Violent Texas Drama Builds Connections Like Chain-Links, And Rips Them Apart

EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS Play by Eugene Lee. Directed by Marion McClinton. At the Joseph Papp Public/Anspacher Theater through Feb. 13.

`East Texas Hot Links'' takes its name from a variety of Southern-style sausage. But few phrases or events have a single fixed meaning in this verbally energetic drama, and author Eugene Lee's carefully constructed wordplay makes it plain that the characters themselves are links in various literal or metaphorical chains.

One is the food chain, wherein every creature has a position according to its size, strength, and resourcefulness. Another is the chain of human relationships, here embodied by eight African-Americans with ties of friendship, family, and shared experience. Still another - far more treacherous and explosive than the others - is the chain of racial hierarchy in the traditional South, stretching from relatively powerful whites to poor and abused blacks, with people of mixed blood caught ambiguously between.

The unstated task of all Lee's characters is to find, comprehend, and sustain the positions they occupy in these chains. Lending another layer of dramatic interest to their situation is the playwright's ability to weave additional strands of cultural material - tensions between men and women, impulses toward superstition and prejudice, dreams of moving from the backwoods to the big city - into the complex interactions they undergo during their fast-moving 95 minutes on the stage.

Set in rural Texas about 40 years ago, ``East Texas Hot Links'' takes place in the Top o' the Hill Cafe, a rundown ``colored only'' saloon where a group of regular patrons is accustomed to whiling away the evening hours. Charlesetta is the proprietor, bantering with her customers while keeping an eye on their behavior and staving off any unpleasantness that threatens to break out.

The clientele is a varied group. Adolph is an aging blind man who supplements the cafe's refreshments with jugs of moonshine whisky. Boochie is a stylish fellow with a knack for predicting the future. Roy, Columbus, and Buckshot are ordinary men with commonplace lives and limited ambitions. Delmus is a young dreamer with plans for a better life in a more exciting place, and XL is a laborer whose relations with the local white establishment have led to an act of deception and betrayal - which becomes apparent as the play proceeds, precipitating an eruption of grim but perhaps inevitable violence.

WITH its smooth progression from idle comradery to growing emotional strain and finally the horror of unrestrained mayhem, ``East Texas Hot Links'' makes a blistering statement on the evils of bigotry - and the evils of accommodating injustice for reasons of greed or convenience - while avoiding the temptation to exploit or overplay its ripely melodramatic events.

Lee touches on a wide range of issues, from the intimidations of the Ku Klux Klan to the changing geography brought about by new Southern highways, without hampering the propulsive story he has to tell. While the play would be better crafted if it raised its main points with less delay in the opening hour, it is a solidly written and intellectually compelling work.

The cast is uniformly strong. Loretta Devine deserves special mention as the drama's lone female, and Monte Russell makes a particularly vivid impression as the young man whose love for a light-skinned woman sparks the play's most terrible events. Earle Hyman and Willis Burks II are inventive as two of the cafe's more seasoned denizens. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Curtis McClarin, Ed Wheeler, and Bo Rucker are equally persuasive.

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