Playwright Eugene Lee doesn’t let a familiar situation nor too-recognizable characters get in his way: “East Texas Hot Links” is a kinetic, ruthless portrayal of self-interest and betrayal.
Set in the pre-integration South, “Links” puts eight poor, black rural Texans in their favorite haunt — a dusty, backwoods bar called Top o’ the Hill Cafe — and watches as a combustible situation simmers to its inevitable explosion. Even a hint of foreshadowing doesn’t lessen the power of the play’s final moments.
Situation, if not tone, recalls “Two Trains Running” as the proprietor and customers of the Top o’ the Hill spend a lazy evening joking, arguing and gossiping over a few cold beers. The year is 1955, the place East Texas, and the familiar way of life as viewed from the cafe windows is about to change: An interstate highway is going up nearby, and its impact could be a boon to some, a detriment to others.
But early on Lee (not to be confused with the set designer of the same name) presents something even darker. A young black man has been murdered, two others are missing, and all three were working for the rich white man constructing the highway.
Neither plot nor action kick in until nearly two-thirds of the way into the 90-minute one-act. The lengthy character setups and wordy interactions could prove slow going for some audience members, but Lee’s crackling dialogue should keep most interested.
“My family’s been working for that ugly white man since he was an ugly white baby,” says XL (Curtis McClarin), defending his kowtowing to the hated construction boss. XL is the play’s embodiment of an “I eat, I don’t get ate” ethos.
Also hanging out at the bar: sharp-tongued proprietor Charlesetta (Loretta Devine), insecure braggart Roy (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), kindhearted Columbus (Ed Wheeler), blind, poetic Adolph (Earle Hyman), quick-tempered Buckshot (Bo Rucker) and gambler Boochie (Willis Burks II). It’s the latter, gifted with “the shining,” who senses trouble approaching.
That trouble, audience learns, will descend on Delmus (Monte Russell), 23 years old and impatient to escape the backwater town. For reasons that only gradually are made clear, the greedy XL agrees to set up a job interview between Delmus and the white construction boss. When tragedy falls, it falls hard, as if justifying the soulful Adolph’s gloomy theory that everyone is part of a food chain. “We devour each other,” he says, and Lee’s characters certainly do.
Marion McClinton steers his fine cast through the more verbose tangles of Lee’s play, particularly the often bloated speeches. “Link’s” biggest shortcoming is a decided overstatement of the obvious, as when Adolph and his cohorts repeatedly pummel the food chain notion into the ground. And while the characters do, at times, border on stock, the perfs usually save the day.
Special mention should be made of Charles McClennahan’s efficient and evocative open-air set and Allen Lee Hughes’ careful lighting. The New York Shakespeare Festival has given this impressive one-act the production it merits.