Art Gilliard’s production of Javon Johnson’s Hambone is pretty engaging for most of the first act. Johnson’s script, and Gilliard’s production and cast exhibit a real fluency that (for this white critic) conveys understandable attitudes, values, and instances in contemporary black, Southern life. It examines a barely-making-it African-American entrepreneur, his friend with racist tendencies, and a young black man seeking to change his name so that it will look more “white” to possible employers. Such generalities in portraying “The Black Experience” are dangerous to delve into, but the boiled-down point of it is that the first act is interesting and believable. The second half of this show, however, becomes an extremely muddied exhibition, and it is hard to find the culprit most at fault. Emotional climaxes are not adequately reached, and, coupled with clumsy writing, the final few scenes stretch one’s suspension of disbelief to a degree that makes it difficult to fully appreciate the work as a whole.

The plot takes place in Anderson County, S. C. It involves Bishop, the proprietor of a small, barely-frequented diner, his blood brother Henry, a local hood named Bobbilee, and a young man named Tyrone who may or may not be closer to Bishop than is initially thought. Also, a white man comes to frequent the diner with strange constancy and foreboding.

The acting here — once again, in the first act — is believable and helps bring the audience into the general feel of the play. Delvin L. Williams plays Bishop, a man with a haunted past and a serious sense of responsibility concerning the kid who works for him (Nicholas James). Chris Gay is the most consistent comic relief within the play, performing the part of Henry, a crippled ex-ball player who believes that white men routinely scavenge blacks for their internal organs. The interaction between Williams and Gay help move along the first half with interest and alacrity.

Unfortunately, the play doesn’t hold up much past this initial act. The instances between Tyrone (James) and Bobbilee (Eddie Vanderhorst) lack an energy that should be present in order to cement a bond between the two, so important for the later scenes. Even Williams seems to drift between commendable acting and frustrating melodrama, depending on the stakes of the scene. Lone white guy Greg Lovelace does a typical fish-out-of-water routine interspersed with frequent, painfully-acted stabs in the kidney, obviously meant to convey a soon-to-be-fatal sickness. Throughout, Gay is the only one to remain convincing and naturalistic in the show, never once delving into the melodrama that is present within certain aspects of the script.

And here comes the confusion. You see, it’s quite hard to discern where the responsibility should be placed for the general awkwardness of the second act and finale. One example is that Vanderhorst’s character is said to be a bad influence, but seems to be a reasonably decent guy. So is it Vanderhorst’s portrayal that’s at fault, or the direction he received from Gilliard, or even just a flaw in the script? What is definitely an issue within the script is the sudden, one-two punch revelations that explode out of the final scenes. The work takes such drastic right and left turns that it’s hard to blame the actors for not hitting emotional high notes of vastly different scales within the course of ten or so lines. Here, Johnson’s work shows a few cracks and leaks, and Gilliard could have worked more with his actors in trying to properly convey the dense and complex emotions present in these final pieces of the play.

The promise set within the first act of Hambone cannot be sustained through the majority of the show, and this can be annoying because it seems that, at times the actor can be capable of believable, sympathetic actions. It’s only when the “high drama” comes into play that wrinkles begin to show, and emotional instances suffer.

HAMBONE • Piccolo Spoleto’s Theatre Series • $20, $15 seniors/students • May 30 and 31 at 6 p.m., June 3, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m., June 9 at 9 p.m. • 1 hour 45 min • Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St. • 554-6060

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