a fast-talking, tap-dancing newbie to the group, was so distraught by Lazy Boy’s murder. All are explored carefully, many with fantastically performed scenes of magical realism.
But ‘Hobo King’ is not, in the end, a depressing play. Johnson and director Irons invest their characters with considerable warmth and charm, and though the play does not arrive at any pat conclusions on the problems we face, it does provide us with a road map for the journey ahead. “I think ‘Hobo King’ shows us what is possible,” Irons says. “Even for a group with so little material wealth or political power, where there is community, there is hope.”
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through March 5, presented by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave
Tickets are available by visiting www.congosquaretheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.