May 11, 2022 | By Bruce R. Feldman
Tambo & Bones, Kirk Douglas Theatre, May 1-29, 2022
In Brief: Part socio-political tract, part hip-hop concert, and part minstrel show parody, this provocative two-hander exposits a multitude of weighty themes and deep-rooted grievances. Despite energetic acting, impressive stagecraft, and the playwright’s good intentions, it all adds up to something less than the sum of its parts.
The specter of Samuel Beckett and theater of the absurd looms large over author Dave Harris’s Tambo & Bones. The curtain rises on what Harris calls “a fake ass pasture” with an azure blue sky, brightly colored cut-out trees, and, hanging from a wire, a sun that a child might have drawn. It’s knowingly counterfeit, recalling the schematic, though bleaker, country road on which Beckett’s Waiting for Godot unfolds.
Harris also has hatched his own versions of Valdimir and Estragon. In the first of three scenes, Tambo (W. Tré Davis) enters with a watering can, tends to the trees, then settles down for a nap under one of them. Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy) comes on, asking the audience to give him quarters so he can catch a bus to visit his son Zippy in the hospital.
What follows is a broad, absurdist comedy routine tinged with angst about what is fake and what is real, the meaning of happiness, the heartbreak of slavery, and Bones’s desire to get Tambo and the audience to donate all their quarters to him. Harris will return again and again to the imagery of quarters, often for progressively thin comic effect and as blunt metaphor for the depredations of capitalism.
The second scene is a hip-hop concert, with solid performances and stunning lighting, that further expounds in a similarly unnuanced manner on these subjects. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
You see / I got the pain of a generation
400 years, tears / ain’t a sign of reparation
Auctioneers old fears / and the segregation
Now the world shift spheres / like it’s no relation
The third scene is a starchy discourse on Black history. It’s set 400 years in the future where conditions haven’t changed much for Blacks and where society is still consumed with money. Those quarters again, though you don't have to be Milton Friedman to reasonably wonder how much 25¢ will buy four centuries from now.
There’s a lot to enjoy and commend in Tambo & Bones, despite the heavy-handed treatment of its themes. Davis and Fauntleroy give robust performances. Stephanie Osin Cohen’s production design is spare but appealing. Amith Chandrashaker‘s and Mextly Couzin’s lighting is both dynamic and artful.
It’s hard to argue with the playwright’s understandable grievances, if not his handling of them. I suspect that younger audiences will appreciate Tambo & Bones much more than older theatergoers raised on Lorraine Hansberry’s and August Wilson’s presentation of these same concerns.
"Tambo & Bones," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 628-2772, www.ctgla.com