Playwright: Javon Johnson. At: Congo Square Theatre at the Atheneaum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $25. Runs through: March 5
Theater scholars might detect hints of Maxim Gorky's pre-revolution Russian drama, The Lower Depths, in Javon Johnson's world premiere play for Congo Square Theatre.
Like its 1902 prototype, it is less a linear story than a group portrait of a largely unexplored subculture found in urban centers throughout the worldthat of the hobo camps ( not be confused with "tramps," who travel in search of work, or "bums," who neither travel, nor work ). Unlike Gorky's propagandistic diatribe, however, Johnson's tales of once-solvent citizens reduced to living on the streets does not traffic in reliable stereotypes, even as he endows each character with the dignity of classical tragedy.
We meet the denizens of this transient refuge as they gather at a makeshift shrine for their comrade Lazy Boy, recently gunned down by police after brandishing a pocket knife at his pursuers. Those come to pay their respects encompass Blind Man with his white cane, Preacher in his wheelchair, and Freda, a harridan given to bursts of vilification at trespassers encroaching on her shabby coleman tent. Also in attendance at the funeral are activist Streetwise vendor Slim and one-man band Toothpick, the latter pushing his shopping-cart of musical instruments. The chief mourner, however, is Doodlebug, whose tap-dancing skills were to have lifted him and the late Lazy-Boy out of poverty.
Johnson makes no attempt to disguise his narrative as a documentary purporting to reflect "reality"did I mention the ragged "spirits" that haunt the dreams of castaways?but instead wholly embraces the allegorical dimensions of his microcosmic universe. Blind Man's claim to know the secrets of his fellow vagabonds recalls the seers of Greek Tragedy, while Preacher's consent to assume the title of "Hobo King" for a protest march portends his martyrdom. By the final scene, some of our pilgrims have perished, and others have survived to point the way to a better life, but all have suffered the disruptions associated with rootless tribes bereft of the community necessary for hope to thrive.
Whatever lesson you take away from this collection of hard-luck stories, there is no denying the opportunities offered by Johnson's eloquent repartee to showcase of the talents of a cast led by the always-commanding Velma Austin as the demon-racked Freda, and featuring the musical-theater expertise of Brian Keys, Kyle Smith and Lyle Miller ( the latter in a rare non-singing appearance ). Audiences are advised to take special note of Lamarr J. Kidd as the agile-footed Doodlebug, whose kinetic resemblance to Savion Glover is nothing short of uncanny.