A plain set is the congenial setting for the home truths imparted by Samm-Art Williams' "Home" at Rep Stage. Like the several wood platforms on which most of the action occurs, this play gets down to basics. The three actors have very few props or costume changes with which to contend, so they have plenty of time for storytelling.
The central story involves an ardently ordinary man, Cephus Miles (Robert Lee Hardy), who grows up on a North Carolina farm and then moves to an unnamed northern city in search of economic opportunity and upward mobility. He's part of the so-called Great Migration of the early- and mid-20th century, during which millions of black people moved from the rural south to the urban north.
When Cephus Miles describes his life, he functions as a microcosm for the anxieties and the achievements experienced by so many black Americans. Jim Crow laws still remained in effect for much of this period, and even the encouraging passage of civil rights legislation did not improve social conditions overnight.
Although there are direct references to race relations and also to the Vietnam War, "Home" essentially remains within Cephus Miles' immediate personal history. Cephus is not one to make big political speeches and neither is the play so inclined.
Indeed, the greatest source of tension in the play arguably is not racial in nature, but instead concerns a universal aspect of any migration story. Early in the play, Cephus thinks back to his southern childhood and says: "I loved the land ... a fertile, pungent soil." His paved-over northern existence is far removed from his rural roots. Like generations of immigrants before him, he realizes that his heart remains in his native place.
Although this 1975 play gives a keen sense of Cephus' life from the 1950s through the 1970s, it does not adhere to a chronological structure. Instead, it follows Cephus' thoughts as they move around in time. That free-flowing quality is embodied by the only other two actors on stage, Felicia Curry and Fatima Quander, who portray numerous women that Cephas recalls from his earlier life. With a quick change of accent, adjustment to body language, and addition of a hat or jacket, Curry and Quander are able to bring to life the world of Cephus' youth.
All three actors have such an abundance of enthusiasm and versatility that they make the most of the playwright's evocative narrative. Swirling around each other and telling their folkloric tales, they make it easy for your imagination to complete the picture on these simple wood platforms.
Because this stream-of-consciousness approach is handled with such authorial clarity, you're never confused as the women switch from one identity to the next within a story that constantly jumps forward and back in time.
"Home" is at its most affecting when Cephus recalls his youthful courtship of a proper young woman, Pattie Mae Wells, whom Curry portrays with heartfelt sincerity. Their conversations are endearing, humorous and poetic — much like the play as a whole.
Because the three actors constantly move around each other on the stage platforms, it was a good move on the part of director Duane Boutte to do this Rep Stage production in the round. The three performers freely move about through the theater, and so your own thoughts are encouraged to move north and south in space, and forward and back in time. Any way you look at it, this is a moving experience.
Rep Stage's "Home" runs through March 17 in the Horowitz Center's Studio Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.