- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Javon Johnson's play "Hambone" has plenty of meat. That's part of the trouble. A young playwright and protege of August Wilson, Mr. Johnson shares his mentor's chatterbox tendencies. "Hambone," being produced at the Studio Theatre, is stuffed with words great gulping speeches, soliloquies, crackling gibes between old friends and a whole lot of chewing the fat.
Mr. Johnson makes the sweet mistake many writers do: He tries to say everything and cram everything into one play. He not only doesn't kill his darlings, he pampers and gorges them until the stage is littered with darlings loitering about picking their teeth.
"Hambone" still proves to be entertaining Mr. Johnson has a gift for the swift zinger and gripping in parts, but the play has so many plot developments and showdowns that the second act seems like a caffeinated soap opera.
"Hambone" takes place in a sandwich shop in Anderson, S.C., the playwright's hometown, in 1988. Bishop (Doug Brown) is the proud, defiant owner of the shop, which, frankly, has seen better days.
His sole customer most of the time is his blood brother Henry (David Toney), a man given to fabulous diatribes. Henry's subjects include the selling of body parts, his mistrust of "white medicine" and his defense of singer James Brown, who is jailed for drugs and assault at the time of the play.
The other patrons of the shop are Bishop's helper and ward, Tyrone (Jamahl Marsh), who, at 18, already feels old in his black skin. He spends his days drinking Grape Nehi and trying to write James Brown song lyrics with his flashy, no-goodnik friend Bobbilee (Luis A. Laporte Jr.). Bishop fusses over Tyrone like a worried mother, and he dislikes having Bobbilee around because he is a trouble magnet.
The dramatic tension lies in Tyrone's and Bobbilee's struggles to spread their wings and find their own destinies while Bishop and Henry try to hold on to what they have. The play is also about long-held secrets, which will shake up everybody's concept of friendship and family when they are revealed.
"The truth got to come however it's gonna come," says Bishop. The catalyst in this case is Harrison (Timothy Rice), a white stranger who strolls into the shop looking for far more than a cup of coffee.
Act 1 carries a leisurely air of old friends sitting around jawing as if they have all the time in the world, a pace and flavor that will remind you of Mr. Wilson's "Two Trains Running." Both plays deal with a once-vibrant black-owned business, in "Hambone" a sandwich shop and in "Two Trains" a barbecue joint that has fallen on hard times because the neighborhoods and culture are changing. Regulars come there out of habit, and the young bloods hang out half out of boredom and half out of defiance.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Johnson also share a similar a push-pull conflict between the urgency to see clearheadedly what is in the now and the necessity of knowing all the old stories and history.
By Act 2, the revelations come flying at you with all the subtlety of a pitching machine. An accidental killing happens, and after the funeral Harrison reveals his true reasons for poking around the shop. That confession leads to impromptu kidney donations, startling news about paternity and fraternal ties, and discussions about the hierarchy of skin color and interracial relationships.
Any one of those topics would be more than enough dramatic tension, but to have all of them and so late in the game leaves the audience just sitting and gawking.
The melodrama is leavened by the ensemble acting, so beautifully calibrated that the watching and the listening are just as profound as the dialogue and acting. Mr. Brown dynamically captures the fierce dignity of a man trying so hard to keep something in that he is afraid to bend or to feel. His foil is the excellent Mr. Toney as someone who likes to hear himself talk and who even has enough of a sense of humor about it to note that "because we're from an oral tradition we can't shut up."
These veterans are good, but up-and-coming talents such as Mr. Laporte, who is a real firecracker as Bobbilee, and Mr. Marsh, who offers a more subdued, simmering energy, also are a treat for the audience.
The cafe in "Hambone" is a fine place to wile away a few hours. Just don't drink the coffee. It's truth serum.

**1/2
WHAT: "Hambone"
WHERE:1333 P St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 15 and 22 and Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 17
TICKETS: $29.50 to $43.50; pay-what-you can next Tuesday
PHONE: 202/332-3300
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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