‘Home’ the sort of play theater is homesick for

Updated 1:46 pm, Monday, May 15, 2017

When we critics describe a work of art as sentimental or nostalgic, it’s usually to denigrate. But with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s “Home,” those descriptors only laud.

Samm-Art Williams’ Tony-nominated 1979 play, seen Sunday, May 14, at the African American Art and Culture Complex, is that rare drama that earns every pang of homesickness, every longing for bygone days, that it sets out to conjure.

That’s partly because the play, about black North Carolina orphan Cephus Miles (Myers Clark), remains, nearly four decades later, the sort of story our mainstream stages don’t tell often enough. That’s also why the 36-year-old Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, which is dedicated to producing works by and for people of color, is such a vital part of the Bay Area theater scene.

But the show, directed by Aldo Billingslea, also succeeds because Williams’ language transcends easy feeling for something more mythic, more primal. Here’s Cephus on his love of the rain on his crops: “The warm sparkling drops cover your face and the ground with its sweet blanket of pure wet.”

Williams is equally spare yet vivid in envisioning Cephus himself. At first glimpse the character might seem like just another hayseed, but Williams writes Cephus in a cipher, spurring endless speculation and projecting. Cephus takes his childhood Sunday school teachings — “Thou shalt not kill” — so seriously that he’s willing to go to jail for them when he gets drafted to fight in Vietnam. He’s no angel, nor is he a crusading pacifist. But he nonetheless elevates the commandment to mantra, as if in issuing it, God were speaking directly to him. Clark makes the character all the more unflappable; taunts from his Cross Roads, N.C., neighbors roll right off in the face of an easy grin, a bit of posturing. If you were to somehow ask the character where he got that inner strength, he’d probably demur and self-efface, while the twinkle in his eyes would say, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Even more extraordinary are Britney Frazier and Tristan Cunningham in a multitude of roles that invoke everyone from Cephus’ fellow farmers to the lowlifes he encounters when he tries life in the big city. They aren’t just individual characters but chorus, their rhythms sketching out the hush of the countryside, then the rush of the subway, often with neither prop nor costume change.

In one scene, playing a corpulent and menacing churchgoer, the slightly built Frazier hikes up her knees with such herculean effort that you’d swear folds of flesh were cascading from her limbs. Underscoring another scene with song, her mighty alto seems to rise up from throughout the theater.

Fans of Cunningham’s chameleon-like performance in Cutting Ball Theater’s “Tenderloin,” from 2012, should rejoice. In “Home,” Bay Area audiences have another chance to savor the full range of her talent. She steps so fully into each character — every tiny role a richly imagined amalgam of bearing and voice — that with each snap of a transformation you hold your breath, as if observing a magic trick.

A feast for the imagination, Billingslea’s direction briskly ferries time along; all of a sudden, Cephus is no longer a young man, and in his 30-odd years, it’s as if America has lost its innocence, too. Ultimately, Cephus offers a primer for how to go forward after you’ve fallen from grace: with gratitude, and with the belief that grace might not still be that far off.

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

WILD APPLAUSEHome: Written by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Aldo Billingslea. Through June 4. 90 minutes. $25-$35. African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., S.F. (415) 474-8800. www.lhtsf.org

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