The True Colors Theatre production of “East Texas Hot Links” doesn’t merely bring to a close the company’s 2018-19 season. Most significantly, it also marks the end of an entire era, as founder Kenny Leon is officially stepping down after 17 years, passing the proverbial torch to incoming artistic director Jamil Jude. The two of them acknowledged the transition during their opening-night curtain speech before the show.
As a critic who has covered this beat (off and on) for more than 25 years — since Leon served as artistic director for the Alliance (1990-2001), long before he became nationally recognized for his directing on Broadway (including “The Mountaintop,” “Gem of the Ocean,” and revivals of “Fences,” “Children of a Lesser God” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” for which he won a Tony Award in 2014) — I’ve had many interactions with him and have reviewed a lot of his local work as an actor and director, some of it favorably and some of it not so much.
One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been the practice of obligatory standing ovations, where 99 out of 100 shows get them, the vast majority of which are undeserving. My feeling is that the gesture should be reserved for special occasions or singularly momentous events; I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt compelled to stand up for any of the thousands of shows I’ve attended through the decades.
Even so, I drove out to the Southwest Arts Center the other night fully prepared, willing and eager to stand up for Leon, for all of his contributions to the landscape of Atlanta’s theater scene over the years. And yet, for whatever inexplicable reason, it didn’t happen; and rather than having the guts to initiate the ovation myself, I just sat there waiting to join in on somebody else’s first move. It’s a professional regret I’ll have for the rest of my days.
To Kenny Leon: Consider this arguably extraneous introduction to what’s intended to be a critique of “East Texas Hot Links” as one theatergoer’s way of wishing you well in all of your future endeavors, and of expressing how much we’ve all appreciated everything you’ve done.
The actor Eugene Lee is a frequent Leon collaborator; in addition to most recently appearing in his “American Son” on Broadway, he also starred in True Colors’ inaugural 2002 production of “Fences,” one of many August Wilson dramas on the actor’s long and distinguished resume. Lee wrote “East Texas Hot Links” and directs this current staging of the play, which bears a definite resemblance to the works of Wilson (specifically “Two Trains Running”).
The action unfolds circa 1955 at the Top o’ the Hill Café, a black-only bar and grill situated in the remote backwoods of rural Texas (strikingly evoked in the set design of Ming Chen). The regular customers who gather there are an occasionally unruly lot of men, more or less kept in line by the no-nonsense owner of the place (with or without her trusty bat). Much of the conversation involves a highway construction project that threatens to cut through their patch of woods — and the mysterious disappearances of several young black men in the area.
Under Lee’s crisp direction, his crackling dialogue is handled with fierce conviction by a uniformly powerful ensemble. Maiesha McQueen, primarily known for her roles in musicals, stands her dramatic ground admirably as the only woman in the cast.
Standouts among the men include Eugene H. Russell IV as a gambler and palm-reader prone to ominous visions; Gerard Catus as a wise old blind man and Greek chorus of sorts; Anthony Goolsby as an incorrigible womanizer; and Travis Turner as a duplicitous “weasel.” But Cedric Pendleton, Markelle Gay and Wigasi Brant hold their own equally well in smaller roles.
While the drama culminates in a shattering climax, the ending feels too abrupt and somehow insufficient. Not unlike giving Kenny Leon a big send-off, without his standing ovation.
“East Texas Hot Links”
Through Aug. 11. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays (excluding July 26); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (excluding July 27); 11 a.m. Wednesdays (July 31 and Aug. 11). $15-$45. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-888-479-6300. truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: Sizzling.