I gotta speak my mind.
These is dire times. The weight of chains was on me.
It’s time for change America. If I can’t sleep, neither can you.
Playwright Dave Harris’ Tambo & Bones’ evidences his stellar poetry slam career with its tart punchy dialogue, hip-hop flourishes and fierce insights. In three satirical scenes lasting 90 minutes, Mr. Harris offers an irreverent exploration of racism and capitalism in the U.S.A. Under the prevalent comic tone there’s pain. The N-word is used in abundance and matter-of-factly.
Clichéd harp music plays as the curtain rises on scenic designer Stephanie Osin Cohen eye-catching “fake ass pasture.” Ms. Cohen has created a gorgeous bucolic stylized landscape reminiscent of old-time children’s television shows with painted flats, cardboard movable trees and a hanging sun.
Soon, two Black male “clowns,” Tambo and Bones, have entered wearing Dominique Fawn Hill’s marvelously tatty Alice in Wonderland-style costumes. One tries to water the fake trees, the other engages with the audience while trying to hustle them for quarters. Eventually they deliver, “a brief treatise on race in America.” This is a humorous and chilling historical recitation which examines Africa, the slave trade and slavery in America. This piece and the entire play abound in metatheatricality; here there are references to the playwright who is represented onstage by a large dummy. Minstrel shows, a staple of old-time American show business where white performers wore black face for racist comedic effect is referenced. Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones were traditional 19th century minstrel characters.
Next, we’re at Tambo and Bones’ authentic hip-hop concert and we witness their rise to becoming Grammy-winning stars. A lucky audience member gets a T-shirt. The performance sequences are intermixed with audio of mock news broadcasts of everyday events from the media establishment’s point of view. Finally, we’re at a lecture in the future where the actors playing Tambo and Bones are behind lecterns. They announce, “And we are your performers for today’s celebration of our ancestry!” before they deliver commentary with the assistance of two white male robots.
The dynamic W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy deliver rousing performances as Tambo and Bones. Each is possessed of a limber physicality, superior comic timing and dramatic depth. Their immense chemistry is such that they appear to be long-time show business partners instead of just actors in a play. With their imposing physiques, close-cropped hair and vocal talents, Brendan Dalton and Dean Linnard are hilarious as the robots.
Director Taylor Reynolds’ fizzy staging realizes Harris’ vision with theatrical flair, each scene is perfectly presented. Lighting designers Amith Chandrashaker and Mextly Couzin and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel respond to the three diverse settings with resourceful artistry. Composer Justin Ellington’s delightful original music ranges from jaunty melodies to rap tunes.
This Playwrights Horizons world premiere production of Tambo & Bones reveals it be a substantive, subtle and entertaining work by an emerging artist.
Tambo & Bones (through February 27, 2022)
Playwrights Horizons and Center Theater Group
Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission