In Search Of My Father. . .Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
June 7, 2008
Bill Hawkins—as we find out in W. Allen Taylor's In Search of My Father... Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins—was the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, and is one of those fascinating people whose contributions are historically important, but for whom the recognition of his name and accomplishments was destined to fade into relative obscurity with the passage of time. One of the things that makes Taylor's piece so engrossing is how interesting the subject of his inquiry is, particularly in reference to the historical age in which he lived. At the pre-dawn of the civil rights movement, Hawkins was a pioneer who united a community and was—at least for a time—a local cultural icon.
And as the title might suggest, In Search of My Father is also an autobiographical account of a son trying to learn about the father he never knew. Taylor learned his father's identity as a young man only after his father's death, and his show takes us on his journey to learn more about him from the friends, acquaintances, and loved ones who were part of his life. Interspersed are also Taylor's own memories of growing up without his father, and the show continues switching back and forth between the two stories, with Taylor himself playing all the men and women presented in both of their lives.
Not surprising given the subject matter, Taylor has infused his show with a liberal supply of great music from the era, but what makes the show really kick is Taylor's impressive performance. In retracing the footsteps of his journey, Taylor takes on his roles with great skill and extraordinary energy. His characters are not only varied and clearly distinguishable from each other, but also convincing and fully-realized—of particular note is his ability to play women believably. His work is also incredibly clean—he manages to delineate his characters by getting to their heart, rather than resorting to broad characterizations or dynamic but unnecessary flourishes.
It's a performance that complements his writing nicely, which manages to examine without seeming judgmental. The show is even-handed and generous in its handling of all the people it discusses, including Taylor himself. This can be seen particularly in the reminiscences of his upbringing and his treatment of his mother—who on balance was clearly an immensely positive force in his life. As for the subject of his search, as the gradual portrait of his father emerges, not surprisingly we find a complex individual with both strengths and flaws.
But what is particularly nice about In Search of My Father is that even though much of what propels Taylor's inquiry is his own feeling of abandonment and a sense of loss, somehow the show never feels too precious or self-absorbed. When Taylor descends into recriminations, it is through a jive-talking DJ persona in shades who both mocks and emulates his father at the same time. This creation gives an indication of how Taylor himself may have dealt with his own rage and resentment—bundling them together in a separate facet of his self. These sequences comment on the discoveries Taylor makes in his search, but they never spill over and infect the tone of the show with a sense of bitterness or self-pity.
What In Search of My Father doesn't have is a dramatic cathartic moment—we never see that moment where Taylor comes to terms with that feeling of loss, and his challenges and questions in many ways go unanswered and unresolved. But while this may be considered a dramaturgical flaw by some in terms of dramatic action, it does ring true. Taylor probably never finds that moment of epiphany because those moments rarely happen in a neat little package in real life. We may not know exactly how or when Taylor has come to acceptance and forgiveness—probably it was a gradual recognition as time and life rolled by—but with its warmth and generosity, the play makes clear that he has. In the end, one is left feeling that both Taylor and the audience are richer for the journey.