At the beginning of Eugene Lee's "East Texas Hot Links," one of the characters remarks that it's so quiet outside, "you can hear the stars shine if you listen hard enough." It's the quietest moment in this explosive drama set in a blacks-only bar in East Texas in the 1950s.
In fact, the tension in this play -- receiving its Baltimore debut at Arena Players under Steven Maurice's direction -- is propelled like a slow fuse. Ignited at the beginning with an almost imperceptible spark, it travels quietly along until erupting in a shattering blast at the end.
Like Lee's earlier work, "Killingsworth," which was produced at Arena in 1990, this new script is part mystery, part character study. But what's most striking are its similarities to the work of August Wilson. Like most of Wilson's plays, this is primarily an ensemble piece. Even the character types are reminiscent of Wilson's -- especially the characters of a prescient mystic and a philosophizing senior citizen. In addition, as the above quote suggests, the language has a Wilson-like poetic quality -- although some of it is on the crude side.
Lee's protagonist, however, is a disturbingly original creation. XL Dancer is a man none of the other characters thinks is quite right, although they don't realize exactly what's wrong with him until almost the end of the play. It's not just that he's a bit dim (XL actually claims it hurts him to think). Nor is it merely his willingness to work for a man suspected of being a Klan leader and of having orchestrated the disappearance of some of XL's co-workers.
XL lacks one of the chief attributes of the other regulars at Miss Charlesetta's Top o' the Hill Cafe; he is devoid of kindness. As Charlesetta, Wynonia Rhock (who alternates in the part with Judi Anderson) is quick to haul a baseball bat out from behind the bar, but she plays a maternal role in her patrons' lives, and she revels in it. Dressed all in black and rarely breaking his severe expression, soothsayer Boochie Reed looks ominous, but D. Carter Andrew's performance reveals the gentleness under the severe appearance. Even Buckshot, an ex-con expansively played by Gerard W. Catus, gained a few drops of kindness during his years of reflection in prison.
But lacking kindness -- and the ability to see beyond his own self-interest -- makes XL dangerous, and he is given an upsettingly strong performance here by Archie D. Williams Jr. -- an actor whose staccato delivery recalls that of Wilson's favorite leading man, Baltimorean Charles ("Roc") Dutton.
"East Texas Hot Links" -- which debuted off-Broadway last season -- not only paints an effective picture of the heinousness of segregation, it also conveys an important message about man's responsibility to his fellow man and to his race. Arena Players' production, which is performed without intermission, would benefit from a boost in tempo, and the stage effects accompanying the last few explosive moments are more confusing than illuminating.
But new plays of quality are rare, and though some of the audience may bristle at "East Texas' " violent action and dialogue, Arena Players is to be commended for taking a chance on a meaningful and uncompromising script.
"East Texas Hot Links"
Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.
When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 20
Call: (410) 728-6500