What can be removed, and what cannot?
Odd question for a play to ask, but central to Tar, the middle piece in Tom Jacobson’s Bimini Trilogy. [The trilogy’s world premiere is at Son of Semele (Plunge, part 1), Atwater Village Theatre (Tar, part 2), and the MET (Mexican Day, part 3).]
In Tar, two men whose skins bear ineradicable colors face a daunting task — removing the color from a third. Amen Headley, a black man, and Zenobio Remedios, a Mexican-American, are bath attendants at the Bimini — a whites-only, no Jews allowed, luxury spa. The third man has turned pitch-black by falling in to the La Brea Tar Pits five miles away. (Because he’s so black, no local hospital will accept him.)
When we meet Amen and Zenobio, they’re sharing a sparring game — hurling racial slurs at each other, Amen trying to trick Zenobio into saying “nigger.” They’re also under pressure: This is an unusual job, on overtime, and Amen is dying to get to the neighboring Palomar Ballroom, where Count Basie is making an historic appearance as the first black entertainer to perform there. (An actual 1939 event.)
With turpentine-soaked rags, the two wipe tar from the body and wonder how and why he died. When the corpse sits up and coughs, their world shifts. Turns out Donald Walter, of German descent, has tried to kill himself after his wife’s death. As his black skin is erased, his white racism emerges — as do clues to a secret.
Amen and Zenobio’s game of epithets gives way to more serious matters; soon, they’re rapidly tossing wry insights about racism in a sort of sociological ping-pong match. At the same time, they wrangle over how far to pursue the story “Brother Donald” is concealing. As at a pro sports match, the tension grows palpable.
Jacobson’s smart writing and his ear for dialect shine in this piece, especially in opera-like duets and trios, when everyone speaks at once and we must decide how to listen. Playwrights’ Arena matches his skill with a polished production: Justin Huen’s pitch-perfect set, Derek Jones’ subtly shifting lights, Howard Ho’s pleasingly period music, and Mylette Nora’s precise costumes tell us where and when we are.
Adrian Gonzalez gives Zenobio a nice balance between ambition, circumspection, and courage (he fought to have Amen hired); he’s a good fellow trying to make his way in an unjust system. Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt takes us on a chilling journey, from Donald’s initial embarrassed confusion to his sucking up all the power in the room. And Noel Arthur’s Amen — who gets the lion’s share of the fun lines and more than a few serious shots — brilliantly delivers a witty, self-educated man of the world who knows which social masks to wear, and when to take them off. Finally, Edgar Landa’s direction keeps us running just a half-step behind all three, and breathless at the end.
Speaking of the end (no spoiler here): When they realize that the Palomar Ballroom is on fire, Amen rushes to help, shouting, “I can’t just stay here and do nothing!” Zenobio, unwilling to abandon his post and risk his career, quietly says, “It’s not nothing.” This poignant exchange drew tears from many of us who spend our days struggling with how to live our lives, yet do enough to avert a holocaust.
Tar handles the stickiest of American subjects with wit and honesty, feinting and jabbing at race like Br’er Rabbit punching the Tar Baby. It’s a rapid, bracing, often delightful ride into our city’s — and our nation’s — darkest shadows. This play deserves a long life.
Tar, by Tom Jacobson, directed by Edgar Landa.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
Mondays at 8:00,
through July 2nd.