February 8, 2022

The Too Familiar Tale of "Tambo & Bones"

It’s not easy to write about Tambo & Bones, the new play that opened at Playwrights Horizons this week. And I'm pretty sure its playwright Dave Harris intended it to be difficult. 

The title is drawn from the clownish minstrel characters who tickled audiences in the early 19th and 20th centuries and who appear in the first scene of Harris’ time-hopping triptych about the relationship between black performers and the white audiences who view their work. The second scene moves to the contemporary hip-hop era and the third to a dystopian future in which the power balance between the races has been ruthlessly reversed. 

All three scenes engage in a kind of post-modern double consciousness in which there is no fourth wall and the actors W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy (both excellent by the way) interact directly with the audience, sometimes leaving the stage to make one-on-one appeals for the approval of audience members, all the while slyly acknowledging that most of the people watching their show will be white. 

This, of course, is where the discomfort comes in. The actors don’t wear blackface in the first scene as black minstrel actors did but they engage in the same kind of humor that people thoughtlessly laughed at for decades and that helped create the Stepin Fetchit-style stereotypes that portrayed black folks as shiftless and prone to lying.  So is it O.K. to laugh at those antics now?

The hip-hop scene suggests that those performances might be another form of minstrelsy. But its message is undermined by director Taylor Reynolds’ failure to slow down the flow of the rap so that it’s easier to hear and take in lyrics like “Cuz we started from the cotton now we here/ Buying back four hundred years/ Never knew a nigga wit no fear/ Never catch a nigga shedding tears.” 

Still, the actors are pretty entertaining rappers. So is it O.K. to groove to their beats?  And what to make of the fact that they toss around the n-word as though it were confetti?

And finally, what to make of the final scene which ends with an act of violence that is meant to disturb? As Davis explains in the author’s note he wrote for the program, he’s trying to figure out how to truthfully deal with the pain he and other black people have experienced at the same time that he doesn’t want to exploit that pain as entertainment, particularly when he knows it’s likely to be viewed by people who don’t look like him. But should those people be expected to cheer their own subjugation? (Click here to read about the response one of them had).

Davis isn’t the only playwright to deal with the distress black artists feel about having to craft their work to suit what the novelist Toni Morrison called the white gaze (click here to read more about that). Jackie Sibblies Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019 for her play Fairview, which confronted many of the same questions that Tambo & Bones poses.  

And in the wake of the racial reckoning spawned by the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent We See You White American Theatre movement, theaters are scrambling to schedule similar shows to the point that they’re almost becoming a genre unto themselves. Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which actually excludes white theatergoers from parts of its performance, had a run at BAM last spring and then another at Playwrights Horizons in the fall.

All of this has created a been-there-seen-that hurdle for Tambo & Bones to clear. It doesn’t quite make it. But that doesn’t mean it—or more importantly, the issues it’s raising—should be dismissed. The challenge now is to figure out where to go from here. 

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