Two clowns, Tambo (W. Tré Davis) and Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy), mill around a “fake ass pasture.” Tambo tries to nap, while Bones starts panhandling the audience: “Y’all got any quarters?” When he fails to get a response, he ups the ante: “I gotta uh catch the bus so I can visit my young son, Zippy. He in the hospital.” But that doesn’t work, either, so Bones resorts to stabbing himself with a knife while screaming, “Quarters! Quarters!” For playwright Dave Harris, this minstrel show typifies the experience of Black artists who sell their pain for profit: the more it hurts, the more it pleases the audience. Consider, for example, how many movies are about Black pain and how few about Black joy. Michael R. Jackson, the author of the musical A Strange Loop, had his lead character put it another way: “I mean, not to give away a trade secret but (indicating money with his fingers) you really know where you are with slavery, police violence, and intersectionality, my brother.”
By the second act of Tambo & Bones, the pair have dropped their antebellum rags for street clothes. They are now a hip-hop duo, rapping about their embrace of capitalism: “Quarters to dollas / Dollas to dreams” becomes their mantra. Tambo hopes he will be able to use his power to uplift others, while Bones is only interested in reaping the benefits of financial success: designer bags, sports cars, silk pajamas. “I took the master’s house,” they rap, “cuz I took the master’s tools.” In other words, for Bones, at least, the goal is not to abolish oppression but to become an oppressor. He has inverted Audre Lorde’s axiom, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” After all, he doesn’t want to dismantle the house—he wants to live in it.
At ninety minutes, Harris’ play is fast, funny, and lets no one off the hook. It is telling that Tambo can address the audience as “Beckies and Bills” and be sure the joke will land. Even Harris, as playwright, comes in for criticism: “Why did this nigga write us into a minstrel show?” Tambo asks. “He could’ve written anything he wanted, and he chose to write this.” The answer, of course, is evident: because racist violence gets the butts in the seats. We should be asking ourselves, then, what role each of us plays in this theatrical landscape. Why do tragedies like Trouble in Mind and Pass Over succeed? Why do crowd-pleasing comedies like Chicken & Biscuits fail? And is it because we cannot abide characters who are happy, self-determining, and Black?
Tambo & Bones ran through February 27th at Playwrights Horizons. 416 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Marc J. Franklin.