Aesthetically, Samm-Art Williams’s Home belongs to a radical tradition. Like a lot of other works that have emerged from New York’s experimental scene, the 1979 play, running now at Court Theatre, uses stripped-down storytelling techniques to achieve a populist immediacy. It requires little in the way of set or props and only three actors. Williams says he made the logistics simple enough that a cast could perform it in the streets.
Yet despite its Brecht-influenced style, Home‘s message is strictly conservative. Its hero, Cephus—a poor, good-hearted black farmer from fictional Cross Roads, North Carolina—may be American society’s sacrificial lamb, going to jail, losing his land, and becoming a drunk in “a very, very large American city” where he sleeps in his own vomit and urine on a subway men’s room floor. But his sole means to salvation lies in a return to the “traditional values” of home, family, and property rights. By the time Williams shoehorns his protagonist into an implausibly happy ending, the injustice that makes the Cephuses of the world vulnerable to poverty, intolerance, and despair has been rendered moot by the fact that this one Cephus can shut himself up in his house with a good woman who’ll bake him pecan pies.
Inasmuch as Williams is satisfied with heartwarming, purely individual solutions to far-reaching political problems, it’s no surprise that he gives us only the vaguest contours of the social and economic worlds in which Cephus lives. Just about the only trace of jim crow in late-50s/early-60s Cross Roads is the segregated graveyard where Cephus plays dice on the sly. He gambols through a young adulthood of apoliticial, sentimental, countrified folksiness, suffering through Sunday school, watching possums fall into a backwoods still, getting Pattie Mae up into the hay loft.
Home‘s first 50 minutes display Cephus’s contentment without advancing his story much. Director Ron OJ Parson keeps this material bouncy and light. His talented actors (Kamal Angelo Bolden as Cephus, Ashley Honore and Tracey Bonner as everybody else, including some ill-defined narrative voices offering no clear perspective) dash around with largely unmodulated enthusiasm—the kind they might need if they were, in fact, performing in the streets.
Then things suddenly turn grim. It’s 1966 and the Vietnam war is in full swing; Cephus gets drafted but refuses to serve, citing the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s a stance he says he learned from his grandfather and his Uncle Lewis, whose teachings supposedly guide him through life. But Williams supplies hardly any impression of either man—both die offstage early in the play—and does little to dramatize their impact on Cephus. And considering Cephus’s history of guilt-free fornication, the religious zeal for which he serves a five-year sentence comes across as nothing more than a narrative expedient.
That’s a critical lapse, because so much hinges on Cephus’s decision to buck the draft. Since he can’t pay his taxes while in prison, his farm is sold. In the city, no one will hire a convicted felon who “spit on the flag.” Cephus drops off the radar of an uncaring welfare worker—depicted in a brief, needlessly hyperbolic scene—and descends into homelessness, begging, and addiction . . . until a letter arrives (addressed to him where, exactly?) informing him that his problems will be solved if he goes back to Cross Roads. In an instant he’s cleaned up and flush enough to buy a $39 bus ticket. Williams whisks Cephus away to happy domesticity, preventing any further inquiry into the system that abused him.
The original production of Williams’s script was a huge hit for the Negro Ensemble Company. It transferred to Broadway and garnered a Tony nomination for best play. Given its narrative contrivances and political naivete, Home‘s success doesn’t make much sense. Then again, that was the time of Reagan’s Morning in America; maybe audiences were eager to be reassured. The robust standing ovation Court’s revival received on opening night suggests that they still are.