Wearing a jacket that suits him as poorly as urban life, Cephus Miles is brought to life in Court Theatre’s new production of Samm-Art Williams’s “Home.” Yet the northern metropolis through which he wanders has nothing wholesome to offer the God-fearing farmer Cephus, played masterfully by Kamal Angelo Bolden. The entire production faithfully renders Williams’s view of American urban centers during the ’60s and ’70s as hubs of despair for poorly educated Southerners. Cephus is a case in point–recently out of prison, he arrives in the city only to realize that his ex-convict status prohibits him from overcoming his destitution. Hard work and good intentions do not protect him from the cold northern winters.
Despite all appearances that Cephus is just one of the countless bums who populated city centers in the ’60s, Williams’s careful interweaving of introspection and reminiscence builds a strong image of an empathetic individual who is lured by the promise of jazz and the good life into urban mayhem. Although at first glance Cephus seems to be a simple country boy, as audience members sink deeper into the story, they discover the idiosyncrasies, and as the details are uncovered, his rich humanity is revealed. Cephus was imprisoned for five years, not for some violent crime, but because he was a conscientious objector to the American role in Vietnam. His objection was a religious one, and his zealous commitment in particular to the commandment “Thou shall not kill” separates him from the nameless masses.
In this vivid portrayal of “Home,” directed by Ron OJ Parson, only three actors play all of the characters, and Bolden is the only one with a single role. The other two actors, Tracey N. Bonner and Ashley Honore, switch nimbly through parts as varied as a Baptist preacher, a ragamuffin kid, and a mature seductress. The agile character changes do not, however, cause the play to lack coherence. They are right in keeping with the minimalist set that consists of a farmhouse frame, humble props and simple costumes.
The production showed the advantages of concentrating on the actors’ abilities over an elaborate set or costume, and there’s a historical precedent for doing so. “Home” was one of the productions that represented the generation of young and talented black actors, playwrights, and artists who formed the Negro Ensemble Company. Among their ranks are Denzel Washington, Joseph A. Walker and Samuel L. Jackson, the last of which who played the part of Cephus Miles in the original 1981 production.
The historical importance of the play, though, could easily be lost on a contemporary audience without sensitive directing and acting, and both Parson and the actors are successful on that account; “Home” connects. After the performance one audience member described her experience of the play as something hearteningly familiar. “It makes me feel like a great Negro book of poetry that I would take to bed with me at night,” she said.
Parson and the Court’s success with their production certainly achieved their goal of paying tribute to a historically significant play produced in a new context. As the curtain drops, spectators can take comfort in the fact that Cephus, ultimately rejecting the rhythms of blues and jazz in the middle of the night, is able to find peace in the more reassuring rhythm of a Greyhound bus taking him home.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 12. Prices vary. (773)702-7005. courttheatre.org