The setting for Eugene Lee’s play East Texas Hot Links is a down home bar nestled deep in the woods of East Texas, rendered in authentic detail by Mark Clayton Southers’ scenic design, with dart board and rotary pay phone hanging on the wall, a jukebox along one wall, vinyl covered barstools, formica tables, and mismatched chairs. But don’t be fooled by the realism of the set: the story told here expands into a conflict reminiscent of ancient Greek or Shakespearean tragedies, and it’s given a suitably epic treatment by director Montae Russell and his strong ensemble.
That expansion takes a little time to get going, however. Most of this 90 minute play is devoted to building the world out of which the play’s violent climax explodes. The Top o’ the Hill Café, where the action takes place, is a seemingly safe space for its characters: the bar is reserved – as the hand-painted sign on the door notes – “For Coloreds Only,” and it is presided over by the tough but warmhearted Charlesetta (Cheryl El Walker). But danger lurks outside. The year is 1955, and a new interstate highway threatens the demise of Charlesetta’s establishment; even more concerningly, the recent mysterious deaths and disappearances of a number of black highway construction workers have the bar’s clientele worried about a resurgence of KKK activity in their area, and about the relationship between the white contractor in charge of the highway job and the Klan.
Regulars at the bar include Roy (Monteze Freeland), a handgun-packing ex-basketball star; Columbus (Kevin Brown), a local landlord; XL (Jonathan Berry), Columbus’s brother-in-law and a long-time employee of the white highway contractor; Adolph (Leslie Howard), a blind war veteran who is the community’s scholar-in-residence; Buckshot (Sam Lothard), a giant of a man with a dangerous temper; and the young, ambitious Delmus (Taylor Martin Moss). The play’s extended exposition establishes the relationships of these characters to each other and to the outside world, revealing their interpersonal tensions and their thwarted ambitions as well as their anger and frustration over their systematic oppression in the Jim Crow south. The “hot links” of the title refer to Adolph’s musings about how we’re all part of the metaphorical food chain, and you could be forgiven for being lulled into the impression, halfway through the play, that its conflicts will be on the order of whether or not the family piano should be sold to buy a piece of farmland.
But Lee has something larger in his scopes. With the arrival of Boochie (Charles Timbers), a high stakes gambler, the play’s stakes start to skyrocket as well. Boochie is also the local seer, who, like a Tiresias or Cassandra, picks up on the fates of others. On this night it’s a dark cloud hanging over Delmus that sets off his alarms, and the chain of revelations and repercussions set in motion by his foresight is devastating, for both the characters in the play and for us, the audience.
Riveting and impactful, East Texas Hot Links could not be playing on our stages at a more apropos moment. At a time when we have a President who seems unable to distinguish between Nazi terrorists and peaceful protesters, who tweets out racist dog whistles at every opportunity, and who seeks to quash the protests of black football players and their supporters, the play’s depiction of how white supremacy destroys communities of color not only from the outside in, but also the inside out, feels like both a cautionary tale and a call to solidarity.