Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Tambo and Bones
Refracted Theatre Company
Review by Karen Topham

Also see Christine's review of LUCHA TEOTL

William Anthony Sebastian Rose II
and Patrick Newson Jr.

Photo by Ricky Kluge
There is "in your face" and then there is IN YOUR FACE, and then there is Refracted Theatre Company's new production of Dave Harris's highly entertaining polemic about racism, Tambo and Bones. Now playing in the Den Theatre's Bookspan Theatre, this play defies anyone to say that "entertaining polemic" is an oxymoron as it schools its mostly white audience about battling systemic racism through comedy, rap music, dynamic characterizations, stunning staging, and powerful drama. And if you think that, too, sounds oxymoronic, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Directed imaginatively by Mikael Burke, Tambo and Bones begins with what appears to be a minstrel show with the titular characters, played by William Anthony Sebastian Rose II and Patrick Newson Jr, offering quite different philosophies about living the best life. Tambo (perfectly costumed by Kotryna Hilko, whose work throughout the play is original and often outstanding) just wants to get a good rest in the shade; Bones wants money. Put more bluntly, Bones wants our money, as he makes clear that his goal is to part members of the audience with their quarters (which eventually leads to wanting dollars and thence to the right to dream). Despite its immensely uncomfortable racist overtones, this opening plays as amusing parody, which indeed it is. (Tambo and Bones were stock characters in real-life minstrel shows, played–of course–by white people.)

This scene comes to an abrupt stop when Tambo, tired of what he is doing and saying, discovers the Playwright (a puppet) in the audience and demands to know why he and Bones are being treated this way. Finding a copy of the script, he discovers that he is in a minstrel show, which he describes angrily as "when white n*ggas would pretend to be real n*ggas to get paid." (If you are easily offended by the use of the word "n*gga" or swearing in general, you should probably give this show a pass–but you'll be missing an irreplicable and indelible experience.)

Tambo and Bones decide that they want more than quarters or dollars: they want to be able to dream a whole lot bigger. Thus they decide to become rap artists, knowing that rap is the best way to (for Bones) become rich and (for Tambo) get his anti-racist message out. And they become vastly wealthy world-famous, Grammy-winning rappers before their divergent goals get in the way.

Scenic designer Sydney Lynne does an incredible job of moving from the artifice of a plywood minstrel set to a sleek, ultramodern performance stage complete with multicolored lights (Eric Watkins) and huge sound (Ethan Korvne). (Seriously, this play's sound is crystal clear, but it can blow you out of your seats–just like a real concert.) All the while, we see a constant montage of Black American history projected behind the performers (courtesy of Eme Ospina-López), the inclusion of which feels like a compromise between Tambo's activism and Bones's greed. But it is not enough for Tambo, whose solo rap (apparently not vetted in advance by his partner) goes right for the white jugular in its accusations of systemic racism.

Rose and Newson are impeccable as Tambo and Bones, whether in their capacity as minstrel show characters (Rose in particular displays great comic timing and excellent mime work), in their "awakening," or in playing the serious and complicated characters they grow to become. Newson, because of Bones's monomania for money, appears to have an easier job, but the actor shows himself more than capable of delivering powerful and even conflicting emotional reactions once the rappers diverge, each desperate for his personal fulfillment. The two are perfectly cast, somehow simultaneously contrasting and complementing each other both in energy and physique; casting directors Lucy Carapetyan and Lisa Troi Thomas do inspired work here. Rose's part is more showy, as Tambo is the one who begins to understand the underlying horror of their lives in a society run by whites who are happy to make money from them but loath to treat them as equals. The pain he feels knowing this is made palpable by Rose's performance.

Tambo and Bones returns after an intermission for a shorter second act that both follows from the first and resets everything. Taking place hundreds of years in the future, it features Rose and Newson–as the actors themselves–walking us through what has happened in the intervening centuries with the help of Timothy Bernard Felton and Michael-Ellen (Mikey) Walden, who are both magnificent in roles that are mostly about movement. (Felton and Walden also appear as dancers during the rap concert section of Act One.)

To say anything more about Act Two would destroy its impact, which is probably the most powerful one that could ever be achieved. Suffice it to say that, if you had no thoughts about racism before–and how would that even be possible?–you are pretty much forced to have them now. Harris's play and Burke's direction won't allow anything else. This is one of the most important–and difficult–plays you can see. I found it fascinating and instructive to watch my fellow (mostly white) audience members as they struggled throughout the play, but especially at the end, to know how to react. This play is often very funny, but how comfortable are we laughing at racist tropes? Its production values are excellent, especially during the rap concert, but are they there as an intentional distraction from the truths we are hearing? And it understands its own limitations: how can these truths possibly continue to be entertaining in the modern world? This play might just change your outlook, or at least open some doors. It's a must-see.

Tambo and Bones, presented by Refracted Theatre Company, runs through November 11, 2023, at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit