Samm-Art Williams Delivers a Lyrical Epic of Great Migrations
by Irene Nelson
The words of Samm-Art Williams’ “Home” knock me out—down-home country dialogue or poetic narrative, it’s all woven into the rhythm and movement of the blues, jazz, and spirituals. Sly, humorous story-telling and sweet memories combine with shockingly bad times to make “Home” a powerful journey. Myers Clark, Tristan Cunningham, Britney Frazier give “Home” the welcome it deserves under the strong direction of Aldo Billingslea.
Williams loves street theater, so he conjures magic to tell a grand epic in a spartan production. “Home” chronicles the experiences of African-Americans in the second Great Migration north, and the start of the New Migration back south, from the 1950s through the 1970s. The 60s Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War provide background to the migrations so there’s a lot to tell. We get to see the history through the life of the good hearted Cephus Miles of Crossroads, South Carolina, played by the dignified and direct Myers Clark.
As a young man in small town South Carolina, Cephus teaches us how to swear, learns how to avoid getting his girl in the family way, and discovers how to talk “Indian.” Rambunctious, secure in family and love of the land, passionate over smart and pretty Pattie Mae Wells, the lively Tristan Cunningham.
Cephus stands committed to the Ten Commandments. As a true believer, Cephus has his differences with organized religion. He informs us early on that he figured out where God goes when unavailable to answer prayers; this recurring reference is a good joke but also a comfort to him and to us. The early years in South Carolina show us how Cephus’ fundamental decency developed. He comes to us in sweetly nostalgic episodes presented with good humor.
We need that humor because Cephus’ migrations, willing and unwilling, from the home he loves are harsh. Williams uses Cephus, after all, to show what really happened to those who migrated north— the good, the bad, and the disastrous. Cephus wrestles with his response to the draft notice for the Vietnam War, a decision with grave consequences. We watch as he joins the migration north, and we bear witness to the havoc urbanization wreaks on his soul.
Myers Clark captures Cephus’ many ages and angles, from a devil-may-care adolescent to a broken middle-aged man. Clark helps us care for Cephus as he faces crossroads, struggling to keep his center when life does not turn out as expected.
Two other actors play all the people Cephus encounters: Tristan Cunningham (Pattie Mae Wells, Woman 1) and Britney Frazier (Woman 2) strut and sing—Frazier’s singing stands out. Cunningham and Frazier play everyone from uppity children, Sunday school teachers, drug dealers, to jealous cousins and more. They add or drop a bit of costume in front of us and are transformed. A hat and glasses make a teacher, a turned around baseball cap and tee shirt turn her into a sassy kid. “Home” has a lot of music and movement—Director Aldo Billingslea and the actors do a first-rate job with the songs and swagger.
Williams’ “Home” premiered at the Negro Ensemble Company in 1979, but quickly moved to Broadway were it won a Tony nomination in 1981. The no frills set here, including a mostly empty stage, a few chairs, and a handful of simple props and costume pieces, remain true to the playwright’s inspiration.
“Home” captures the sociability and story-telling of the South of the era. Williams captures the wrenching changes for those who moved North, and the surprising turns for those who returned South. The ending, perhaps too pat, lets older folk remember the joys and heartaches of those times; while for the young, Samm-Art Williams offers a rare, honest history. Here we have the story of a decent man fighting to keep his moral foundation, delivering hope for all, beautifully.
“Home” by Samm-Art Williams, directed by Aldo Billingslea, by the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco, playing through Sunday, June 4, 2017. Info: (415) 474-8800. lhtsf.org
Cast: Myers Clark, Tristan Cunningham, and Britney Frazier.
Note: Whoever you voted for, you must be sickened by the recent rise of bigotry in our country. So do something. Project 1 Voice is sponsoring a reading of Dael Olandersmith’s play “Yellowman” on June 19, 2017 at Lorraine Hansberry.
The annual “One Play for One Day” project, an annual international event promoting the reading of a classic play or musical by an African American writer, means “Yellowman” will be read on June 19, in cities all around the world. For more info: lhtsf.org or project1voice.org