Sometimes theater is a question of mind over matter. The new home of the Ethiopian Theatre is a stately old school auditorium, just across Gen. Pershing Street from the Carrollton Branch Library (where Broad Street turns into Napoleon Avenue). The room is large, seating from 500 to 1,000 people in fixed rows. On the Sunday afternoon I attended, there were perhaps a dozen spectators. Not a promising start.
Furthermore, the set, which was meant to convey a park in the CBD (Lafayette Square, I suppose) consisted of a bench, a gray plastic garbage can and a bird bath in front of a huge naive backdrop of a steamboat on a bucolic stretch of the Mississippi (this looked like the relic of a high school musical from decades past). To make matters worse, the huge windows of the hall have no shades, so the actors had to enter to their places in a sort of implied invisibility.
Frankly, my heart sunk out of sympathy for the actors who were facing what seemed like impossible odds. Instead of the disaster that I anticipated, however, I received -- at the hands of veteran troopers Lloyd Joseph Martin, Harold Evans and Jomo Kenyatta-Bean -- a stunning demonstration of mind over matter.
Hobos, written by Kenyatta-Bean, tells the story of three homeless African-American men who meet and become friends. There is really little more to it than that. Why these three forlorn souls should hold our attention is hard to say. But they do. A great deal of credit must go to director Chakula Cha Jua for casting three strong actors in roles that fit them to a tee and eliciting seamless ensemble work. By the middle of the first act, I was so drawn into the situation, I suddenly saw the odd backdrop as one of those building-size urban murals, and so even the set took on a certain coherence.
Professor Blake (Evans) begins the play by rudely waking Benjamin (Martin), who is asleep on the bench beneath some sheets of newspaper. The professor is engaged in ongoing historical research and carries his archives (sheets of crumpled newspaper) stuffed inside his shirt. Benjamin reacts belligerently to the professor's high-tone attitudes and speech. A fight nearly breaks out, but it is averted due, partly, to the intercession of the Rev. Zeke (Kenyatta-Bean). The decisive factor in arranging a truce is the conciliatory offer of a bottle of gin by the professor. Even so, the embittered Benjamin would prefer to drink it alone and let the others go their ways. During the course of the play, we learn the stories of these men and watch them overcome their differences.
There are many fine touches in the script -- little moments of humor and human truth. For instance, the Reverend wears a neat, printed sign that says "Hungry, will work for food." The others criticize his marketing strategy. Act two begins with the Reverend, whose sign is now a scrawled bit of cardboard reading, "Hongry, will work fer food." Or when the three, sitting in their ragged clothes on the bench passing a bottle of gin, comment caustically on the respectable citizens gawking at them: "They probably think we're a bunch of alcoholics!"
Despite its strengths, however, Hobos had some serious problems. For one thing, its Wagnerian length (three acts, running to two-and-a-half hours). That could have been fixed easily enough, with some judicious cutting. But there was a more troubling problem. The men's stories, though individually well told, add up to an unconvincing view of life and of these particular characters. All three men have been reduced to homelessness and, I take it, alcoholism by the unremitting nefariousness of white America. The professor, a well-off Creole who taught at a college in Virginia, married a white woman. However, when he told her he didn't want a nanny for his child, she arranged to have him committed to an asylum, where he was subjected to shock treatments and drugs for five years. Benjamin was a promising blues singer, whose brilliant songs were systematically stolen by a cigar-smoking white agent. When he protested, he also was committed to a brutal asylum. The Reverend, a hard-working family man, was falsely accused of raping a white woman (she was actually raped by her father-in-law). He spent 30 years in Angola. I mean, this is racial injustice laid on with a trowel.
Of course it's possible we are meant to understand that the men are, in fact, telling self-aggrandizing, self-serving lies about the causes of their wrecked lives. Now, that's a thought. Maybe Hobos is deeper and more complex than I originally suspected.
- A veteran cast featuring Jomo Kenyatta Bean, Lloyd Joseph Martin and Harold Evans helped the Ethiopian Theatre's production of Hobos transcend its surroundings.