Days before seeing the Friday night performance of Tambo & Bones, I could not avoid the news on my social media feeds referencing white audience members walking out of previous performances. I couldn’t help but think, “again?” After all that we have witnessed from the past decade alone, or even looking at the protests against racial violence over the past two years, white discomfort is still centered in a never-ending discourse about racism.
No matter the medium of the conversation, we take the same path only to meet our destination with disappointment and no surprise at this very outcome. For some, this may be after taking the path to educate white audiences, while others choose to tell stories and perform to make the point resonate. With Tambo and Bones, I saw a fork in the road, and explored both paths, only to return to the same questions: Is there humanity without performance? Is there empathy without commodity?
Written by Playwrights Horizons Tow Playwright-in-Residence Dave Harris, Tambo (W. Tré Davis) and Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy) are two characters trapped in a minstrel show with a plan to escape and become free. I was ecstatic to be in the theater again and to experience the show. With a packed house and a bright, gorgeous red curtain branding Tambo and Bones in light, the air was electric. Inviting us to participate in the space, the audience is introduced to the fake pastures where Tambo and Bones reside.
Before the reveal of Tambo’s and Bones’s deep and personal desires, the costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill draws upon caricatures of the Sambo and the Tom figures. In what I saw as intentional, the inversion of the caricatures creates an observational commentary on where these racist caricatures come from and how they have perpetuated surveillance over Black bodies. In Tambo, I saw the desire to rest – from performance and overworking in a constant cycle of poverty. While in Bones, the desire to achieve wealth in order to gain comfort and recognition of his humanity. From the onset, we see Bones create a false narrative to get a quarter from someone in the audience. When it doesn’t work, he escalates to self-harm to entertain the audience. To be rewarded and given recognition. And of course, he succeeds in getting an audience response. Through the means of performance, it is easily portrayed that by performing these caricatures, the men equate access to wealth, comfort, and the illusion of happiness.
In Part Two, we are introduced to “Tambo & Bones National Tour: The Escape.” Here, there is a direct reference to the commodification of hip-hop and rap akin to a modern day minstrel show. The audience has left the fake pastures of Part One. Instead, the stage is transformed into a concert. From rags to riches, Tambo and Bones appear wearing golden chains, baggy pants, and caps reminiscent of 2000s rappers. With original music by Justin Ellington, the simple, yet catchy rhymes Tambo and Bones perform, captured the audience’s attention.
Giving into perpetuated Black stereotypes, we witness how addicting trauma-porn narratives are created not only to get “Emily” (white empathy) but to gain wealth and comfort as well. But at what cost? When Black artists tell their stories, are they being fully recognized for their humanity? Are we, as audience members, able to distinguish being vulnerable from being performative? Or, are we only feeding into how others depict Black people to be?
In choosing to constantly perform as a means to build a platform, Tambo and Bones use the master’s tools, and end up living in the master’s house. Unable to achieve the very things that they desired. In the end, neither Tambo nor Bones truly get what they want: their humanity. To feel like a real person.
Tambo and Bones shows us that until we are able to remove ourselves from consumption, we are unable to acknowledge Black humanity holistically. There are ugly roots that need to be torn from the ground. That’s what makes this force of a play brilliant. It’s witty, has bite, and is without a beat, amazing. The character arcs between Tambo and Bones’s journeys are both clear and tragic. Although both characters are well intentioned in their escape to freedom, the heavy, conflicting consciousness that emerges is heartbreaking. It made me ask, what does it mean to truly be satisfied? To what lengths are we risking ourselves to receive white empathy? In doing so, are we enacting change? By Part two, these questions are even more amplified when Tambo breaks from this rapper persona he embodies, only to realize that he wants out. While Bones does find a way to pull Tambo (as well as the audience) back into this performance, the weight of it is undeniable. While we were pulled back into the world of this play, by the time it ended, my chest hurt.
Harris deserves his flowers for writing a piece where audience members can no longer dismiss the ongoing issues rooted in capitalism and white supremacy. As well as showing the Black imagination as a mirror of what is and could be through a theatrical lens.
Until we truly abolish racism and the systems in which it functions, white discomfort is the barest of the bare minimum work that needs to be done.