Commentary and Los Angeles Theater Review: TAMBO & BONES (Kirk Douglas Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 24, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


In six words, Samuel Beckett devours the human experience: “Birth was the death of him.” This line permeates not just A Piece of Monologue (1979), but all of the master’s works. In a world teeming with greed, terrorism, and unrest, Beckett knew that tragedy is common to all of us. We are born. We die. Moments of joy may be strewn along the way, but — as in Waiting for Godot (1953) — we find nothing but bleakness, hopelessness, and bewilderment ahead, and yet we keep going, seeking humor and connection and meaning. That is the existentialism that Camus branded as absurdity.

Some decades after Godot‘s premiere, many new American playwrights — following the 80s screed that all of us are special and deserve to be heard — decided that, no, the tragedy is that the issues of specific cultures are being ignored. Theater of the Absurd‘s universalism gave way to Social Issues Theater; the idea of which is to promote a particular cultural identity. AKA Theater of Identity, the plays are usually written and/or performed by members of a culture. But in the last few years, Theater of Identity has come to mean embracing separateness by denying another’s identity. So much for “attention must be paid.”

As BIPOC artists get the recognition they want from established theatrical institutions, plays are becoming more, as they say, “woke,” many from Black playwrights toying with this unproven phenomenon called white-liberal guilt. Which means we are seeing more playwrights chosen not just for nascent talent, but for their skin color (which, of course, is racist against white people, but whatevs). This crapshoot is producing some really wonky work that is unsurprisingly overpraised, overrewarded, and overproduced. Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over come to mind. Amidst the now mind-numbing conversations on inclusion and diversity, these plays feel dated by opening night.

As I watched Dave Harris‘s new play Tambo & Bones, a Playwrights Horizons co-production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in L.A., I thought, What is this form of theater? Agit-prop? Social consciousness-raising theatre? And why is the N-word used so much? Riffing on Waiting for Godot — just as Pass Over did — playwright Dave Harris begins his three-part innovative structure (it ain’t a play, it’s all concept and no meat) with his trapped Vladimir and Estragon in a minstrel show; two stock characters — (Tambo) Tré Davis and Bones Tyler Fauntleroy — mull over things such as getting quarters from the audience (shades of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) as this is the beginning of “Black American artistic capitalism” — but this section has nowhere to go.

The second “act” (there’s no intermission) is a rap music concert given the deconstruction treatment, but it’s tedious and condescending — not helped by indecipherable lyrics (are we NOT supposed to hear them?), blinding lights, and yucky audience participation. Part three is a post-performance audience colloquy, informing us that we have been centuries in the future all along following a “white genocide.” With our hosts discussing what was just witnessed, two white robots (Tim Kopacz and Alexander Neher) are brought on stage (oddly, no production photos exist of this scene). Intensely directed by Taylor Reynolds, this exhausting and mostly interminable 90 minutes feels like a rushed pastiche of ideas that were lying in a drawer for a long time.

If you read Harris’s playbill notes, and you’ll find a very intelligent man brimming with ideas. But that’s all this is: A few ideas and a lot of emptiness masquerading as a profound meditation on the state of racism in America. There are no characters, just mouthpieces, so there’s no narrative development. What are we supposed to grab onto? And there’s no ending, which reminds me of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins Neighbors, one of the most provocative and funny plays on Black & White race in America (and which also used stock Black characters), but that too lacked an ending. (Isn’t anybody getting the hint?!) I certainly don’t blame the indefatigable actors, both of whom are very watchable even if the universe they are in is not.

Harris has plenty of legitimate gripes about social injustice to unpack, but there are many plays about race out there right now. While it’s high time more of these voices were heard, you have to wonder if the market isn’t being oversaturated and that audiences won’t be able to cope with the sheer volume, not to mention that the well-intentioned companies producing these plays might just be subverting their cause. We’ll have to see. Just in this week alone, we have three plays by Black playwrights about Black people opening in New York: James Ijames‘s Fat Ham (Stage and Cinema‘s review) — which just won the Pulitzer for Drama — at The Public, Mansa Ra‘s …what the end will be (review) at Roundabout, and Harris’s own Exception to the Rule (review), also at Roundabout (although these are more straightforward dramas).

I’m waiting for a lexicographer to explain why “nigga” is a slur when spoken by whites but not when uttered by Blacks. Are we to rid society of this word or not? The epithet is used so often in fact that it can be numbing instead of horrifying after repetition. Is this word offensive or not? And what does the future hold? Remove the word from August Wilson’s plays, where the N-word seems right at home with his characters?

I’m also on pins and needles waiting for plays that will mercilessly and ruthlessly satirize this whole woke emerging culture, and that includes fucking pronouns. (Oops, sorry to swear — but the f-bomb was also everywhere in Tambo & Bones.) Isn’t it fascinating how the woke and cancel culture strangled the soul of America as soon as the middle class died? Americans play the political and racial blame game to justify why so many are so powerless and broke, but it has taken an ugly and pernicious turn, and I’m sick of it. N-Word, please!

photos by Craig Schwartz

Tambo & Bones
Roundabout Theatre Company & Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd in Culver City
ends on May 29, 2022
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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