East Texas Hot Links

Onyx Theatre Ensemble

at the Edgewater Theatre Center

In a stunning debut, Onyx Theatre Ensemble–Chicago’s newest black theater company–is performing Eugene Lee’s breathtaking 1990 play, East Texas Hot Links. Never previously seen in Chicago, this play examining racism in the 1950s deep south was acclaimed at the New York Shakespeare Festival and London’s Royal Court Theatre. Lee–a well-known New York stage actor–is similar to August Wilson in his poetic language and the rich, authentic characters he creates, but where Wilson usually follows a protagonist’s journey, such as Troy’s struggle to keep his family together in Fences, Lee’s first produced play occurs over one evening, in “real time,” and is definitely an ensemble piece in which we discover each character’s truth.

The play puts American racism under a microscope by taking us into the lives of eight people in a “colored only” bar. Struggling for survival in Klan country raises questions they answer with the trial and error of their lives. XL Dancer, played with fierce intensity by Michael Williams, looks out for himself alone, remaining loyal to the white employer who baits him with dreams of becoming a supervisor. Many of the black men’s bosses are also Klan members, currently suspected in the disappearance of several young black men. When XL puts loyalty to his boss above protecting a younger black community member, the audience comes face-to-face with some troubling questions: Is this man morally wrong for looking out for his own survival? When men are treated like animals, can there be a higher morality? The irony of East Texas Hot Links is that no matter what choices these men make, no matter what morals they live by, an unpredictable force surrounds them that will kill them with as little sorrow as a farmer shooting vermin off his fields. How does a man live justly when justice is constantly denied him?

Lee suggests that love, music, friendship, and God are what have given the black community its sense of pride, hope, and endurance, and it’s a joy to experience these through his characters. Director Ron O.J. Parson has assembled a powerful cast, each of whom reaches into his character’s soul and brings a magnetic energy to the stage. It is through their joking, drinking, gossip, preaching, and dancing on a Friday night that we learn the conditions, dreams, and struggles of this black community. Parson’s direction is so in tune with the rhythm of Lee’s script that the action of the play evolves naturally–in the style of a jazz performance characters enter, join in what’s going on, fall back, pick up a new conversation. Lee’s characters have solos, duets, trios–and all together their voices create the music of the play. Only an ensemble with the capacity for delicate and intense listening could make Lee’s play feel so real.

Under Parson’s direction, the actors do their job so well that the play’s tragedy resonates on a deeply emotional as well as intellectual level. When it’s revealed that XL has set up the younger Delmus–who thinks he’s getting a job from a white man but is really getting a “scare”–and that the Klan are on their way to the bar, the tension is almost unbearable. Because of XL’s dramatic mistake, an ordinary evening disintegrates into an occasion for bloodshed.

Each character adds flavor to what’s cooking onstage. Marsha Estell plays Charlsetta, the unmarried proprietress of the tavern, as a tough but loving matriarch, at once conscious of protecting herself and looking out for the men around her. Estell is subtle and genuine, her facial expressions alone communicating what she’s thinking about these men. Her compelling exchanges with Roy Moore (the energetic Trent Harrison Smith) are lovely: Charlsetta doth protest his persistent flirting too much.

Alfred H. Wilson plays landlord Columbus Frye with compassion and humor: the unopportunistic Columbus acts as a foil to selfish XL, and the tension between them boils throughout the play. Willie B. Goodson finds the depth and complexity of Adolph, the bar’s resident intellectual whose life has been touched by tragedy in several ways: he had to drop out of college to help support his family; he lost his eyesight fighting for democracy (in a colored unit, of course) in World War II; and as a well-read thinker, he’s alienated from his peers. Yet as Goodson portrays him, Adolph refuses to be contained by his tragedy: he glows with enlightenment and revels in his own sense of humor. Adolph’s prophetic philosophizing may sometimes go over the others’ heads, but more often than not he’s respected for his role of messenger.

Because Lee’s characters resonate as archetypes–the bride/mother, the suitor, the poet, the kind father, the angry young man–it would have been easy to play them as stereotypes; but no one here is in any danger of that. Freeman Coffey has the challenging role of Buckshot, a man feared for his brute strength. But Coffey takes us into the frustration that fuels Buckshot’s short temper; his joyous, sensual dance with Charlsetta makes us feel his humanity. Likewise Greg Holliman as the regal, mystical Boochie Reed makes his character specific and real, giving him the powerful presence of a man who can truly feel the darkness and light of matters beyond the everyday. Craig Boyd rounds out the cast with his impressionable Delmus Green–the sacrificial figure, the man so pure and innocent he’s unaware of the dangerous traps white culture has set for him.

Part of Onyx Theatre Ensemble’s declared mission is to highlight the talent of Chicago’s black theater artists and, as artistic associate Celeste Williams says, “to put black actors to work.” Bringing Lee’s play to Chicago, Onyx shows that there are rising African-American voices out there, many of whom are overlooked by mainstream theaters. Certainly playwrights like August Wilson should be produced, but a city with as much theater as Chicago should add new playwrights–African-American and otherwise–to the mix. Onyx, proving itself capable of handling complex original plays, in East Texas Hot Links conveys the humanity of a tragedy that continues 40 years after Lee’s play is set. At the very least we can look at this work and better understand our history. Even more, we can look at it and see how it reflects the conditions of our own time as well.