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 I really have to hand it to the PR department at Center Theatre Group here in Los Angeles, whose latest new show at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, a co-production with Playwrights Horizons, just opened (seen May 10). They captured the essential premise of Dave Harris’s play in a few terse and well-crafted sentences. Anything else is explication and elaboration of the theme:

“Tambo and Bones are two characters trapped in a minstrel show. It’s hard to feel like a real person when you’re trapped in a minstrel show. Their escape plan: get out, get rich, get even. Imaginative and provocative, Tambo & Bones is a daring and explosive rags-to-riches roast of America’s past, present, and future at the intersection of racism and capitalism. And what’s at stake, for those deemed less-than-human, is the fate of humanity itself.”

The only edit to that précis that I might have offered is that “the fate of humanity itself” includes everyone, not just “those deemed less-than-human” by the new overlords. The apocalyptic red button of nuclear annihilation looms far more perilously over our heads than any hanging sword of Damocles.

Any comparison to the present predicament of Ukraine is cordially invited, though surely that part of the world must have been very, very far from Harris’s mind as he was writing this play, which, by the way, received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.

W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy / Marc J. Franklin

W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy / Marc J. Franklin

Harris is an up-and-coming poet and playwright from West Philly, whose first feature film Summertime was released in 2021. He is the Tow Playwright-in Residence at Roundabout Theatre Company. He has received the 2019 Ollie Award, The Lorraine Hansberry Award and Mark Twain Award from The Kennedy Center, The International Commendation for The Bruntwood Prize, the 2018 Venturous Fellowship from The Lark, and a Cave Canem poetry fellowship, amongst others.

“For Tambo & Bones,” says the playwright, interviewed by Jessica Doherty in the printed program, “I had just gotten a fellowship that I got through telling a bunch of sad, Black stories back to back to back. That’s such a common thing, essentially saying, ‘Share your identity, and if you prove to us through your pain you deserve it the most, we will give you money.’ It’s in the arts, scholarships, entertainment, applications. And so the question that I always have to ask is, ‘Why am I participating in this? Why am I telling this story over and over again? Why are we making ourselves re-experience a form of trauma for the sake of entertainment, for the sake of money, for the sake of applause?’ That question grew into this play.”

The play opens with two minstrel players, Tambo (W. Tré Davis) and Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy), appropriately dressed in handoffs from the white man’s closet, doing their “shtik” for quarters they try to cadge from the audience (whose participation is permitted), even if some of their need for alms is made up. “It ain’t fake if I believe in it,” Tambo says, echoing the dominant mode of the current internet-fed polity, and prefiguring the concluding scenes of the play. “You gotta deliver a treatise on race in America,” he tells Bones, who dismisses all that as “intellectual shit.”

The play is only 90 minutes long (no intermission), so it doesn’t take long to establish that quarters aren’t going to get them very far. They even notice the “playwright” in the audience, kidnap him like a piñata and pulverize him for all his pesos. But that’s not enough: they want dollars not quarters. They go after professionally produced performances, switch gears to more lucrative heavy rap, phantasmagorical lighting, anti-racist rants as their fetishistic “coin,” recording deals, a “platform,” merch, a streaming service, property acquisition, capital investment in whatever renders profit—including arms sales to all sides of a conflict—and they’re off and running with a “nationalist” program and an openly capitalist mindset.

Theatergoers are sure to know, or know of, individuals who have taken their legitimate complaints and parlayed them into personal fortunes in what could be called a new form of minstrelsy, a performative act that reinforces the preconceptions and prejudices of the audience.

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The playwright again:

“For a long time, I felt like so much work was about how we have to declare and validate our pain in front of an audience to make it real, to give us that communal experience. And that feels like a very low bar, especially when it’s been done so many times already. That’s the bare minimum. What’s harder is to imagine and stake a claim on a future. I think so many people write with the desire for freedom without necessarily staking their claim on what that freedom might look like. What are the personal stakes and the violences of that? What’s the emotional reality that, perhaps, everything we do, including fighting racism, is feeding some selfish void inside ourselves? That is the thing I think that drives the play content-wise and how the conversation evolved for me. How can we keep pushing towards something new, because we can spend forever iterating and putting language to where we are right now until we are eventually just saying the same thing over and over again. What’s the thing that we want to push towards and can we chart it?”

When you add up all the communal pain, not only from racial and ethnic groups, but from religious communities, women, people challenging cis- and binary gender dictates, different disability subsets, etc., “the thing that we want to push towards” surely is not ever more expansive capitalism that got us here in the first place, but some stage of human organization beyond that. Maybe Harris is extrapolating along the lines of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

As the play progresses, the initial potency of anti-racism as a first (and only) principle devolves and degrades into something else, or dare I say, its opposite, just switching the color of the racism. The futuristic genocidal result is a new Orwellian truth of constructed memory, the myth and legend of the wise old griot now brought to you by robots (Tim Kopacz and Alexander Neher), who by some weird technical glitch turned out looking white. There is much more a reviewer is constrained against revealing.

Guided by a genius of a director, Taylor Reynolds, the two leads show off a total mastery of craft in any number of idioms—dance, athletics, voice, gesture, song, accent. And the “robots” are also quite accomplished, their programmed movements and speech touchingly infected by elements of real personhood that strangely could not be totally dismissed from their initial algorithm.

In terms of time frame, the show runs about 350 years. I hope by then humanity will have arrived at some other point than this dystopian vision. Consider it a warning.

And also consider this an advisory to keep an eye on Dave Harris; it sure looks like he is thinking way ahead of the curve, unafraid to advance the dialogue to a higher stage.

The creative team includes Stephanie Osin Cohen (scenic design), Dominique Fawn Hill (costume design), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting design), Mextly Couzin (lighting design), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), Justin Ellington (original music) and J. David Brimmer (fight director).

Tickets for Tambo & Bones are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012 or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City 90232. Performances run Tues. through Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sun. at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through May 29. Center Theatre Group continues to require masks, along with proof of full vaccination, and a government- or education-issued ID at all its venues.

Eric A. Gordon
People's World