I loved this show. But I’ve had to sit on it for a few days before writing about it, because it touched me so damn much. It scared me. It really did. It just jarred me and gutted me a bit. I loved it. Loved it. I found it enchanting because of its sense of place and mesmerizing because it was astoundingly well performed, well-written and the direction by Montae Russell is sharp as a lilting rhythm. It moves. Emotionally and for the sake of timing, this play skips, beats and ticks with flow.
Though, Pittsburgh Playwrights production of East Texas Hot Links reflects the terrorism of a specter that is the violent, racist white supremacy in the South, and perhaps most spectacularly without showing any white actors. It focuses, rather, on the laid back setting and the pleasurable, relaxed vibe that inhabits a little African-American, hole-in-the-wall bar. Then, it leaps. It leaps into its plot and things fundamentally change.
However, this play is largely about conversation. But that’s what’s so masterful about it: it reflects such a philosophically potent and yet empirically casual treatise on how to be a human and how to deal with one’s anger.
I want to call out every performance because the ensemble is outstanding. I’ll say that Monteze Freeland as Roy Moore is becoming one of my favorite actors to see in Pittsburgh. He’s got an amazing range; and for the sake of this show, his gusto in performing the part has such a ticklish richness. He’s a smooth talker with a reputation that precedes him, so beyond the toothpick lying idle on the tip of the lips comes the affected weight of his character’s struggle and mistakes. His rivalry with Jonathan Berry’s XL takes leaps that puncture with sudden momentum. I loved seeing the jolts of offense that could carry these characters’ motivations. XL, another man gushing with pride and a bit of boorish, misplaced anger is played so sincerely by Berry. His turns within the show collect the audience to his side just as fast he ignites them against him. It’s the mark of a great actor to show earnestness in ignorance, and an unfathomable logic gently strolling through its dilemmas. I loved watching him work.
Cheryl El-Walker’s role as Charlesetta, the tavern owner, makes for an amazing arc. As the only female cast member, we see her tackle the essence of a shrewd entrepreneur, who uses her femininity as a modest weapon. I loved how when the plot changed, El-Walker’s pulse changed with it. Her fear mixes with a confidence that displays a sort of heroic composition. She becomes the heart of the play and within that, El-Walker finds such a wondrous piece of the character’s nervousness, both stuttering and taking command with the same energy. I loved feeling the adrenaline she imbued. I got chills.
I’ll say briefly how the scene changed with the entrance of both Sam Lothard’s Buckshot and Charles Timbers’ Boochie. I loved how these characters could bring into the space a whole new ethereal energy, carrying with them not just jokes or their cunning masculine confidence; but rather an upset to whatever standing alliances were standing within the current situation on stage. Lothard carries with him a hulking frame, but beyond it gives Buckshot a true liberated ease. We see the character has quite a bit of packed physical tension; but just as clearly, quite a profound sense of release. He is someone whose “temper got the best of him”, who paid and who now pays taxes on his mistakes obligingly. Lothard’s ability to just roll, to lay into his jokes with plush relaxation, is visibly a man wise because of his lessons. It was great to see this character so pleasurably sink into the environment, awash in the benign conversation. It makes his impact as the plot unfolds that much more potent—when the environment changes, you see the other edge to the sword.
Timbers, relatably, brings with him a vibrant coolness. The direction on this character’s entrance was so expertly crafted. Owing once again to the organic composition of this entire tale, Boochie’s place provides a certain amount of mysticism within this story—changing a rather innocuous night into the spiritual significance of a parable. Timbers imposes so craftily, stylishly; he haunts.
I’ve not said much of the plot because I don’t want to ruin anything. Understand simply that a play like this reaffirms what there is to like about theater. It happens in real time, in a single place. It’s so tight knit. The characters are astoundingly well-developed and their dialogue is punchy, brilliant, convivial, August Wilson-esque perfection. It’s the riffing and wisdom of African-American culture meets the bastard of a plot unwanted. I am absolutely jealous of the community this play depicts—despite the hardships of a black culture in the American South; there is such a beautiful, timeless vibe. The way they move from table to table, bar to jukebox; idly eating peanuts and riffing on each other. It’s a cloud in heaven, until…
The claustrophobia of a safe space when a violent world closes in. It’s a tragedy. But this play is a masterpiece.
East Texas Hot Links runs at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre through November 5th. For tickets and more information click here.