While there are still barely a handful of theater companies in Chicago operated by African Americans, any frequent theatergoer in the city (and suburbs) can attest to the fact that there is now an astonishingly large and exceptionally talented pool of African-American actors working on stages here. And they range in age from those fresh out of university theater programs to “seasoned veterans” who have been on the scene for decades, even when opportunities were far more limited.
‘EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS’
When: Through Jan. 29, 2017
Where: Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Run time: 95 minutes, with one intermission
The evidence? Look no further than such recent, widely varied productions as “Man in the Ring” at Court Theatre, “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys” at Raven Theatre, “Octagon,” now at Jackalope Theatre, “Dreamgirls” at Porchlight Music Theatre, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, and pretty much everything at Black Ensemble Theatre. And these examples form just the tip of the iceberg.
The latest bravura ensemble can be found at Writers Theatre, where director Ron OJ Parson has assembled a uniformly sensational cast for Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links,” a 1991 play he first brought to a Chicago stage in 1995 with his impressive but short-lived Onyx Theatre company.
The current blistering production, full of both comic exuberance and inevitable tragedy — all animated by the kind of vividly defined characters and layered storytelling fans of August Wilson will appreciate — is shattering. Think of it as a Greek drama (a character even makes the analogy), but one that unfolds in the Top O’ the Hill Cafe, a time-worn shack outfitted with a bar and jukebox that serves as a haven for black men in a rural, Ku Klux Klan-infested corner of East Texas, circa 1955. Change may be down the road a piece as a big new highway project is underway. And while it has provided jobs for some, no one in is convinced it will help business or change the racial divide. And it already has been the scene of some worrisome “incidents.”
Running the cafe since the death of her big-hearted father is Charlesetta Simpkins (Tyla Abercrumbie, perfection as the beautiful, independent force of order and resistance). And gathered there on a steamy summer evening are a group of black men with considerably different experiences and attitudes toward life, yet all united by the racial reality.
Among the most mellow of these men is Columbus Frye (Alfred Wilson, impeccable in his reprise of the role he played back in 1995), who inherited some property, and makes a living as a benevolent landlord who rents apartments to relatives and others, and often overlooks missed payments because he simply believes that having secured his basic needs he can help his fellow man. Sharing a table with him is Adolph (a beguiling turn by Willie B.), a veteran blinded in the war, who has the soul and learning of a poet-philosopher, and a notable handle on the laws of nature and the cycle of life and death. (“We are all links in the food chain,” he says,, adding that we humans are bred by the gods for sport, and feed their gluttony.
The men with shorter fuses are Roy Moore (Kelvin Roston Jr., ideal as the man with a short fuse), who has a mad crush on Charlesetta (she zestily fends him off, and reminds him that she can take herself to the movies “on colored night”); Buckshot (Antoine Pierre Whitfield, a truly larger-than-life presence), a voluble farmer with some prison time behind him but an undiminished appetite for life, as exemplified by the way he dances with Carlesetta; and Boochie Reed (the ever charismatic A.C. Smith), a gambling man with a chilling gift for prognostication.
At the uneasy center of the play is the younger XL Dancer (Namir Smallwood, a mesmerizingly intense, bone-thin actor, who also gave a memorable performance in “The Grapes of Wrath” at The Gift Theatre last season). XL has worked for years for the powerful white family who essentially runs the area, and has become their trusted employee (some might say their useful Uncle Tom, despite his streak of fierce independence). And it his interaction with Delmus Green (Luce Metrius), the educated but naive young man – who has fallen in love with the wrong girl, and just wants to make enough money to head off to Houston with her – that will send everyone spinning toward disaster.
Designer Jack Magaw’s richly atmospheric set, complete with a towering forest of trees, along with Kathy A. Perkins evocative lighting, Joshua Horvath’s powerhouse sound effects, and Christine Pascual’s character-defining costumes, enhance the performances. And Matt Hawkins’ thrilling fight direction keeps the actors believable (yet alive). And despite the violence, it is the delicious talk about everything from work and money, to language, desire, dreams, and the most basic life and death issues (including the whole matter of pork), that is at the heart and soul of “East Texas Hot Links.” Exceptional.