"August Wilson definitely influenced my storytelling," Eugene Lee remarks to dramaturg Reginald Edmund in the program notes for Lee's East Texas Hot Links, running now at Writers Theatre. "He told me once that, 'It's alright to let them talk.'"
"Them" would be his characters, and there's no question but that Lee took Wilson's advice to heart. The little company of backwoods black folks Lee brings together in East Texas Hot Links spend most of the play's 90-minute running time worrying their favorite topics to death as they sit around the Top O' the Hill Cafe on a Friday evening in early summer, 1955. Roy recalls his glory days on a "colored" state championship basketball squad and comes on to Charlesetta, who owns the Top O' the Hill. When she's not rebuffing Roy (noting that he's considered an unlucky lover since the widow Brookman died "underneath" him), Charlesetta remembers her dead dad's unbusinesslike generosity with a mix of reverence and disapproval. Good-hearted Columbus shows up to josh about his wife's cooking, old Adolph to philosophize on life, and youngblood Delmus to try and get his life started. Truculent XL, meanwhile, keeps busy bursting other people's balloons while puffing up his own, bragging about his in with Prescott Ebert, a local white honcho thought to have ties to the KKK. Mr. Ebert has plenty of work for XL to do.
And so it goes. All this banter is definitely headed somewhere. An ominous note is introduced with the mention of young black men who've disappeared, apparently while working on a road-paving project. Questions of racial solidarity, mortal fear, and the dumbfounding arrogance of white power in the Jim Crow south will kick in, setting up awful resonances for our current moment of Black Lives Matter resistance and alt-right reaction. There will be violence—a full-out paroxysm of it. But Lee's script is an awkward vehicle for both the drama and the issues it has to carry. Yes, East Texas Hot Links was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when it first appeared, in the early 1990s—yet even the positive reviews published then held out reservations, pointing to a first hour "or so" that, in the words of New York Times critic David Richards, "moseys along, seemingly content to sketch in the characters and record the lively talk" before heading toward a finish that's "startling for all the wrong reasons."
Ron OJ Parson's Writers staging doesn't solve that problem. The play still loses forward momentum during that long opening stretch of banter. Worse, it gets tedious as the banter keeps bringing us back around to each character's signature obsession. Delmus is all about getting out of the sticks. Charlesetta all about her father's legacy. XL all about disdain. A blind poet straight out of Sophocles, Adolph finds a dozen ways to describe the eat-and-be-eaten nature of life. The Times's Richards argues that the final conflagration comes as an abrupt surprise ("You can't call it a deus ex machina, but a deus ex shotgun wouldn't be far off the mark"). I disagree. Given the constant underlining of preoccupations, it's hard not to divine the general outline of the climax—or at least who's going to be on which side of it—a good distance out.
Parson has a long history with East Texas Hot Links. He directed the celebrated 1995 Chicago premiere—mounted by a now-lost black company, Onyx Theatre Ensemble—and then an equally well-received 1998 remount. In 2014 Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss reported that Parson was working on reviving Onyx with still another production of the play. His intimacy with the material doesn't seem to have sharpened his vision of it, though. To the contrary, certain key elements come through in soft focus, aestheticized, when they could use a harder edge. Namir Smallwood's XL, in particular, doesn't justify his reputation either for menace or weaseliness. Impressive in Philip Dawkins's Charm last year, Smallwood may be keeping XL vague for logistical reasons; if so, I'd say the strategy does precisely what it's meant to prevent. Similarly, both Tyla Abercrumbie's Charlesetta and Adolph as performed by Willie B. (who played the same role for Onyx) could use some uglying up.
On the other hand, A.C. Smith's Boochie Reed and Antoine Pierre Whitfield's Buckshot can't get any sharper. Both characters are late arrivals to the cafe gabfest, which may help account for their exceptional presence, but both also bring an intensity—a sense of real stakes, real danger, real being—that's missing wherever else you look. v