Kevin T. Carroll, January LaVoy,and Tracey Bonner in Home
(© Richard Termine)
Kevin T. Carroll, January LaVoy,
and Tracey Bonner in Home
(© Richard Termine)
Samm-Art Williams' celebrated 1979 play, Home, currently being revived at Signature Theatre as part of its season devoted to the Negro Ensemble Company, doesn't entirely hold up; the first 20 minutes feel busy and aimless until the playwright introduces some dramatic tension, and in the final 20 minutes, the playwright resolves all conflicts far too neatly. But the hour in between is often wonderful thanks to Williams' heightened, stylized language that flows as melodiously as music -- and Ron O.J. Parson's sensitive direction fully embraces the work's lyrical texture.

The story is not unlike a fable which offers the hope that you can indeed go home again. In this case, home is a house and a little bit of land in Crossroads, North Carolina for Cephus Miles (Kevin T. Carroll) who is left to fend for himself after his uncle dies and his childhood sweetheart, Pattie Mae, takes off for a grander life after high school. Cephus isn't too troubled at first, since his love of the land sustains and inspires him. (This way of life also seems to inspire the playwright, whose florid, flavorful phrases conjure up tobacco fields, Saturday fish frys, and crap games on gravestones in vivid sensual detail.) But his life is thrown into chaos when he resists the Vietnam draft invoking the deeply felt instructions of his religion -- "thou shalt not kill" and "love thy neighbor" -- as his defense.

When he's swiftly and contemptuously imprisoned for draft evasion, Cephus comes to believe that God has abandoned him. Worse, the years behind bars not only break his spirit but cruelly limit his choices once he's freed by government-granted amnesty. His land long since sold for back taxes, and a prison sentence now on his permanent record, Cephus struggles to survive in the big city, eventually becoming a homeless person.

Although the play can claim some distinction as one of a small number which center on an African-American conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, it's more a gently poetic work than a political one. The play's most theatrical conceit is that two actresses (here, Tracey Bonner and January LaVoy) portray all the play's additional male and female characters and also function as a chorus in counterpoint to the narration.

It's evidence of LaVoy's skill at delineating more than a handful of characters that the audience always knows when she enters as Patti Mae before she even delivers a line. The equally adept Bonner does especially good work with a recurring poem that makes the big city seem promising and yet dangerous to the soul. Still, the production's anchor is Carroll, who gives Cephus a quiet dignity and an honest integrity, avoiding any condescension to the character and earning our respect and sympathy without seeming to ask for it. It's a lovely, graceful performance distinguished by judicious restraint.

The story's simple home-spun truths are weakened by a pat conclusion that also limits an emotional payoff. Cephus' almost miraculous twist of fate may be one with the play's world view, but it makes for anti-climactic drama. Still, even if the final destination of Home may disappoint, there's plenty of beauty in the journey.