Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is presenting “East Texas Hot Links,” a powerful play written and directed by Eugene Lee, running through Aug. 11 at the Southwest Arts Center.
Mr. Lee’s work was produced in 1994 at New York’s famed Public Theater, the birthplace of many landmark American plays and musicals, from “Hair” to “Hamilton.” There has been talk of a film version of “East Texas,” and I predict it will happen; as always, matters of timing and finance have to be worked out.
It’s summer, 1955, in the piney woods of East Texas. About the only place black locals can gather for comfort, conversation, and companionship is Charlesetta’s Top o’ The Hill Café. You see, the Ku Klux Klan is active, and young black men have been disappearing or turning up dead, sometimes embedded in concrete in the interstate highway being constructed. Corruption and Jim Crow are alive and well.
I want to say up front that True Colors has a terrific cast of seven men and one woman, almost all Actor’s Equity and film veterans. They grab your attention and don’t let go. More about them shortly.
Furthermore, Mr. Lee is also a veteran actor, and he writes dialogue that snaps and pops, sometimes with humor, sometimes with foreboding and imminent disaster.
Writing about his play, he says “There’s blues on the box and cold beer and moonshine and lies and truth to feed on. And just up the road a piece the Klan is burning a cross in a field.”
Despite welcome levity and apparent camaraderie, fear is the given of the place. There is a desperation in the air, and it’s palpable. It sneaks up on you quickly and it stays. The play is quite an achievement in both writing and performing.
Charlesetta (Maiesha McQueen) is the congenial proprietor of the café; she can be easy-going, even mildly flirtatious, but underneath she’s tough as nails. Watch her whip out her baseball bat from under the counter at crucial moments; you don’t want this woman as an enemy.
Roy (Anthony S. Goolsby) fancies himself a ladies’ man, but he doesn’t get very far in pursuit of Charlesetta. His self-doubt, however, humanizes him and makes him a bit funny.
XL (Travis Turner), a surly young regular at the café, seems to have been cozy with the white guys in charge of the highway construction; could a traitor be lurking among the customers? The playwright has said, “So the antagonist in this play is not white people but the Judas goat that sits among us.” Is it XL or someone else?
There’s a young man named Delmus (Markelle Gay) who has ambitions that the others warn are too dangerous for the times. The Civil Rights Movement is years away, so the cafe’s denizens tend to treat injustice with a shrug or a joke—both survival mechanisms.
Adolph (Gerard Catus), sometimes called the professor because he’s had “a piece of college,” comments, “Everything needs something to die so it can keep on livin’; we’re all a part of it. Links…in the food chain.” He also says “We devour each other” (hence the play’s title).
Eugene H. Russell IV as Boochie is clairvoyant and warns the others (and all of us) that danger is lurking. It is.
I can’t be a spoiler, but let’s just say that car headlights streaming through a cafe door can a terrifying thing. The 90-minute play eases along, warily, for most of the evening; then, at the end, you realize why you’ve been uneasy for most of the evening. That’s all I can say.
The other two members of this excellent cast are Cedric Pendleton and Wigasi Brant.
In a summer of musicals and light fare, “East Texas Hot Links” will shake you up. It’s close to selling out.
For tickets and information, visit truecolorstheatre.org.