By Ron Fassler. . .
I confess to having had a difficult time at Tambo and Bones, Dave Harris’s new play which opened Monday night at Playwrights Horizons in a co-production with the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. Works that explore race relations in this country are vitally important, but good plays require a degree of balance. Not the balancing of ideas; didacticism can have its place as well as its rewards. The balance I mean is one that measures and offers insight in an argument over preaching, which is the enemy to drama. Harris, a poet, explains his approach in an essay he wrote for the program, which I found critical to understanding his intent. In it, he tells of how he came to be a writer based on a need to express himself many years after a traumatic incident killed the child who lived next door—the result of a stray bullet not meant for him. Harris was six years old.
“Is my pain the extent of my imagination?” he asks.
Harris does put his prodigious imagination to good use in this three-part, ninety-minute play, only to suffer from a sameness that permeates each act, even though each is boldly different from what precedes it. The first, opens a literal curtain on a cartoon outdoor setting, complete with a cardboard cut-out sun upstage right. Whistling “Dixie,” Tambo (W. Tré Davis) makes his entrance watering the fake plants, soon followed by Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy). Tambo and Bones, names synonymous with minstrel shows developed in the early 19th century, offered white performers in blackface (later Black performers, too) shuffling along projecting racist stereotypes for the amusement of white people. In the meta universe with which Harris places his Tambo and Bones, they are stuck in their places, victims of the playwright’s whim (in one unique sequence, the playwright—represented by a giant rag doll—is brought up onstage from his seat in the audience and pummeled into submission by the actors). While the two plot and scheme to make money (it all starts with Bones begging for a quarter), they are also helplessly stuck in limbo, much like Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting for Godot. I was also put to mind of the recent Broadway play Pass Over, by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, that also featured two Black men in an abstract setting mulling over their economic lot in life. However, unlike Pass Over, Tambo and Bones doesn’t so much create real characters, but representatives of characters. One allows an audience in while the other keeps them at arm’s length. This is what proves harmful to Harris’s play.
With the first part taking place in the past, the second part moves us to the present. After a complete change to an all-new set, we are at a blindingly lit rap concert complete with loud music and heavy miking. The Tambo and Bones portrayed here are now wildly successful rappers, though still in the thrall of commerce. It’s unclear if we are still in the realm of satire or what ideas the playwright is attempting to convey. In the third part, we get another time-jump into a future where white people no longer exist, though we are introduced to two new characters (white men played by Dean Linnard and Brendan Dalton) who portray robots. They too get a similar treatment to that of the inanimate playwright, beaten down and dismissed. To what point, I sadly admit to having ceased to care.
The actors do as well as they can under the limited constraints the playwright has saddled them with. Taylor Reynolds’ direction is crisp and swift, not lingering too long on specific moments, perhaps fearful of things withering and dying under close scrutiny. Within what appears to be a limited budget, the sets (Stephanie Osin Cohen), lighting (Amith Chandrashaker), and costumes (Dominque Fawn Hill) are respectable.
While watching this play, two others came to mind. One, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview, whichmanaged to take a white audience’s comfortability to a remarkably provocative and effective level, and The Scottsboro Boys, which had an all-too brief Broadway run in 2010. This musical from John Kander and Fred Ebb (posthumously) and librettist David Thompson, presented the true story of nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 without proselytizing. The play was both moving and exhilarating. This may not be what Harris and Reynolds had in mind with Tambo and Bones, but I can’t help thinking it would have greatly helped.
Tambo and Bones is at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W 42nd Street, NYC 10036 now through February 27th. For ticket information, please visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org.
Photos: Marc J. Franklin