Victory Gardens Theater

By Kelly Kleiman

“Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards,” wrote someone purporting to quote Kierkegaard. It is both the strength and the weakness of Javon Johnson’s new play, Hambone, that it’s so true to life. Not only are the characters three-dimensional and their concerns and choices believable, but only when it’s over is it possible to determine exactly what the whole thing was about: men’s conflicts with their fathers.

Hambone has won several awards and received a workshop production at the Sundance Theatre Lab last year; the playwright is a protege of August Wilson. The current world-premiere production at Victory Gardens, directed by Ron O.J. Parson, makes perfectly clear what all the noise is about: Johnson is an exceptionally talented writer, with a phenomenal ear and ideas to burn. His work has the thick texture of everyday life–of people who worry about money and plan their gardens even as they guard secrets and plot their big moves. But the play has yet to be completely brought forth from all this beautiful material. It’s as though Johnson had given us a fine marble column instead of a finished statue–or the fifth draft of a play that needs seven.

Hambone takes place in 1988 in a resoundingly unsuccessful sandwich shop in Anderson, South Carolina, owned by the middle-aged Bishop Tisdale. There he and his brother Henry argue about the relative merits of medicine and voodoo, of traditional and pork-free cooking, and of Henry’s football-star son and Tyrone, Bishop’s employee/protege. The only thing they agree on is that Tyrone’s friend Bobbilee is headed for trouble. The two younger men are making their way in the world–Tyrone by changing his name to Timothy (“Ain’t no white people named Tyrone”) so he can get a job, and Bobbilee by trying to write a song for James Brown, with whom he briefly shared a jail cell. Into this cozy little world comes a mysterious white man (Tom Roland) who might be the law or the railroad man he claims to be or the Angel of Death or something wholly other.

The characters are so charming, the conversation is so well heard, and the performances are so energetic that it comes as a surprise at intermission that we still don’t know what events the play concerns. More, we don’t know who the protagonist is, whether it’s Bishop or his heir apparent, Tyrone. It’s clear that Henry–big, boisterous, with most of the comic lines and business–is supposed to be Falstaff, but who’s the king? Perhaps we’re supposed to gather that it’s Bishop just because he’s Henry’s friend, but for me that was too subtle a hint. It’s fine to have two pairs of friends, one in each generation, but one of the duos needs to drive the plot and the other the subplot, one be the boom and the other the echo.

Johnson misdirects us on that subject early on: when Bishop reports a dream that Tyrone is on fire, this suggests that Bishop is the prophet and Tyrone the person with whose fate we’re supposed to be concerned. But that turns out not to be true. Reverses are all very well, but we should at least be looking at the person whose play it is. Similarly, by making Bobbilee’s troubles the subject of a series of early exchanges–between Bishop and Tyrone as well as Bishop and Henry–Johnson gives those troubles more importance than they turn out to deserve.

Like his mentor, Johnson is a wonderful wordsmith, almost to excess. A number of the conversations are discursive without being revealing. As Henry says with apt self-mockery at one point, “Because we come from an oral tradition, we just don’t know when the hell to shut up!” Every actor gets the opportunity to shine, to strut, to be the center of attention. What the performers need now is a structure assuring them that wherever they are–center or periphery–is where they’re supposed to be for the working out of the plot.

All the performances are superb, though A.C. Smith goes a bit over the top as Henry: when he bugs his eyes out after drinking a potion, it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of racist stereotypes of African-Americans as fools. Of course Henry is a fool, but like Falstaff he’s a fool with a serious purpose, and mugging undercuts that. Freeman Coffey has the solid authority necessary for Bishop even though Johnson doesn’t give him the dramatic legs to stand on for his big scenes in the second act. Anthony Fleming III as Tyrone and P. Francois Battiste as Bobbilee are both splendid, but Fleming gets more opportunity to show his range, from understated comedy (his “white” voice is a low-key gem) to numbed misery in the play’s final scenes. The parallels Johnson draws between the relationships of the older and younger men–illustrated in each case by a song they share–are lovely.

Another quote of uncertain provenance: Greater than the urge for food or sex is the need to rewrite someone else’s work. Somehow, though, I’ll restrain myself: this is a man with a big talent who will be more than able to rewrite it himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.