Dance in Review

Sunday, 30 October 2016 17:04

East Texas Hot Links: A Hearty Meal

In an interview in the program, playwright Eugene Lee says that East Texas Hot Links is like a combination of an August Wilson play and the Twilight Zone. But fantasy was a common feature of Wilson’s plays. The new production of Lee’s 1991 play at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, which is slated to run through January, is more like watching Wilson’s Two Trains Running transform into John Carpenter’s Halloween. Under the direction of Chicago theatre treasure Ron OJ Parson, who directed the same play in 1995 and a revival in 1998, a cast of eight delves into the horror lurking just below the surface normalcy of African-American life in Jim Crow Texas. It’s not just the specter of physical violence which haunts these characters, it’s also the psychological effect of living in a society built on terrorizing them.

In 1955 in the rural vicinity of Houston, Charlesetta Simpkins (Tyla Abercrombie) runs a bar she inherited from her father. She has a strict policy of only serving drink and prepackaged food—the men who are her regulars delight in razzing her and each other, and if she cooked better than their wives, they’d likely never leave, but ridicule her all the same. Hanging around as usual is the soft-hearted local landlord, Columbus (Alfred H. Wilson), his brooding much younger brother-in-law, XL (Namir Smallwood), and XL’s boisterous frenemy, Roy Moore (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), who also has a crush on Charlesetta. The big news is that the local plutocrat, Prescott Ebert, is building a highway to Dallas. Columbus has been screwed by the use of eminent domain, but XL has worked for Ebert as a middle manager several times, and he sneeringly declares that he’ll hold out for another foreman job instead of wasting himself on manual labor.

This attitude does not exactly make him popular, particularly as Prescott Ebert is, by reputation, a Klan leader and a serial killer of black people. XL dismisses this as irrelevant; he’s always been paid on time, and that’s what matters. In fact, he’s hooked up Delmus Green (Luce Metrius), a kid with big dreams, with Ebert for some secret work that will be done late tonight. That explains why Delmus is hanging around, attempting to reach Ebert by phone. He’s unsuccessful for the moment, and the other patrons’ conversation meanders over a wide range of subjects. However, those conversations have a way of taking a strange turn due to the presence of Adolph (Willie B.), an elderly blind man whom the others call “Professor” due to his half semester of college education and ability to improvise free-verse. Having taught himself the vampiric psychological and sociological theories that were all the rage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Adolph links everything to parasitism, death, decay, and consumption in both senses of the word. He’s more fun to have around than you might think.

Rounding out the cast are Buckshot (Antoine Pierre Whitfield), a man who claims to have been much-improved since he was sent to prison for trying to kill a man who called him “Titty-baby,” and Uncle Boochie (A.C. Smith), a mystical gambler who can foretell death. When they all put their heads together they come to the conclusion that there is something extremely wrong with whatever it is XL has offered Delmus to Ebert for. All the actors are fascinating, and Lee’s dense script provides all of them with memorable dialogue, but Smallwood’s XL stands out for the intensity of his greed and fear, and the effort he puts into his compartmentalization. Though deeply loathsome, the character is impossible to look away from. The world these characters inhabit, with scenic design by Jack Magaw, costumes by Christine Pascual, and lights by Kathy A. Perkins, feels full, yet isolated, and a great deal of credit for that has to go to sound designer Joshua Horvath. The sound of animals and wind in the surrounding woods is vaguely unsettling, and reinforces how much of a refuge this building is, as well as its vulnerability. Long before the characters realize their immediate danger, we know there’s something evil out there.

Adolph proclaims that we feed on those who hate us. But in the food chain of east Texas, it’s all too clear to the African-American characters how far down they are. Even literal eating is something that has become psychologically poisonous—Roy defensively announces at one point that he only eats the front feet of a pig. Lee has said that he sees the play as hopeful because of the context that it takes place just a few months before the Civil Rights movement revived, and because the characters unite in an effort to save Delmus. Upon reflection, that’s true, but the hair-raising ending, along with the expertly crafted rising tension which proceeded it, are more likely to dominate the audience’s reaction immediately after viewing than the more implicit themes of awakening to collective action and survival. It is nice, though, that, upon digestion, the audience finds something nourishing in East Texas Hot Links other than human misery. Adolph says we feed on those who love us, as well.



East Texas Hot Links will play in The Gillian Theatre at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, through January 22, 2017. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission. Parking is available, and the theatre is within walking distance of the Metra. Audience members who post a Facebook or Twitter photos of themselves with the tags @WritersTheatre and #EastTexasHotLinks will receive $5 cash if ticket was bought in advance. Tickets are $35-80. Showtimes are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm, with some exceptions. To order, call 847-242-6000 or visit The actors eat peanuts onstage during this show.

Published in Theatre in Review



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