What my fellow Duelist Jonathan Abarbanel calls "Sugarplum and Treacle season" seems to have arrived early this year, just like other manifestations of Christmas: Black Friday sales, angst concerning holiday travel. The good news is, holiday fare this time around includes some unconventional choices. In this category count Court Theatre’s pitch-perfect revival of Samm-Art Williams’ 1979 drama "Home."
This play isn’t about Christmas in any obvious sense. Only the penultimate scene takes place around Christmastime, and any sentimentality is quickly washed away by the setting—a crowded Greyhound bus, described as “the National Negro Transportation Network”—and the companionship, including a man who won’t put his shoes back on. But as our hero Cephus makes his way from farm to prison to city and back to farm, he keeps asking, “Where is God? When is he coming back?”—the very questions the Christmas story is designed to answer.
Cephus is a contented farmer in rural North Carolina whose life collapses around him when his sweetheart Patti Mae moves away and marries someone else while Uncle Sam comes calling with a draft notice. “But what about ‘Thou shalt not kill’?” asks Cephus in genuine puzzlement. In answer he gets a 5-year prison term, with no company other than a brutal guard and memories of Patti Mae. And when he’s released his family asks him not to come home to the small town (evocatively named Crossroads) where his conscientious objection is seen as treason, and where his farm has been sold for taxes. So he goes to New York where he’s predictably overwhelmed and damaged until he’s literally lying in the gutter—whereupon he gets a letter saying his land has been restored to him, and then there’s the scene on the Greyhound, and I’ve already told you way more than I should.
But of course the strength of "Home" isn’t originality of plot or theme but creativity of presentation. All the characters are played by a cast of three at Court: Kamal Angelo Boden as Cephus, Ashley Honore as Patti Mae and half a dozen other characters, and the hilarious Tracey N. Bonner as everybody else. (Her transitions from child to old lady, from schoolboy in knickers to James Brown-like preacher, are truly amazing.) I missed "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" last season and so am a step behind in hailing the talent of Mr. Boden, who as my seatmate commented, makes Cephus “what Forrest Gump would be if Forrest Gump had any brains.” He conveys both the sweetness and the bitterness in Cephus without ever descending into caricature.
Director Ron OJ Parson, who revived "Home" in New York in 2008 (with Bonner as Woman #2), clearly still has plenty to give this deceptively simple tale. He balances comedy and drama expertly, and deploys the aisles as well as the stage to make the Court Theatre space (which often feels cold and stand-offish) warm and intimate—which is to say, homey.
Fundamentally, "Home" is about love and redemption and the return of God (whom Cephus experiences for most of the play as being “on vacation in Miami”). What could be more appropriate for Christmas?
"Home" plays through December 12 at the Court Theater in Hyde Park.