You can change laws, but not necessarily attitudes. And 1955 Texas can sound a lot like 1991 urban America.
In the title of Eugene Lee's "East Texas Hot Links" at the Met Theatre in Hollywood, the word links carries a double meaning. The racism that isolates Charlesetta's Cafe in this hard-driving drama is strongly linked to racist attitudes reflected in today's headlines.
Outside the cafe is Bubba-land, a slice of pre-civil rights feudalism lorded over by Prescott Ebert and his brothers. They're rednecks and, along with the local law, Klansmen who often take their pleasure with "high yellow girls" in a nearby town. It's not a pleasure black men can share--several are dead from trying, one buried alive in a slab of cement in a highway project.
Inside the cafe, life goes on. Charlesetta serves white lightnin' and Pearl Beer to her regulars along with sass-flavored good times. (The Pearl sign and a chalked "Pigfeet 5 cents" are authentic details of Lew Harrison's sharp setting, excellently lit by Ves Weaver.) Except for one, they know what's going on outside. That one is 23-year-old Delmus, who makes a lot of phone calls to a number that doesn't answer.
Old blind Adolph (a richly poetic Bill Cobbs) knows even more than the others. He has seen it all, and understands the food chain--wild dogs eat the runt of the litter, egos eat egos ("we feed on each other on a daily basis"), and the Eberts--well, we all know who they feed on. And the young feed on the old for the knowledge of how to survive.
Although his staging could use a bit more variety, Ed De Shae's direction is in every other respect taut and exciting, knowing when to relax and let Lee's sense of poetry flow through. The play's frame is small, but the picture inside is large, and timeless.
The performances are gripping, honest and filled with humor. Loretta Devine is a Charlesetta who is totally feminine, with an inner power that controls her male clientele unflinchingly. The role of the volatile and innocent Delmus could trip up a lesser actor than Terrance Ellis; he knows when to expand Delmus' anger and enthusiasm for a new love, and when to let him shrink back into a kid's frightened caution. Brent Jennings manages to make XL, the sly fox who sometimes does favors for Prescott, likable as often as he is oily.
Earl Billings, Charles Brown, Richard Gant and Jim Pickens as the other regulars all contribute to the feeling of a slowly burning fuse that gives the production much of its tightly wound tension.
* "East Texas Hot Links," Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 22. $15; (213) 957-1152. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.