By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
In the summer of 1955, a colorful cast of characters comes out to drink some homemade hooch, feed the jukebox and play cards at a woodsy Jim Crow era “colored-only” bar in Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links.”
Charlesetta (Cheryl El-Walker) runs the Top O’ the Hill Café with verve, even while fending off advances from Roy (Monteze Freeland), and breaking up battling brothers-in-law, Columbus (Kevin Brown) and XL Dancer (Jonathan Berry).
The other Top O’ the Hill patrons include a loquacious blind poet, Adolph (Leslie Howard), a hot-tempered former inmate, Buckshot (Sam Lothard), a happy-go-lucky young buck, Delmus (Taylor Martin Moss) and an eerie prognosticator, Boochie (Charles Timbers).
The bar is abuzz with information about a horrific incident involving the Klan. A local boy turns up dead. His body is partially buried in the cement of a highway project cutting its way through town.
The news seems to have little effect on Delmus, who is bouncing around, buoyant with enthusiasm. He’s got a new girl and a new job lined up. Unfortunately, the denizens of the bar fear the events are connected, and that his new job is not the good news he believes it is.
“East Texas Hot Links” is a deceptive little play. It appears to be a humorous little concoction; a character study with men ruminating over the troubles of the day. Men seeking to fulfill simple desires on various points on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; money, shelter, food and love. Then, Lee blows the roof off – literally and figuratively. It’s a pot-boiler that explodes on the stove in the final few minutes.
Note: There will be blood.
The play is also about man’s inhumanity to man (regardless of skin color). While it’s set in 1955, it is sadly still relevant.
There is a large cast in Lee’s play. At first, some of the roles seem superfluous. The show, however, comes together like a large jigsaw. Each part becomes integral to the whole.
Mark Clayton Southers’ set is a masterpiece. While it’s packed with trinkets and gewgaws of a bygone era, it’s never cramped. Clayton Southers is aided by set painter, Diane Melchitzky.
Director Montae Russell blocks the show in such a way that the sizable cast never feels crowded on the small stage (not until the actors line up for their final bow).
Russell also wrangles some fine performances out of his cast. Freeland, Berry and Brown have always been strong actors, but they are so perfectly cast. They excel in this show. It must be noted, though, that there are no weak links in “Hot Links.”
Timbers oozes with gravitas. His presence is palpable the moment he steps onto the stage. He is also impeccably dressed by costume designer Anthony James Sirk.
In the last few years, Lothard has grown as an actor. He is at his best in this show, as if the role were written for him.
El-Walker’s Charlesetta is a joy. She is the lone distaff member, and she brings a brightness to the dingy bar. Her character rides a rollercoaster of emotions and El-Walker handles it with aplomb.
“East Texas Hot Links” is performed without an intermission. It’s a wise move not to break up the mounting tension in the ninety minute play. It’s a powerful play that packs a punch.
“East Texas Hot Links” runs till November 5, 2017. For more information, click here.