Both Tambo and Bones are dressed in the clownish rags of minstrel show performers, while Tambo is explaining to Bones how to get white people to give up their quarters: “You gotta deliver a treatise on race in America.”
So is that what poet and playwright Dave Harris is doing in “Tambo & Bones,” a play being presented (to mostly white audiences) at Playwrights Horizons through February 27?
It could be. The three different settings of the play – first, in a minstrel show in the past; then, at a rap concert in the present; and finally at an apocalyptic future with no white people — certainly suggests the play is meant to be a riff on race. Or it could be a goof — if any kind of “treatise,” perhaps a trickster playwright’s meta-theatrical commentary on the gullibility of audiences towards any theater that hints at being a disquisition on race.
Or it could be both. There are lines throughout the play that could justify either interpretation.
Some theatergoers will certainly see “Tambo & Bones” as not just clever and labyrinthine, but also thought-provoking. I frankly don’t know what to think. But at least I do know what I saw — a well-acted, well-directed, meticulously thought-out and spectacularly designed production that works hard at keeping our attention (sometimes too hard.)
W. Tré Davis portrays Tambo, who wants nothing more than to get some sleep as the play begins.
Tyler Fauntleroy portrays Bones, who enters the stage hustling the audience for quarters, so that he can visit his poor sick son Zippy on his birthday.
“Nigga who is Zippy?” Tambo interrupts, annoyed at being awoken. “You ain’t got no son. You ain’t got no family. You got me.”
The painted backdrop and cardboard cutouts of trees and bushes suggests the kind of rudimentary set undoubtedly used in 19th century minstrel shows. But Tambo and Bones are not actors in a minstrel show; they are characters stuck in one.
Much horseplay and shenanigans follow – some of it involving the two clowns rushing into the audience — , until the scene changes. They are now rap stars at an elaborate rap concert, on a stage underneath their names in neon lights; their rap songs are less spoofs than credible pastiche (if that’s the right word to use for rap music.) But, if they dress the part of contemporary hip-hop artists, Tambo and Bones have not changed their essential characters, nor their conflicts. Bones is still mostly interested in money, while Tambo is still annoyed with him. Tambo also has developed a social conscience. I wondered whether this was the playwright making a caustic claim that rap stars are the minstrel clowns of our age. But while Harris happily hits us over the head, repeatedly, it’s never quite clear what impression he hopes his hammer makes.
Of the third scene, I’ll say only that it’s more original than the first two, involves two other actors, takes place 400 years in the future, and includes this address to the audience that – I don’t know – may be a thesis statement:
“Think: once, there was an old world where niggas would have to put on shows for people that looked nothing like them. And those niggas would have to figure out what was real and what was fake, what was true pain and what was just a story, they’d have to do all of that in front of an audience full of white niggas.”
Tambo & Bones
Playwrights Horizons through February 27
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
Written by Dave Harris
Directed by Taylor Reynolds
Scenic design by Stephanie Osin Cohen
Costume deign by Dominique Fawn Hill
Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and Mextly Couzin
Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel
Cast: W. Tre Davis, Tyler Fauntleroy, Dean Linnard, Brendan Dalton