It begins as a minstrel show, extends that racist form into a national hip-hop tour, and ends with a post-Civil War lecture. Dave Harris’ new play, “Tambo & Bones,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, is a full three-act play despite a 90-minute running time. Those acts could be labeled, respectively, “Show,” “Concert” and “Lecture” – or “Past,” “Present” and “Future.”
Until that final third act arrives, Harris’ play is basically a two-hander with the comics Tambo (W. Tre Davis) and Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy) taking their show on the road. They begin by begging the audience for quarters and end up being weighed down by gold necklaces.
Tambo thinks he can change minds. Bones thinks it’s all about the money. Since Fauntleroy is the more accomplished performer, it’s not much of a contest. Also, he has been given the lighter life. Money is real, and the theater is ephemeral in whatever form it takes.
The minstrel show, with its intentionally tawdry costumes (by Dominique Fawn Hill) and set (by Stephanie Osin Cohen), isn’t as raucously funny and biting as it could be. In his 2013 play, “The Nance,” Douglas Carter Beane had us laughing at gay stereotypes in vaudeville and turning that homophobic humor on the audience.
Harris does more of that in his second act when his characters morph into hip-hop stars embarking on a national tour. Here, he is supported mightily by Justin Ellington’s original music, Amith Chandrashaker and Mextly Couzin’s lighting and Taylor Reynolds’ direction. That tour, titled “The Escape,” is ready for the big time. It entertains, it seduces, it distracts. Is anyone listening to what Tambo is saying? As Bones puts it, “You thought you was gonna sing a song about racism and change the world. You can’t change anything with words.” But hey, it’s a very entertaining tour!
At its core, “Tambo & Bones” is not about “da word” or “da blues” or “da funk” or even “what’s next.” It’s about the hot-house world of the theater, especially the theater in New York City at this exact moment in time. It can entertain, it can distract, but with its hermetically sealed, mostly white audience, the theater is no game-changer.
Jackie Sibblies Drury examined the white gaze of theater audiences in her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fairview.” Harris is far less treacly in his approach. When the “Civil War” is first mentioned in “Tambo & Bones,” it’s not clear if he’s talking Trump, Robert E. Lee or Lenin. That we’re well into the future becomes clear when two robots (Brendan Dalton and Dean Linnard, being appropriately programmed) share the stage with Tre and Tyler, who are now using their own names.
Throughout “Tambo & Bones,” the two leads indulge in a fair amount of audience participation that takes them into the auditorium to beg, retrieve a stuffed dummy and rap. No moment is more inspired than near the end when they thank the Playwrights Horizons audience and express, with bitter irony, how great it is to have “an audience full of faces that are as Black as ours.”