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Finding a ‘Hobo King’ for the homeless in fervent new play

LaMarr J. Kidd (left) plays DoodleBug and Kyle Smith plays Lazy Boy in Javon Johnson's play "Hobo King," a world premiere production by Congo Square Theatre. (Photo: Sam Roberson)

We all see them, miraculously clinging to life, in neighborhoods throughout the city. Drive along sections of Lower Wacker Drive, near the garage level of luxury hotels, and even on the most Arctic nights they are there, wrapped in blankets like forgotten bundles. Some have established little tent cities under the viaducts of North Lake Shore Drive. Others huddle in the doorways near the theaters of West Randolph, perhaps hoping for a dollar from a passerby. And in the summer they are often on the move, wheeling a grocery cart full of possessions as they search for a discreet corner of a park.

We see them, this vast homeless population (one estimate says it reaches 140,000 in Chicago alone), but more often than not we do nothing. We move on, thinking we could never survive under such conditions for even a single night. And often, neither social workers nor others can cajole these people to go to shelters, or to the hospital. Some suffer from mental illness, or alcohol or drug addiction; others are just penniless lost souls who, for one reason or another, have been unable to keep a roof over their head.

In Javon Johnson’s powerhouse play “Hobo King,” now receiving a stunningly realized world premiere by Congo Square Theatre, these lost and homeless souls are given memorable names, histories, callings and dreams. And they are brought to life in a fantasia that is all too real by a supremely talented ensemble of nine actors — under the fierce yet almost balletic direction of Anthony Irons — that keeps you enthralled from first moment to last.

Highly recommended
When: Through March 5
Where: Congo Square Theatre at
the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Tickets: $25
Info: (773) 935-6875; www.congosquaretheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission

It all begins when a sinuous, break-dancing fellow known as Lazy Boy (Kyle Smith, an extraordinary dancer who invariably catches my eye in Black Ensemble Theatre shows) collapses in sleep and is roused and beaten to death by two cops (Jake Ganzer and Ann Delaney) who demanded he evacuate the premises. (This violent approach is the play’s most questionable and “easy” choice, though it is said to be based on a true story. In most cases I’ve observed, the police generally take the same benign neglect approach as others when it comes to the homeless.) The violent death has a profound effect on the self-styled “family” of homeless at the center of the story. And their anger is further ignited by the fact that the city is about to pass an ordinance that will uproot them from their current camping ground.

Velma Austin plays Freda and ... is ... in Javon Johnson's play, "Hobo King," in its world premiere production by Congo Square Theatre. (Photo: ....)

Velma Austin plays Freda and Lyle Miller plays Preacher Man in Javon Johnson’s play “Hobo King,” in its world premiere production by Congo Square Theatre. (Photo: Sam Roberson)

As in most “families,” these people look after each other, at the very same time they irritate and anger each other. Here the group includes: Doodlebug (Lamarr J. Kidd in a performance of frenzy and desperation), the Savion Glover-like tap dancer with a drug habit who dreams of Harlem, and erects a little shrine for Lazy Boy; Toothpick (a haunting turn by Brian Keys), a soulful street musician; Blind Man (the wonderfully unpredictable Lionel Gentle), whose lilting Jamaican accent covers up a tormented spirit, and Preacher Man (Lyle Miller, another Black Ensemble regular, in a role that reveals a dramatically different side of his talent), who uses a wheelchair and is steeped in the Bible. The sole woman among them is the tempestuous Freda (Velma Austin), whose tragic life involved the loss of a child and more, and Austin is simply a total force of nature — a hurricane all her own.

Enter Slim (Edgar Sanchez in a wholly charismatic turn). He has moved back to the community after losing everything in the cataclysm of Hurricane Katrina and is now selling Streetwise. But with his feverish activist spirit he tries to organize this dispossessed little community, drafting a constitution that calls for dignity and justice, staging a protest at City Hall to prevent passage of the ordinance, and calling for the selection of a king, a job none of the men really want to assume.

Along with Johnson’s stirring rants and sometimes visionary dialogue, much of “Hobo King” unfolds in movement (the actual choreography, credited to both Irons and his cast, flows like brilliant improvisation), with the abiding message one of the need for love, respect, faith, unity and, to be sure, the right kind of help from outside.

Andrei Onegin’s concrete, graffiti-strewn set, Richard Norwood’s lighting, Delia Ridenour’s distressed costumes and Sean Sykes’ fine sound and musical direction capture a tattered underworld-like environment. And while not everyone survives, there is enough of an upbeat note at the end to make you believe the homeless problem, which requires multiple approaches, does have some solutions.

NOTE: In conjunction with this production, Congo Square has established a strong relationship with Featherfist, a Chicago organization devoted to “giving power and purpose to those in the homeless community by assisting them in their advancement toward self-sufficiency.” Visit www.featherfist.org.

Edgar Sanchez plays Slim in Javon Johnson's play, "Hobo King," now in a world premiere production by Congo Square Theatre. (Photo: ....)

Edgar Sanchez plays Slim in Javon Johnson’s play “Hobo King,” now in its world premiere by Congo Square Theatre. (Photo: Sam Roberson)