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I swear I’ve eaten at the diner Debra Booth has created for the area premiere of Javon Johnson’s Hambone. Impossible, of course—it’s a stage set, tucked persuasively into a space that not long ago reeked of Stygian gloom in The Invention of Love—but from its chrome-stripped counter to its grease-stained grill, Hambone’s sandwich shop is instantly familiar.
So are the folks who people it. Solid, family-oriented Bishop (Doug Brown) runs the place as if making a living were strictly secondary to providing a home away from home for his onetime football-star brother Henry (David Toney) and employment for Tyrone (Jamahl Marsh), a motherless teenager Bishop’s been raising. Also on hand more often than not is Tyrone’s best friend, Bobbilee (Luis A. Laporte Jr.), a tough-talking but sweet kid who keeps getting in trouble with the law.
The year is 1988, and with Jesse Jackson running for president and James Brown in jail for weapons possession and assault, these four African-American men have taken four almost entirely different approaches to life in the small South Carolina town of Anderson. Bishop, clutching a Bible and determined to improve the world, places his faith in a social order that may make life difficult for those with dark skin but at least provides stability. When Bobbilee is arrested for scuffling with white kids, Bishop assumes he must have done something wrong, and he greets the news that the boy was yelling “Free James Brown” as proof positive. Henry—an unabashed believer in voodoo, who tosses powder and curses after a white man as he leaves the diner—assumes the contrary: that Bobbilee, whom he’s had a hand in raising, is clearly the victim of racism.
The younger men seem to have learned a little something from their guardians. Bobbilee has refined Henry’s generalized anger into sloganeering and songwriting, and Tyrone takes Bishop’s work-within-the-system philosophy so seriously that he changes his name to the whiter-sounding Timothy when filling out employment applications, so employers won’t know he’s black until he shows up for an interview.
All these men are groping in their own way toward a sense of self, and the arrival of Harrison (Timothy Rice), an aging white train-company employee, galvanizes them in a way that I can’t reveal without spoiling a lot of second-act surprises. Suffice it to say that the playwright places a lot of stock in heritage and family, and that he has a flair for creating dialogue (“That’s how it is for colored folks; you come out of the womb on borrowed time”) that sounds at once natural and poetic.
In that respect, Johnson is much like August Wilson, with whom he began a professional relationship while earning his M.F.A. at the University of Pittsburgh. Studio’s program and press materials all suggest that Wilson mentored Johnson much the way that Bishop and Henry mentor the youngsters in Hambone, and you might say that the evidence is also there on stage in Regge Life’s staging. Life is the director who guided Jitney at Studio last year, and if that early Wilson melodrama was deeply concerned with fathers and sons, R&B, ex-jailbirds, hangers-on, spiritualism, and strategies for coping, all as found in a Pittsburgh cab company, Hambone could be said to be its Southern sandwich-shop equivalent. There are parallels in everything from the persuasively realistic setting to the dialogue’s plain-spoken eloquence to the use of music (James Brown figures prominently) to the plot’s reliance on coincidence and a melodramatic death in Act 2. Like Jitney, which had also been mounted elsewhere but considerably revised by its author prior to its Studio premiere, Hambone has an air of work-in-progress about it, but there’s no question that its rewards far outweigh its debits.
The performances are sharp, frequently funny, ultimately haunting, and mostly as unforced as the design work. Which means it’s easy to follow along as the play operates on both symbolic and real levels, pretty much from its first moments, when a sleepy-eyed, panicky Bishop rushes into the darkened diner yelling “Tyrone!” at the top of his lungs, only to be drowned out by the roar of a passing locomotive. Dreams about trains keep surfacing as the play wends its way through character confrontations and familial wrangling—which seems appropriate, because Johnson, who already has several plays to his credit, has embarked on a playwriting journey that promises to offer audiences a wild ride.
Another locomotive roars past a weather-beaten way station—one that designer James Kronzer has outfitted with filthy-to-the-point-of-opaque windows—at the outset of MetroStage’s quirkily transcendent solo show The Thousandth Night.
That train, on its way to the Nazi death camps, has a derailment date with saboteurs a few hundred yards past the station, and from its wreckage stumbles a French repertory actor, Guy de Bonheur (Ron Campbell), lugging a prop-filled suitcase and desperately seeking safety. Lurching through the station door to find a battalion of French gendarmes (the audience) waiting inside, he realizes that he has maybe an hour before a replacement train arrives, and starts anxiously plying his trade.
Flashing a headlamp smile calibrated to light up a much bigger room, de Bonheur argues that he was rounded up by mistake, that his comic stories have no political import, and that if they’ll just watch him perform a few—about a sultan’s drooling dwarf, for instance—they’ll see, and tell the Germans, and let him go back to Paris when the train goes on its way.
The stories, of course, do have import—it being the nature of theater to reflect the outside world—and so does the device of giving the audience life-and-death power over a theatrical character. Many shows aim to make an audience feel culpable for one social ill or another, but rarely do playwrights find a ploy as effective as the one Carol Wolf is utilizing here, which turns our better instincts against us—politeness and sensitivity curdling all too persuasively into cowardice—even as we’re laughing.
And laugh we do, though not at first. With the threat of violence so present (“Why must the Germans always ask questions with their fists and boots?”), audience silence is profound enough at the beginning that de Bonheur stoops to puns about an ailing character who’s “dislocated his humerus.” But once he gets rolling, he’s undeniably amusing, employing everything from accents and funny walks to horse impersonations and Old World puppetry in a mostly successful attempt to joke his way past our defenses. I say mostly, because he must occasionally drop the act, to acknowledge the presence of a Nazi officer or reflect on the actress who would be playing opposite him if she’d not been deported for being a Jew. This midcentury Scheherazade’s attempts to story-tell his way out of a death sentence have a host of freshly odd ramifications, never more than when he’s climbing into the audience to make physical contact with his “judges” in much the way new-age vaudevillians and stand-up comics break through the fourth wall in conventional stage presentations.
The advantages of seeing de Bonheur played by the actor around whom The Thousandth Night was constructed are immediately evident in performance. Campbell, who worked with Wolf in creating the role, and whose schedule—luckily for D.C. audiences—had a few weeks open when MetroStage’s original casting fell through, is much more than just an accomplished raconteur and mimic. He can, with flicks of his wrist, turn a ragged scarf into a set of curtains, a veil, a noose, or a woman named Lizette. He’s also a stylish dancer, a sharp mime, an inventive puppeteer, and a passable singer, and he has enough voices at his command to people a stage with 38 characters and still keep the toadying, terrified de Bonheur fully present and accounted for.
It’s a marvelous performance, and it’s an excellent excuse to make a first trek to MetroStage’s spiffy new digs: an intimate, cleverly designed converted warehouse with steeply raked seating, fine sightlines, and—blessedly for Alexandria—plenty of parking. Campbell’s train departs soon, though, so you need to rush. CP