The title of "East Texas Hot Links," which opened last weekend at the John Beasley Theater, does not refer to sausages.
Broadway actor Eugene Lee, who wrote and guest-directs the show, said he wrote about the food chain, how species — and people — feed off each other to survive.
"I was going to write an episode of 'The Twilight Zone,' but it became this," he told a Saturday audience.
Don't expect anything supernatural in "East Texas Hot Links," though the dialogue is super natural — something for which Lee has a real ear. Instead, expect the story to morph from a character-based slice-of-life comedy into something more sinister.
In a "colored-only" juke joint in 1955, down an east Texas back road, eight local characters banter about everything from local gossip to the nearby Interstate road construction to their sex lives and their colorful pasts.
Roy (Tyrone Beasley), a former basketball hero, is on the make with the juke joint's attractive owner, feisty Charlesetta (TammyRa'). Adolph, the resident aging armchair philosopher (Charles Galloway), is a blind man who goes by the nickname professor.
They all trade insults with angry and combative XL (Lamar Brown), a day laborer with contacts that help him get occasional work on the road project. He has some kind of working relationship with a corrupt white official, Prescott.
We never see Prescott, but everybody talks about this wheelchair-bound power broker. They wonder aloud if he's active in the Ku Klux Klan, and what he might know about two young black men who have disappeared recently — one of them discovered dead, encased in road-project cement.
XL's motto seems to be that God helps those who help themselves. Columbus (Carl Brooks), a landlord who rents out several homes, including to his brother-in-law XL, believes in compassion and second chances.
Late to the party: Buckshot (Vincent Lee Alston), an ex-con farmer with a violent past; Delmus (Keenan Ashley), an ambitious young man who swears he's getting out of east Texas; and Boochie (Jermaine Bell), who can read the future and tries to warn Delmus of impending trouble.
I laughed loud and often at the conversation, which was laced with profanity and sexual frankness. Lee has starred in several of August Wilson's plays, and his characters, like Wilson's, share a humanity that is universally relatable while also reflecting a history that is unique to African Americans.
Bell and, particularly, Ashley are laudable first-timers onstage, while veteran talents such as Brooks and Alston ground the piece with easy credibility and spirit. Galloway felt well cast, but his difficulty delivering lines disrupted the rhythms of a tight ensemble piece.
Most impressive: Beasley, as smooth and easy Roy; TammyRa', who brings unexpected grit and hardness to her role late in the story; and Brown, who fleshes out a difficult, complex role with a layered performance.
Lee brings historical substance to this period piece, along with excellent instincts in staging and directing. The show runs about 90 minutes without intermission.
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