Now extended thru January 29th!
Brutal, lyrical play hits you on a visceral level
|Writers Theatre presents|
|East Texas hot Links.|
Review by Catey Sullivan
The ever-intensifying burn that simmers through the first 40 or so minutes of Eugene Lee’s East Texas Hot Links just might mesmerize you into a kind of lull. The language of the rural Texas backwoods has both rhythm and lilt. As the patrons of Charlesetta’s ramshackle moonshine café gather at the end of a the day, the dialogue ebbs and flows in a pattern that’s almost hypnotic.
But pay attention to the words that Lee wields like weapons as powerful as the baseball bat Charlesetta (Tyla Abercrumbie) keeps stashed behind the counter, or the massive hunting blade Buckshot (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) wears in a sheaf that runs almost the length of his thigh. There’s violence sparking in the language and around the scraggly pines that (barely) shelters the Top o’ the Hill Café. It’s 1955. Jim Crow – and lynchings – are the law of the land.
Director Ron OJ Parson has a storied history with East Texas Hot Links. He directed it for Onyx Theatre in 1995, announcing himself as a director of immense power and Onyx as a company to watch. Onyx folded years ago, but Parson has made an enduring name for himself as one of the city’s best directors. His remount of East Texas Hot Links for Writers Theatre reveals a drama that hasn’t aged a lick over the years. Lee’s brutal, lyrical play hits on a visceral level as it reveals a world of more than half a century ago, but all too familiar right now.
Lee’s dialogue draws you immediately into the world of East Texas Hot Links. The drawls and the vernacular are textured and musical. Under Parson’s direction, the speakers are an indelible bunch, each character carefully crafted as a richly multi-dimensional, singularly memorable being.
The production is anchored in Abercrumbie’s Charlesetta. She has the glow of an earth mother, the beauty of a siren and the steel of a veteran warrior. Charlesetta might be the only woman in the joint, but the clientele who underestimate her strength do so at their peril. There’s joy as well as grit in Abercrumbie’s performance. When she cuts loose with Buckshot after dropping a nickel in the juke box, it’s a dance that radiates light and heat, exuberance and sensuality.
But along with the Friday night joy, the café is filled with an undertow of impending violence and danger. Several young black men have gone missing from the highway construction site where many in town work. They’ve turned up buried in concrete, discovered only because their hands were left grasping above their cement tombs.
The café’s youngest patron is Delmus Green (Luce Metrius), a jittery 22-year-old determined to leave the woods behind and make a life for himself and his girl far from rural Texas. Green has a job lined up for late Friday night, and he sees it as his ticket out. The café regulars also include XL Dancer (Namir Smallwood), a man who fancies himself above the rest because he’s trusted by the white men running the town. Dancer has lined up the mysterious job Green is so eager to take, a gig that’s at the bloodied heart of Lee’s plot.
Saying much more about that plot would result in spoilers. But it’s the performances as well as the story that drive Writers’ production at such a relentless pitch. The momentum starts on smolder, but by the final scene, Parson has amped it up to the speed of combustion.
Smallwood’s XL Dancer has all slippery, evasive, shadiness of a rattlesnake in a henhouse. Still, there’s far more to Dancer than villainy. Smallwood delivers a cold-eyed, ruthless schemer to be sure, but he also makes it clear that Dancer is a product of the unfair world around him. Pushed against a wall, most people would do most anything to survive, and Dancer is no different.
A.C. Smith is equally strong as Boochie Reed, a backwoods prophet who can see the omnipresent danger when it’s no more than a tiny kernel of suspicion to everyone else. Boochie’s entrance instills the café with unmistakable vibrance, his outsized personality given a fitting exclamation point from lighting designer Kathy A. Perkins. As the blind Adolph, Willie B. is the poet laureate of the group, a mystic who winds spells with his words.
The polar opposite of Adolph is the raucous Buckshot. Whitfield plays him like a joyous bull in a china shop, instilling him with a sheer ebullience that can morph in a millisecond into equally intense rage. Buckshot can hug you or crush you with equal ease, and he’s as impulsive as lightning when reacting with either.
The cast is rounded out by Kelvin Roston Jr.’s Roy Moore, a would-be lothario with an eye on Charlesetta that’s endearing. Finally, there’s Alfred H. Wilson’s Columbus Frye, the embodiment of the matter-of-fact, soft-spoken compassion.
Jack Magaw’s set design is so realistic you can practically smell the pickled pigs feet and feel the grit on the café floor. Perkins’ light design and Joshua Horvath’s sound design are indispensable, in ways both subtle and overt. As the evening slides into late night at the café, the transition seems bone authentic. Ditto for the climactic moments when everything descends into a maelstrom of light and sound. If history is any indication, the next production of East Texas Hot Links won’t be until 2035. Don’t wait for that. See it now!
East Texas Hot Links continues through
January 22nd January 29th at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm & 6pm. Tickets are $75-$80, and are available by phone (847-242-6000) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at WritersTheatre.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Tyla Abercrumbie (Charlesetta), Willie B. (Adolph), Luce Metrius (Delmus Green), Kelvin Roston Jr. (Roy Moore), Namir Smallwood (XL Dancer), A.C. Smith (Boochie Reed), Antoine Pierre Whitfield (Buckshot), Alfred H. Wilson (Columbus Frye), Jalen Gilbert, Kenneth Johnson, Tiffany Oglesby, Byron Glenn Willis, Mark Spates Smith (understudies)
behind the scenes
Ron OJ Parson (director), Jack Magaw (set design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Kathy A. Perkins (light design), Joshua Horvath (sound design), Matt Hawkins (fight director), Reginald Edmund (dramaturg), Scott Dickens (prop design), Henri Watkins (assistant director), Rebecca Pechter (stage manager), Mallory Jane Bass (assistant stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photography).