These Bones Were Made for Talking: Ancestry comes to life in eta’s latest play

A scene from "Talking Bones"; photo courtesy of eta Creative Arts
If Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” were reinterpreted for the African-American community and adapted as a play, it might bear some resemblance to “Talking Bones.” As in the novel, the recurring importance of the past is a major theme of this production, currently headlining at eta Creative Arts Foundation.

Set in spicy Creole New Orleans, “Talking Bones” centers on the lives of three generations of African-American women in one unconventional family. Bay-Bay is the daughter of staunchly traditional Ruth and the mother of perceptive Eila. While her family is content to run Ancestor’s Books and Breakfast, as they’ve always done, she feels appropriately trapped. Her dreams are infused with the sparkle of Hollywood, many miles from the African culture in which her family firmly keeps her rooted.

Bay-Bay sees her chance for escape in the aptly named Mr. Fine, who sees an opportunity of his own in the valuable deeds to her land. Meanwhile, a delivery boy named Oz stumbles onto the scene and finds an unexpected home in the bookstore, where Eila seems to have been waiting for him all along, pot of soup at the ready. As the others pursue very different relationships, wheelchair-bound Ruth, who intermittently wheels in and out of the story, sets to some mysterious plotting with a basket of bones.

The ghostly feel that the title suggests is maintained throughout the play, as flashing lights and sounds permeate the story and ancestral voices channel the three women whenever they deem an interruption necessary. One gets the sense that it is both the story of the living women and that of their ancestors, and as the skeletons in the closet–to make the almost too-obvious pun–are gradually revealed throughout the story, the value of the past becomes apparent.

The play is rather sophisticated in its merger of various forms of media, from dance and poetry to lighting and sound techniques as a legitimate presence. That it maintains cohesion while boasting so many unconstrained forms of expression is due partially to the universality of its themes, in particular the unavoidable presence of the past.

The production is enhanced by the performances of the three female characters, portrayed with apt gusto and restraint by Felisha McNeal, Delicia Dunham, and Rhonda Maria Bynum. The portrayal of Oz by Mark H. Howard is particularly compelling. The character is so gripped by convulsions of spirited liveliness that he seems, at times, otherworldly; Howard manages to imbue within Oz a distracted and enlivened presence that feels infectious rather than inflated. Darren Jones embodies the altogether stomach-turning treacle of Mr. Fine without a hitch–the character seems to fall flat in his more human moments, although this is arguably due more to his overall unpleasantness as a character than an acting fault of Jones.

While the culmination of events in the final few minutes is slightly disorienting and the character development follows a direction that seems somewhat inauthentic, the commitment of the actors to their characters throughout makes the ending seem unquestionable.

Playwright Shay Youngblood, whose other plays include “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” and “Amazing Grace,” brings the tenuous balance between individuality and family to life in “Talking Bones.” Her message seems to be that if you can remember your roots, you’ll better understand the path that lies before you. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a comforting theory. As the matriarch Ruth requests, “Plant my tree so the roots will take me home.”

eta Creative Arts Foundation. 7558 S. Chicago Ave. January 29-March 22. Thursday-Sunday, times vary. $30. etacreativearts.org