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There’s a knocking in the walls, and it’s only getting louder in Steve H. Broadnax III’s Bonez, now getting its world premiere at People’s Light. It grows and grows, jarring paintings, spilling drinks, until the noise can no longer be ignored. Like in many horror movies, it’s less a sound than a metaphor, a portent for some dormant terror. But as it continues, it echoes too loud, too imprecisely. It conjures fear, but to what end?
Written and directed by Broadnax (an associate artistic director at People’s Light), Bonez follows a group of friends called the Bruhs over the course of a particularly stormy evening. They gather at Trey’s upscale new apartment to drink, play dominos, and unravel their emotional repression as black men in America—and all the while, the knocking heightens, promising the onset of some otherworldly horror. While the play boasts moments of taut direction and impressive effects, it is ultimately hindered by an overwritten script that too often gets in its own way.
Subtext becomes text
Part of the script’s clunkiness stems from the fact that, even though it is explicitly framed as a horror piece (its opening music evocative of 80s horror scores), there is no horror to be found in the first two-thirds of the play. Great social horror (of which Get Out is certainly the seminal modern text) weaves its critiques through genre tropes, watching our society through a lens of fear. What we have here is much more lopsided: a straightforward drama with horror set pieces tacked on in the last 30 minutes.
Before the scares arrive, the play offers instead a series of conversations through which the Bruhs unspool their past traumas in monologues that are well-performed but ultimately struggle to spark. Trey (Keith A. Wallace), a college professor in ritual studies, prompts the discussion, ruminating on the ways that he has repressed his inner self since childhood. He is followed by PJ (John Clarence Stewart), Remello (Eric Robinson Jr.), and Derek (Elijah Jones), who trade stories of police encounters, parental hardships, and everything in between. The ensemble admirably conveys the inner lives of these four men (Robinson’s brusque turn is particularly compelling) as they wrestle with their societal veneers.
They are let down, however, by the script, too eager to turn its subtext into text. Rather than dramatizing the Bruhs’ inner conflicts, it telegraphs them in dense, talky monologues in a tone that borders on the academic. The tenor works well for Trey, given his collegiate background, but less so for the other characters, and subsumes their dialogue into a single intellectualized voice. Amidst this theoretical approach, the play wants for external conflict to more materially demonstrate the masks that these men have forged. Without the definition of walls, it is hard to feel that anything is being torn down.
Much of the play, for this reason, feels stagnant. All the while, the knocking in the walls repeats, rather than escalating, exacerbating this immobility. In two almost identical scenes, the thudding causes a painting to crash to the ground, and Remello leaps to his feet, ready to march next door and castigate the neighbors. Trey pleads with him to cool off; slowly, he subsides. “Couldn’t be me,” Remello finally intones each time, and the men return to their dominos.
The final conjuring
More successful is the last act, in which the horror finally takes center stage, largely thanks to the attendant directorial flourishes and technical wizardry. The set, designed by Michael Carnahan, is exquisitely rendered, foregrounding a wall of windows against a foggy city skyline. The far buildings loom with eerie depth, suggestive of ghosts on the far horizon. Against this backdrop, the lights, sounds, and projections (designed by Nic J. Vincent, Curtis Craig, and Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor, respectively) conjure an atmosphere that approaches the genuinely chilling. Fear is not an easy thing to capture on the stage, but you can feel the Bonez audience judder in their seats, a sensation that is usually the stuff of cinema.
But, even here, the horror does not resonate as well as it should. As technically impressive as the stagecraft is, the script stumbles in conveying what the final conjuring means for its characters. Has the séance exorcised their inner demons? The metaphor of racism writhes across the stage, but have our characters escaped their traumas? In the end, we don’t know. The play stops short of the full catharsis of which great social horror is capable.
A recording of Bonez is available to stream October 23 through November 3, 2023.
What, When, Where
Bonez. Written and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III. $42-$47. In person through October 15, 2023, at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, and streaming October 23 through November 3, 2023. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible venue, accommodates service animals, and offers a range of audio and visual aids. There will be a relaxed performance of Bonez on Sunday, October 8, at 2pm, with American Sign Language interpretation and audio description. There will be open caption performances the week of October 10–15. Visit People’s Light’s accessibility page for more info.
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