As one of Chicago’s in-demand directors, Ron OJ Parson has worked at a wide variety of theaters and helmed a long list of major works including many from August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” a very scary version of “Wait Until Dark,” Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” to name just a few. But there’s one play that in his mind he kept going back to — Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links,” the first show he directed in Chicago.
‘East Texas Hot Links’
When: To Jan. 22
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor, Glencoe
Parson has long wanted to restage the play, which was a 1995 (and 1998) critically acclaimed hit for the now-disbanded Onyx Theatre, an African-American company he founded with a group of like-minded friends. He says the play stuck with him over the years (“It’s such a compelling drama”) and getting it back on stage in Chicago became a sort of mission. That quest is coming to fruition this season at Writers Theatre.
“I want to capture the same energy we had back then but with a new cast,” Parson says. “The characters are rich and layered and that appeals to me. You might get caught up in thinking it will all be the same but then you hear all these different rhythms and you realize the poetry is still there in a new way with this new group of actors.”
It’s early summer 1955 in the piney woods of East Texas, a land of vintage blues and hardscrabble lives where the new interstate under construction just might change everything. It’s also the heart of Ku Klux Klan territory, a fact never far from the minds of the men gathered at the roughhewn Top O’ the Hill Café. As the men joke, argue and gossip, talk turns to the murder of a young black man and the two others who are missing; all worked for the rich white man in charge of building the highway.
“It’s a play about how we feed off of each other,” playwright Lee says, adding that Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky were early influences. “I liked how in their writing nothing is ever only what it appears to be. Their interesting, nuanced methods and ideas created great drama.”
The play also is rich with the brand of finely honed characters and dialogue found in August Wilson’s dramas, and that’s no accident says Lee who also is an actor and has performed in many of Wilson’s plays. The best advice he received when he began writing was from Wilson.
“August was in many ways an inspiration to me as a writer,” Lee says, in a phone conversation from his home in San Marcos, Texas. “He told me at one point that it was ok to let the characters talk. That was the moment when a burden was lifted off of me to go ahead and let them talk and tell the story.”
And speak they do in the Texas dialect and colloquialisms that Lee grew up around. Cafe owner Charlesetta (Tyla Abercrumbie) serves moonshine and beer to her regulars: braggart Roy (Kelvin Roston Jr.), kindhearted Columbus (Alfred H. Wilson), blind philosopher Adolph (Willie B), gambler Boochie (A.C. Smith), simpleminded Buckshot (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) and surly XL (Namir Smallwood), who is cozy with his white bosses at the construction site. Trouble brews around young Delmus (Luce Metrius), the youngest of the lot, as he explains his plans to find his fortune outside of East Texas.
“Eugene has a gift for dialogue,” Parson points out. “He’s a great wordsmith in the phrasing and rhythms of the words. It’s like music, like jazz and blues with words.”
Parson feels “East Texas Hot Links” remains relevant today and points to Black Lives Matter, police shootings and the uptick in racist talk to prove his point. (Lee would like to bring the story to a wider audience and is in the process of raising money for a film version of the play; Samuel L. Jackson is on board as a producer.)
“I think the timing is right,” Parson says. “Perhaps it’s better to stage it now than it would have been during the Obama years because then people were caught up in thinking everything was going to be great. And now we know it’s not so great and there’s much more work to be done across the board.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.