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November 23, 2010

Court shows there's no place like Home

The subject suggested by the title Home is a tricky one, especially for a play set against the historical backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Second Great Migration, when millions of African Americans moved to Northern cities. With such a massive movement of people, the ideas of home, family, and tradition necessarily underwent radical changes for both mobilized soldiers and migrating families. While many hoped to find fairer fortunes in their new surroundings, Court Theatre’s production of Samm-Art Williams’s play emphasizes the brutal struggle that emerges when a movement toward opportunity becomes a vicious displacement.

This is the experience of Cephus Miles (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a young black farmer who loves his farmland and its history so much that he refuses to be drafted into Vietnam War. He isn’t a draft-dodger or a coward, so much as he is the most apolitical war-dissenter you will ever see. When harassed about his decision to stay, he simply repeats the words of his Sunday School teacher: “Thou shall not kill.” Unfortunately for Cephus, Uncle Sam’s laws must come before God’s, and he is stuck in prison for five years. After he gets out, he decides that there is only one place left for him to go: the city.

But the staging of Home never really makes it seem like Cephus actually left his beloved farm. The large wooden frame of a farmhouse front stands perpetually in the background with its ancient, worn wooden porch collecting dirt stains and dried leaves. The bare structure appropriately indicates that the play is situated more in memories and dreams than in reality.

The only other two cast members—Ashley Honore and Tracey N. Bonner—take on the roles of the various people who have passed through Cephus’s life. The two actresses display impressive versatility as they portray a wide range of characters including a cruel jailor, a dancing preacher, and the woman who stole Cephus’s heart. At other times, Honore and Bonner play the role of a theatrical chorus lyrically commenting on Cephus’s life and accenting the emotions his memories awaken.

The play is at its best in these moments, when it recreates Cephus’s memories. Full to the brim with anecdotes, Cephus is a born storyteller who revels in recalling local legends. Like Honore and Bonner, Bolden smoothly transitions into other characters according to the needs of Cephus’s stories. During these engaging and frequently hilarious anecdotes, Cephus’s vivid relationship with his home is more tangible than at any other time in the play.

Although Cephus does come across better fortune in the city, it doesn’t last, and he soon finds himself subject to the cruelty of unemployment and homelessness. As he wanders through the streets in oppressive solitude, the social critique of Williams’s script rises to the surface. While he is marked by fellow African-Americans as a discredit to his race, Cephus encounters an uncaring social welfare apparatus and unhelpful, single-minded agents ofreligion. His pain is heart-wrenching and establishes a poignant criticism of a political and social system that ignores those most in need.

And then, almost inexplicably, his suffering ends. In a desperate, textbook example of deus ex machina, Cephus rediscovers everything that he ever wanted. The play ends with a comedic structure that does little justice to the unsettling problems it engages. It is somewhat comforting to see Cephus finally find his real home, but there is a nagging in the back of the brain that remembers the aimless struggle the final scenes of the play seem to forget.

Court Theatre’s production, directed by Ron OJ Parson, is well-planned and deliberate. The disciplined actors, fine-tuned lighting, and subtle set design allow the story to glide through the sporadic recollections of Cephus’s past. But, although this play was first staged back in 1979 by New York’s famed Negro Ensemble Company, the text still feels incomplete. It isn’t too short by any means. In fact, the pacing would significantly benefit from the trimming of a few scenes. No, the real problem is that the script takes a long, hard look at the ugliness and horror of poverty, drug addiction, and institutional violence supported by systemic racism, and then turns away. Cephus has every right in the world to find his happy ending, but it is too difficult to discard the morbid curiosity about all those who didn’t.

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