Review: In a Nostalgic Revival, ‘Home’ Is Where the Heart Was

To say that Samm-Art Williams’s 1979 play “Home” is old-fashioned is to say that “The Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz” are too: They are all tear-jerking stories about lost souls working their way back to the proverbial place where the heart is. But another way to see them is as keen records of how we thought, at particular points in time, about our place in the universe. Is that ever old-fashioned?

For “Home,” which opened on Wednesday at the Todd Haimes Theater, the particular point in time is the tail end of the Great Migration, bringing millions of Black Americans to the North from the South in an attempt to escape racism and poverty. Among them is the play’s protagonist, Cephus Miles, a North Carolina farmer who winds up in a big city a lot like New York after spending five years in prison. His crime: taking too seriously the biblical commandment to love thy neighbor and the injunction not to kill. He refused to serve in Vietnam.

Though the outline of the story might seem to warrant a furious response, like that of many antiwar and antiracist works of the ’70s, “Home” follows a different line, its honeyed cadences glazing its anger with affection. That’s apt because Williams is ultimately less interested in the embitterments of the world than in the ability, indeed the necessity, of masking the bad taste of unfairness with love.

And Cephus (Tory Kittles) is certainly not angry at the South. His memories of hard work, tall tales and odd characters in segregated, fictional Cross Roads — likely based on Williams’s Burgaw, N.C. — are surprisingly upbeat. The poverty, being general, is bearable. (And funny: If a possum falls into the moonshine still, so be it.) The racism shows up mostly as marginalia, implied rather than prosecuted. Black boys shoot dice in the white section of the cemetery, Cephus tells us, because “that’s where the nice cement vaults were.” The Black section’s graves provide no level surface.

The nostalgic style, unfashionable for decades, may be why “Home” has not until now been revived on Broadway, despite its successful and much-praised premiere. Kenny Leon’s production for the Roundabout Theater Company — a result of the company’s Refocus Project, designed “to elevate and restore marginalized plays to the American canon” — is thus especially welcome, if perhaps overly faithful to the original vision. With golden light (by Allen Lee Hughes) and a set consisting mostly of a rocking chair and a tobacco field that make the sharecropping life look strangely inviting (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado), it steers right into instead of away from sentimentality, giving us the full flavor of the writing at the cost of courting hokum.

Likewise, the play’s dramatic method prevents its grimmer parts from being fully effective. The narrative is mostly a monologue for Cephus, fleshed out by two actors (Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers, both excellent) who provide quick-take sketches of preachers, loose women, drunks and old aunties. It sometimes feels like a variety show.

But few variety shows have leaned as hard into lyricism as “Home,” which began as a poem Williams wrote on a bus ride home to North Carolina for Christmas. There is something of the road’s reverie in its rhythms — not a surprise from an author whose greatest influence, he said, was “The Raven.”

Though the language is rich, recalling Black spoken word traditions and anticipating the dominance of rap, the technique is more mesmerizing than theatrical here, especially as sped through by the prodigious Kittles to keep the show moving. I wanted to sit with Cephus a bit longer because right from his Homeric first line — “I once rode a swift, strong horse. Hooves of sterling. Coat of white” — he is clearly a bard, whose words need space.

The hectic pace is less of a problem as the play grows graver, moving from Cross Roads to prison to the “dry, ugly, hot, mean” North. There, the supports that formerly sustained Cephus through adversity fall completely away: his land, his honor and his love of music. (“Blues and jazz has choked and gagged me with my own spit,” he cries.) The woman he finds in the city (Ayers again) loses interest the moment he loses his job; the woman he loved in his youth — Patti Mae Wells (Inge again) — is an almost irretrievable memory.

But do not fear. This is not the kind of play to abandon you in a dark alley, even if Cephus’s distaste for city life is the most compelling and counterintuitive part of the story. Plot machinations that you will see coming at quite some distance deliver a happy ending and may even elicit a few nonconsensual tears.

No matter: They cleanse the soul just the same. Williams, who died a few days before this revival’s first preview, seems to have been willing to go anywhere to free his hero from despair as a way of freeing the rest of us, too.

Through July 21 at the Todd Haimes Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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