Tambo and Bones

Dave Harris
Theatre Royal Stratford East and Actors Touring Company
Theatre Royal Stratford East

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Rhashan Stone as Tambo and Daniel Ward as Bones Credit: The Other Richard
Rhashan Stone as Tambo and Daniel Ward as Bones Credit: The Other Richard
Rhashan Stone as Tambo and Daniel Ward as Bones Credit: The Other Richard

A tree and a couple of clowns—does that seem a familiar starting point? But this is more explicit than Beckett. This pair are the endmen, the stereotypical jokers from the American Minstrel Show, who here are real black men trapped playing black men as fake as the fake tree of the scenery.

It is poet turned playwright Dave Harris’s metaphor for living in a world where the whites write the story but, before he goes on to reverse that, Rhashan Stone as Mr Tambo and Daniel Ward as Mr Jones first give us some remarkable clowning.

They work so well together, you would think they had long years of partnership, with impeccable timing and an easy rapport with the audience. You are laughing almost too much to take in the irony, as Tambo wants to be left to nap and Bones invents sad tales in the hope of getting alms from the audience before Tambo attempts the traditional oration—in his case a treatise on Race in America—and then, dragging the author out of the audience, make the discovery not only that they are real being fake in a minstrel show but a sudden source for real money.

Jumping ahead a few years to a soundtrack that suggests a car chase in an American crime movie, we find them well established as Grammy-winning rappers in concert. Now Stone and Ward offer a brilliant hip hop double act. Bones is still on about money, while Tambo has turned revolutionary: “A nigga was sleep / But now a nigga woke.” It is a bitter look at the commercialisation of black culture as well as an outburst.

In a set that is driven by the pulsing beat, with director Matthew Xia drawing on his other skills as DJ Excalibah, they declare war on America, but it is the music that whips up the audience enthusiasm. They went wild on the press night, but the sentiment perhaps only sinks in after the interval when, 400 years later, in a world without white folk, the long-living pair retell their history with the help of Jaron Lammens and Dru Cripps as a pair of lip-synching automatons.

Tambo and Bones seduces with clever comedy before exploding in an outcry that articulates the rage that built after the murder of George Floyd. Its three sections are stylistically totally different, but Matthew Xia establishes his actors in such a way that they give it unity and, not having a curtain call, they leave a fourth act to go on in your own mind.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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