It may be a coincidence that Johnson's Hambone is full of train imagery, and that Wilson's Two Trains Running has a character named "Hambone." But while acknowledging Wilson's influence, Hambone demonstrates that the older playwright hasn't cornered the market on realistic, tragicomic material about the African-American experience.
Hambone is not a play to attend while hungry, as it takes place in 1988 in Bishop's Sandwich Shop, a diner with instantly recognizable red vinyl stools and Coca-Cola signs. Because his customers are dwindling, Bishop (Tony Vaughn) plants a garden to cut down on his inventory costs. But he has bigger concerns about Tyrone (Isma'il ibn Conner), the young man he's raised since infancy. Rather than eventually take over the shop, Tyrone wants to get a more important job and plans to change his name from "Tyrone" to something more "white," like "Timothy."
Each of the men has a less responsible friend and foil. Bishop's blood brother Henry (Gordon Daniels) drinks too much, refuses to get his bum leg treated and spins hilarious conspiracy theories about white people preying on blacks for their "body parts." Tyrone's childhood friend Bobbilee (Eugene Russell IV) has a knack for getting into trouble and into prison, and claims to have recently shared a cell with the hardest working man in show business, James Brown himself.
Johnson reveals that each generation has its own musical rituals. While the elders come together to "hambone" (that combination of rhymed singing and rhythmic clapping), the younger ones imitate James Brown's distinctive dance moves and almighty yawps: At one point Bobbilee leads the others in "Say it now! I'm black and I'm proud!" Bouncing on his feet, Russell's Bobbilee gives the play constant shots of adrenaline.
Much of Hambone's conflicts draw the generation gap and the distance between Tyrone's aspirations and Bishop's pragmatism. Johnson also draws a subtle parallel between slavery and the modern penal system and, through Henry's health problems, a contrast between the "white" medical clinic and "root workin'" folk remedies (including something called "possum extract") for curing ailments. And when an elderly white man (Gene Ruyle) who claims to be a railroad man with kidney problems begins hanging around the diner, Henry and Bobbilee don't hide their mistrust.
Director Gary Yates gets terrific, nuanced work from his cast, as in the little ways that Bishop is amused despite himself by Henry's antics or Tyrone awkwardly gives another man a comforting pat on
the back. Stubborn and outspoken, Daniels' Henry immediately becomes an audience favorite, to the point that the character
gets big laughs even in moments that have grave implications.
The second act includes violent moments both threatened and realized, and the brandishing of knives doesn't come across quite as menacing or thematically crucial as you feel it should. Hambone also has one too many revelations, coming nearly too late for the play to fully digest it -- which gives it something in common with The Genes of Beauty Queens, the other half of the bill at Horizon's New South for the New Century play festival.
But the greater impression is that Hambone continues the Horizon festival's precedent of finding fine new African-American plays, joining last year's A Hole in the Dark and 1999's Uncle Bend's. With his play, Javon Johnson keeps one eye on the challenges of the modern-day black community and the other to its history, while showing an ear for the rollicking cadences of conversation. Hambone gives August Wilson no reason not to be proud.
Hambone will play in repertory through July 30 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. at Euclid Ave., with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m. Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. 404-584-7450. www.mindspring.com/~horizonco/