Famous far and wide, Cleveland radio DJ Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins was ahead of the curve socially and musically, winning the hearts of both wealthy advertisers and his community with his sense for the latest jazz and R & B. He was well known to many, except the person to whom his existence mattered most: his son.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
William Allen Taylor, star of the one-man show In Search of My Father: Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins, never knew his father, and his story is an attempt to assemble the puzzle that was his life, recreating his identity through conversations with those who did know him. But can anecdotes make up for all those lost years of a relationship? If your father was famous to everyone but you, is it still possible to find a connection? Taylor is more successful at portraying the various characters in his life (and himself at different ages)—showcasing his skills as a chameleon—than he is at answering these larger questions, but the rhythmic dialogue and physical shifts between characters, allows the audience to experience a personal and engaging journey, complemented by a selection of some great jazz and R & B.
Taylor deftly navigates the small black-box stage and the snappy script, reenacting his conversations with the friends, lovers, family members, and neighbors of his father. These moments piece together the story of his father, and try to provide some clarity and meaning to Taylor’s own life. With the set fixed as a radio station, a home, and a bar (small objects and space create a sense of separation), it’s up to the actor, more than the set, to make the audience believe anything is changing.
The change begins as The Kid—a caricature of Hawkins, a smooth-talking DJ with a fedora and dark glasses who is prone to rhymes, dances, and thigh slapping laughter—angrily taunts a man he calls Big Papa. Next up, a dead-on impression of himself as a child, all breathless questions (“Can I ride my bike? Go to the store? Swim? Mama, please?”), swinging legs, pouty lips, nervous energy, and tons of questions, most of which ask why—among a variety of surrogate uncles (all of whom he does impressions of)—none of the men in his life are actually his father. For the rest of the play, Taylor alternates between playing himself, and the various characters he meets along the way.
In addition to presenting shape and personality shifting challenges for the actor, a one-man show also presents writing difficulties—how much time should each character get? Who is more important for telling the story? How should all of them talk? In this case, the writing mostly gets it right, creating some staccato rhymes for the DJs, drunken speeches from some of Hawkins’ old friends, good-natured worrying and "boy you better get your butt back in here" attitude from Taylor’s mother. While his mother is mostly a balanced blend of harsh love, nervous but straightforward, other female characters are painted in much broader strokes. Delores, the wife of an old friend of Hawkins, is all limp wrists and twitching mouths, and with her big, clip-on earrings looks like a drag queen’s vision of a 60-year-old woman.
Dances between character transitions help set the boundary between identities, as does the physical use of space—certain characters only appear in certain places. His mother is always on stage left and often performing domestic tasks. His father’s best friend remains on stage right, using just a few glasses behind a bench to show that he owns a bar, and Taylor is dancer-like in his control over his body, shuffling, spinning, twisting, doing dances from the jerk to the mashed potato, to show everyone. That, ultimately, is a bit of a problem: as good as the acting and dialogue are, the show shows too much, and would do well to cut down on some of the repetitive characters, like Delores.
Allen visits his father’s grave, and realizes that closure simply isn’t an option as long as his father is dead. It’s not an uplifting ending, but a realistic one. But the second act finds Taylor acting in circles, going back and forth between the same characters, which begin to lose their individuality. The show never quite overcomes the writing challenges a one-man show presents, but it is saved by the acting and the excellent soundtrack of jazz, blues, R&B, an endless stream of amazing music, the soundtrack to Taylor’s personal discovery.
In Search of My Father:” Walkin Talkin Bill Hawkins is at the Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand Street June 5-29. Tickets available at www.newfederaltheater.org, or at the Abrons Arts Center Box Office.