by Angela Carroll
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.
“Just what kind of man would abandon his son?” This is the central question writer/performer W. Allen Taylor has been asking in his twenty-year running play In Search of My Father … Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins now at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
In Search of My Father is a reflective and meandering musical drama about Taylor’s journey to learn more about his father Bill Hawkins, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio. We learn about Hawkins through Taylor’s brief encounters with the people who knew him; friends, relatives, and intimates. Through their earnestly portrayed recollections, and Taylor’s wounded personal ruminations about his fathers’ absence, audiences explore mythologized and real narratives about Hawkins’ life.
Watching Taylor transform himself in Atlas’ intimate theater was a powerful experience. The actor stands alone on the stage in a simple shirt and slacks. Each time he addresses the audience we are introduced to a new character speaking from a distinct era within the 1950s into the mid-1970s. At times, Taylor is a small boy on a rocking horse, or a preteen who begs for his mother to tell him stories about his father. In other moments he is a young adult, an ambitious DJ for a college radio station, the aging matriarch of a Baptist church, or a cool jazzman.
Relying on very few props; a scarf and pearl earrings, a gray fedora, a cigarette and pool cue stick, Taylor personifies a host of memorable characters. An impressive dancer, in one scene he leaps from popular dances like the Hustle to the Jerk and in another he lovingly sings the ballad “Body and Soul”. Taylor’s skill as a performer is catching and helps to create the feeling that our journey through his memories is an adventure.
His father, we learn, broke through a longstanding color line. Until his hiring by Cleveland radio stations in 1948, media outlets and industries at large in Cleveland and across the nation fervently enforced segregationist and exclusionary hiring policies.
Taylor tells us that Hawkins’ decision to showcase emerging and established black musicians expanded their mainstream appeal, and radically shifted the landscape of broadcast radio. The wit and charm of Hawkins quick-talkin’ broadcasts sealed his fame. In Search of My Father honors Hawkins’ legacy and celebrates the music that catapulted his career. Taylor uses music to underscore the tensions and triumphs of the play, from Al Green to Aretha Franklin, Thelonious Monk to Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton and Mahalia Jackson, among others.
Taylor’s obsessive quest to learn about his father through the people who knew and loved him is illuminated by a series of intimate conversations. The dialogs he has with his mother are particularly resonant. Their talks evolve gradually from the curt banter of an elusive mother and a curious child to emotional admissions that propel the story forward. It is only after Taylor becomes an adult that his mother feels comfortable enough to tell him the truth, a revelation that is years too late to be of any use to her son. I was moved by Taylor’s quiet portrayal of his mother, always in the throes of a mundane task, the washing and drying of dishes, the mending of worn garments. His mother speaks from familiar domestic interiors, at the sink of her kitchen or sitting in the rocking chair of her living room. It is in those subtle moments, that Taylors’ performance becomes transcendent.
The play oscillates between Taylor’s exuberant desire to uncover more clues, and the crippling anger he harbors about having an absentee father. The anxieties Tayler feels but rarely expresses about his father are evidenced in his portrayal of himself as a stylized version of Hawkins’ unique broadcast persona. Both comical and cutting, the DJ directly confronts the resentments Taylor maintains about their nonexistent relationship. Taylor holds a vintage chrome mic in his hand, and leans in deeply over the booth towards the audience as he speaks, “You want to know why I cut radio loose,” he retorts to the unseen Hawkins, “because I didn’t want to be anything like you, Daddy-o!”
In Search of My Father offers a unique perspective on the power of reconciliation and forgiveness.
In Search of My Father: Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins Written and Performed by W. Allen Taylor. Original Direction: Ellen Sebastian Chang. Set Design: David White. Production Manager: Klyph Stanford. Asst. Production Manager: Kristina Jackson. Lighting Design: Walter Holden andElliot Lanes. Sound Design: W.A.T. & Dustin Toshiyuki. Master Electrician: Aaron Waxman . Stage Manager: Elliot Lanes. Assistant State Manager: Norbert Thompson. Reviewed by Angela N. Carroll.