Review by Sam Waite
Warning: Tambo & Bones contains discussions of discrimination, continuous use of
then n-word (always by a black actor), conversations around genocide and racial
violence, and strong violence including the use of a prop knife and a t-shirt canon
(fired only once, into the stalls)
Already receiving widespread attention, both praised for inclusivity and accused of discrimination, Dave Harris’ Tambo & Bones has made its UK debut at Theatre Royal Stratford East, co-produced by Actors Touring Company and directed by their Artistic Director, and the venue’s former Associate Director, Matthew Xia. With this, Mojisola Adebayo’s Family Tree (also presented by Actors Touring Company), and family show Hey Duggee, Xia has three projects running consecutively across the UK, but is his latest work worthy of both its hype and its controversy?
Harris’ script opens with the following description:
But like a fake-a** pasture.
Some fake-a** trees and a fake-a** bush.
A fake-a** sky with a fake-a** sun.
A lil bit of fake-a** grass.
Yo it’s fake-ass pastoral out here.
A difficult show to explain, Tambo & Bones is divided into three disparate but thematically linked sections. We first meet the pair in this cartoonish, deliberately fake pasture, convincingly crafted by designers Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ to resemble the hand-painted backdrops of old. After an extended sequence of broad, old-fashioned comedy, an encounter with The Writer (a hysterically used puppet) leads them to find their own script – Tambo & Bones: A Minstrel Show. Horrified to discover they are a construct to entertain a white audience, they set out to escape these confines and take back their own narrative.
The script is daring and layered, never afraid of being interpreted as too abrasive or too ludicrous in its approach to serious themes. With both cutting monologues and sharp, insightful lyricism from Dave Harris, the play includes and involves the audience from its first moments, using their presence to powerful effect later, and having plenty of fun with them beforehand. With controversy created by the inclusion of a Black Out performance later in the run, Tambo & Bones makes a point to acknowledge its black audience members, and is unashamedly aimed at these same viewers.
Harris’ evident sense of humour, along with his clear indigence at centuries of mistreatment, manifest throughout his text. Tambo & Bones is as much a thesis statement as it is a work of theatre, leaning first into the inherent racism of those minstrel shows, and then into the dichotomy between political agendas and working for high profits within the hip hop genre. As the first section comes to a close, a
blackout and street noise – police sirens, hushed voices ducking down side streets – lead into the second, a hip hop concert by a contemporary version of the two leading men.
Here, Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ have created a believable performance stage for two world-famous rappers. With a metal platform overseen by a masked, ever-dancing DJ (the bouncy, danceable beats were provided by director Xia, as DJ Excalibah, but it was unclear who was behind this mask) and a blinding multitude of lights moving forward from the back of the stage, the Theatre Royal is transformed into an arena where Tambo & Bones are performing for a sold-out crowd. Immediately, the stark difference between this and the scene we’d just watched reminded us that we were here not just to be entertained, but to be educated.
Throughout the three sections, the last of which I won’t spoil the impact of, Harris keeps a clear affection apparent between his two leads, despite their many frustrations with one another. Matthew Xia has a clear understanding of the material,
and has guided his actors accordingly – aiming successfully for a classic odd couple in the first sequence, a headstrong pair of clashing performers in the next, and a pair of real, genuinely exhausted human beings in the last. Along with movement director Kloé Dean, Xia has shaped these two portrayals so that there are distinguishing features in each shift of setting and pace without losing the core of these characters. Of course, the strength of the actors themselves helps immensely.
As Tambo, Rhashan Stone throws himself into the physical comedy of his silent opening scene, before allowing his fun, easy chemistry with co-star Daniel Ward to carry the following section. Stone, strong throughout the evening, does his best work in the second section, in which the duo embark on their Escape World Tour – Tambo is determined to make a difference and to educate, and Stone brings to life this desperation and the exhaustion of his being so fully and constantly awake, both literally and metaphorically. While Stone’s energy never gives out, he makes it clear that Tambo’s could, and will, at any moment.
Bones, a hilarious and outlandish Daniel Ward, is less concerned with the politics and discrimination surrounding their ascent to stardom, and his introduction as a clown begging for change from the audience translates seamlessly into a performer continuing to tour and record for success and financial gain. A swaggering, bragging foil to the more politically charged Tambo in the concert segment, Ward – appearing as a version of himself – becomes a frightening, maddened force in the play’s final scenes. Here, he gives in to the anger of the past 400 years and is so impassioned that it’s hard to feel anything but a deep sympathy for him.
Sound design by Richard Hammarton provides the previously mention street noises, and later is used to great, disturbing effect when the sounds of people hiding in fear while being hunted for execution echo around the auditorium, as if they are hiding in nearby nooks and crannies. A welcome reprieve from some of the darker moments, while still addresses the themes of racial inequity, videos designed by Gino Ricardo Green offer animated, exaggerated portrayals of news reports and the much-maligned speeches of a certain former US president. These videos perfectly match the well-balanced tone of the show, which had the audience in fits of laughter, but also ended with an announcement that viewers were welcome to remain in the auditorium in order to process and reflect on what they had just watched – an option many seemed ready to take.
If anything in this review seems surface level or uninformed, this is simply because I am not equipped to speak more eloquently on the real, hard-hitting subjects this play explores. As a white audience member, I was honoured to be able to access such a powerful, exciting piece of theatre, while being wholly aware that there are others whose takeaway will be more significant, and whose opinions of the subject matter and its methods of inclusion are much more important. Tambo & Bones is a stellar work of art, and I would encourage anyone not only to see it, but to sit with and take on board the work’s important, ever-relevant messages.
Tambo & Bones plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until July 15th, with their
BLACK OUT performance on July 5th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-
Photos by The Other Richard