Review: At the Roundabout, A Luminous Revival of Samm-Art Williams’ ‘Home’

This rollicking memory play treats one man's life as an epic journey, and this production—starring Tory Kittles, Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers—is epic indeed.

Brittany Inge, Tory Kittles and Stori Ayers (from left) in Home. Joan Marcus

Samm-Art Williams, who died on May 13 as Home began previews at the Roundabout Theatre Company, lived many lives. He was a playwright, an actor and a TV executive producer (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). He was a burly southpaw who sparred with Muhammad Ali. Too young to leave us at 78, Williams made every moment count. Not surprising that the protagonist of his 1979 hit play should also be a man of many modes who endures multiple trials. Cephus Miles (Tory Kittles), as his surname foretells, is fated to travel great distances. Don’t be surprised if his story evokes thoughts of Odysseus. This rollicking memory play is very much about getting back to one’s roots, but I suspect the title winks at Homer. 

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How does Cephus, a humble Southern farmer, compare to the mythical king of Ithaca who wandered sea and land before returning to his palace? Odysseus goes to war against the Trojans; Cephus is an accidental conscientious objector to the Vietnam War (which lands him in jail). Odysseus becomes lost at sea and is harassed by witches and monsters; Cephus moves to a Northern city and gets mixed up with booze and floozies. In the end, both find their way home, love redeeming them. In the Odyssey, that means slaughtering a mob of odious suitors. But in Williams’s big-hearted finale, a woman saves the house and gives Cephus back his soul.

Tory Kittles, Brittany Inge and Stori Ayers (from left) in Home. Joan Marcus

Enough classical stuff. Williams provides his own epic pleasures in this 90-minute piece, which unfolds as a series of tall tales spun by Cephus in a rocking chair on his porch, a conspicuous tremor in his right hand suggesting the hard times he’s seen. Others in town, he tells us, believe him dead. The children vandalize his house, thinking he’s only a ghost. But in muscular, lyrical prose, Cephus asserts his irrepressible vitality:

Children casting stones at my door. Crashing and thrashing at the windowpane. Children in their folly. Lovely, beautiful children. Learning and living the fantasies of their parents. Fostering the myths and the lies. Cephus lives! I live! The town of Cross Roads, North Carolina. Place of my birth. I live.

Backed by a two-woman chorus—Brittany Inge as “Woman One” and Stori Ayers as “Woman Two”—Cephus shares stories of playing dice on the graves of dead white folks, his courtship with lifelong sweetheart Pattie Mae Wells (Inge), and his struggles with faith. You see, Cephus used to believe in God, “until he took a vacation to the sun-soaked, cool beaches of Miami, while I needed his help and love in the hot sticky tobacco fields of North Carolina.” For the first half hour or so, Cephus regales us with folksy (cheerfully violent) tales: how guitarist “One Arm Ike” lost a limb; how Cephus learned to “speak Indian” when dealing with a dishonest Black man who claimed to be Cherokee. 

Stori Ayers, Tory Kittles and Brittany Inge (from left) in Home. Joan Marcus

After Patti Mae leaves Cross Roads to marry a lawyer in Baltimore, and our hero serves five years in prison for refusing to enlist in the military, he follows the siren song of a city up north, where drugs, liquor and cheap labor await him. This long middle section has its lighter moments—Ayers is deliciously cynical yet dignified as a woman who shacks up with Cephus until the cash runs out—but mainly it’s a hellish descent into addiction. Glimmers of hope appear in a beatific passage aboard a Greyhound (“a national Negro institution”) motoring south, as Cephus and a busload of Black passengers make a nostalgic Christmas pilgrimage. Not since the 2013 revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (with Cicely Tyson) has a bus scene captured so poignantly the sense of forlorn hope aboard a coach.

As he did with the superbly energetic and irreverent revival of Purlie Victorious last year, director Kenny Leon maintains a galloping pace. Home is such a verbal dynamo it could be performed on a bare stage, yet Leon has assembled a valuable design team: Arnulfo Maldonado’s homely yet mythic sets of porch, tobacco field, and a cutaway silhouette of a house; earth-toned and soft-textured costumes by Dede Ayite; and sunny daytimes and jazzy night shades conjured by Allen Lee Hughes. The acting trio makes gorgeous music. Kittles ages up from hellraising teen to weathered old man by graceful degrees, and Inge and Ayers do magnificent character work with dozens of supporting parts—preachers, drug dealers, prison guards, bus drivers. We should mourn the fact that Williams never got to see this luminous production, but it seems he had plans to join that fellow in Miami.

Home | 1hr 35mins. No intermission. | Todd Haimes Theatre | 227 West 42nd Street | 212-719-1300 | Buy Tickets Here   


Review: At the Roundabout, A Luminous Revival of Samm-Art Williams’ ‘Home’