Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
(l-r) Alfred H. Wilson, Willie B., Kelvin Roston Jr., Tyla Abercrumble. Photo by Michael Brosilow
When pairing director Ron OJ Parson with playwright Eugene Lee, expect to levitate in an orbit that will heighten one’s senses to how we engage with the world. EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS, delivers a biting punch of realism that is still pertinent in 2016. Set in the rural Texas woods during 1955, Top ‘o the Hill Café is a place of refuge for Blacks during the Jim Crow laws. The café is where friends critique life, gain wisdom, share gossip, check the validity of rumors, all while cranking the jukebox over a few cold beers, moonshine, and pickled pig feet.
Charlesetta Simpkins (Tyla Abercrumble), inherited her father’s café, she makes sure that the place is homelike to everyone who walks through her doors, and has a unique crowd of regular men folk, with very distinct personalities. She is a warm and friendly woman who respects the friendships she’s built with her patrons, however she’s not afraid to swing the bat she keeps tucked behind the bar should anyone step outside of their nature. Tyla Abercrumble is refreshing to watch in this role because she takes her time in unraveling all the parts to Charlesetta. Abercrumble immediately makes the audience fall in love with Charlestta’s softness and beauty, that is harmoniously paralleled to her fiery instinct to protect the innocent.
Top ‘o the Hill Café offers a sense of stability for Charlesetta’s guests. Outside the confines of the café there’s much going on in this small town of Klan’s men and a wealthy White man, whose family runs much of the town. Inside the café there’s darkness brewing, as secrets of treason jeopardize friendships and trust.
On this warm summer night, seven men gather inside the café, as they routinely have done so in the past. We learn how everyone is coping in a life of limited opportunities under the oppression of Jim Crow laws. Columbus Frye (Alfred H. Wilson), is one of the elders who owns property but has a hard time staying ahead because he helps too many tenants even if it’s at his own expense. Alfred H. Wilson does such a phenomenal job in making Columbus feel familiar. I saw so much of my grandfather in this character, a simple man who’s just living life and trying to steer clear of trouble. Then there is the other elder, Adolph (Willie B.), who is blind, but all knowing. Adolph is central to interpreting the words and the actions of all the men in the café. He is a poet filled with omens, disguised as riddles and fancy word play. Roy Moore (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), is the sly talking lady’s man with a short temper, who has the hots for Charlesetta, who pays his boy-like crush absolutely no mind. Kelvin Roston, Jr. always brings a unique charm to his characters. Buckshot (Antoine Pierre Whitfield), is a 6’5 Black southern-hillbilly, with missing teeth who is the last person anyone wants to piss off. Whitfield brought so much necessary energy to the stage, with his powers of wit and raillery that softened his dominant stature and strength. Boochie Reed (A.C. Smith), is the prophet who reads palms and knows when danger and death are near and he senses that something is not right inside the café on this night. Delmus Green (Luce Metrius), is the youngest of everyone and is the epitome of his name, as he is green to all things around him. XL Dancer (Namir Smallwood) is the spinning wheel of all that transpires inside this café. Namir Smallwood’s use of dry humor and attention to body movement is outstanding in molding the darkness of XL’s persona.
So much is tested in such little time, inside this small café. This is a seasoned cast, who have years of performance experience. The level of intensity that each actor brings to this story is beyond explosive.
Ron OJ Parson does a brilliant job with the use of space considering all the turmoil that erupts on stage. Midway through the play I noticed that the entire audience was leaning forward towards the edge of their seats, as if we were all ready to jump into the mayhem unfolding on stage. Extreme anticipation, coupled with great acting kept us all in this tensed-up position until the end. Sound Designer Joshua Horvath provided the best sound effects I’ve ever experienced in a theater, from the sound of crickets to gun fire, Horvath does an amazing job of creating real moments of sound. Much credit also has to be given to Scenic Designer Jack Magaw’s attention to detail in capturing the authenticity of a small café that’s personalized with artifacts indicative of the time period.
Ron OJ Parson is a mastermind at manipulating the stage and stories in a way that forces the audience to become enthralled in the action of the story and its characters. EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS, is a 90-minute roller-coaster ride that climbs its way to the top and when that first car drops it doesn’t stop until everything literally comes crashing down at full speed. Prepare yourself for the most intense ride of your life.
For more information on EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS visit www.writerstheatre.org/