Monday, July 23, 2007

Play Review – Joshua James’ Tallboy Walkin’

Hey guys,

This week, I'm posting 3 surprises for our Scribosphere friends. (Woo hoo! Hehehe…) And thus, I’d like to begin with a review of Joshua James’ superb
Tallboy Walkin’.

Let it be said that after having read two of Joshua’s One Acts –
Prudence and The Beautiful One – I thought he was pretty good, but his full length play solidified for me his undeniable talent as a writer.

Tallboy Walkin' is the story of five different men, of different ages and ethnic backgrounds, who find themselves stranded at a bus stop late at night in a dangerous urban city. A confrontation between two men, men of color, holds the other three men as their unwilling captive audience, trapped by circumstances, a late bus and the presence of a loaded firearm. A high-wire meditation on race, religion and the comedy of life, Tallboy Walkin' asks the question all of us at some point have to answer.”

That should excite you, right? (You should ask Joshua to e-mail his play to you. It’s a great read. You get sucked into it and you can’t walk away until it’s over.) I re-read his play a second time today, and halfway into this story, I’m actually thinking thoughts like, “Ya know, this kid should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.” Joshua has the courage to be ambitious about important issues and he is quite successful with the way he puts out his messages of respect and understanding between people. Because above all those things like race, politics, religion, and class, we have commonalities like pain and regrets and sins and hopes and fears. THAT is life. And life, in and of itself, is difficult enough without adding racism into the mix.

With respect to the craft of writing, what’s beautiful to me about this piece of work is not just the way Joshua constructed distinctive characters with distinctive voices, a clearly rising conflict, and unforeseeable twists within the most simplest setting, but also the variety of ways he shows us how these men are all different but the same in many ways.

Oh, and the dialogue kicks ass.


It opens with Frank, an elderly man. He sits on a bench at a bus stop. Paul, a tall athletic black man, sits on the ground near the bench.

And then Sean shows up. He’s Irish.

SEAN: Is this where I get the two-twelve?

Frank nods.

Long pause.

Long, long, LONG pause.

SEAN: Well for fuck’s sake. Where is this gob-shite fuck of a bus?


And boy does Sean ever talk.

SEAN: I’ve never been good at waitin’, y’know? I want what I want when I want it. Y’know what I’m sayin’? It never fails, NEVER fuckin’ fails, when I really NEED to be somewhere… y’know what I’m sayin’? It’s like that law, our man’s law about stuff goin’ wrong just because it will when it can. You know? You know that law?

FRANK nods.

SEAN: Whatever CAN go wrong WILL, that’s how it goes. What was the name of that lad, somebody’s law, what the fuck was that lad’s name, it was an Irish name as well an’ here I am not rememberin’ it. Do you know the name of our man that wrote that law?

FRANK shakes his head.

SEAN: Well for fuck’s sake, why can’t I remember this fucking Irish name? I ought to be put up against a wall an’ shot for an Orangeman. It’s the whiskey, that’s what it is, the whiskey destroyin’ me fucking brain cells. Either that or the rugby…

Spenser shows up. He’s well dressed. Scattered. Bit of a dweeb.

SPENSER: Has the bus come yet?

Very brief pause.

SEAN: Aye, it did, but we didn’t like the look of it so we decided to wait for a better one.

SPENSER: Really? Oh. Oh, I get it. Yeah. I’m sorry, I’m a little distracted. I’m sorry.

SEAN: No worries, mate.

They talk. Spenser leaves to use a pay phone.

Another pause. SEAN looks down at Paul, then looks at FRANK.

SEAN: I’m tellin’ ya, Pops, when this cuntpig of a bus driver gets here, I am going to put my boot so far up his arse he will be tastin’ shoe leather for a week.

Short pause as they both wait. SPENSER comes back.

SPENSER: They don’t work, four payphones and every one broken. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it!

SEAN: It’s just like I was sayin’ to my quiet friend here, it’s that law, our man’s law ‘bout thing goin’ wrong because they can.

SPENSER: What, what law?

SEAN: That law, that fucking law, what is that fucking name, I am such a simpleton for forgettin’ something like this.

FRANK: Murphy. Murphy’s law.

They both look at FRANK in surprise. SEAN jumps up and down, whooping. Paul brings his head up, looking at them.

SEAN: MURPHY’S LAW! That’s it, that’s fucking IT, thank you granddad, Murphy, Murphy’s fucking law, Murphy like the bitter stout. I should be shot for not knowin’ that!

FRANK: It just now came to me.


Reading Joshua James inevitably leads to a discussion about dialogue. There’s a poetic ring to his words and once you “get it,” it’s infectious. To me, it felt like a variation of David Mamet, whom I love dearly.
Glengarry Glen Ross is still one of my many all-time favorite plays (and films). There’s truth beneath that style of dialogue, because people don’t always speak in complete sentences. Sometimes, they speak in fragments. Sometimes, they change their minds mid-sentence. Sometimes, they forget what they’re trying to say. Sometimes, they just ramble on about nothing.

Yet, at other times (like in
Oleanna and Edmond) I felt that all of his Mamet-speak got in the way of good storytelling. Not every person in the world talks the way David Mamet likes to write. And some of the circular conversations between his characters will get on my nerves, too, as in American Buffalo, because it just grinds the story to a halt. Thus, I so admired the way Joshua seemed to not mimic but actually improve on Mamet’s style of dialogue while avoiding Mamet’s many pitfalls. In the end, I think it’s just best to construct dialogue that’s perfectly suited for that character, not conform every character to speak the way one prefers to write dialogue.

I once asked Joshua about his approach to dialogue. He gave me a very short answer:

"For me, a lot of dialogue is about rhythm, everyone has their own individual beat, and once you nail that cadence, you got the character... that's me, anyway... We've all got tell-tale rhythms, I've got them, I've got actor friends I can nail right away just by looking for the beat of what they're saying. A lot of what I do, when I write, is putting people I know right into the fucking story and it becomes easier after that. It may help that I began as an actor, but I dunno, I think I just got an ear for it... I've taken music lessons for five different musical instruments, when I was a wee lad, and couldn't learn to play a single one. Just couldn't get it. My brother sat down at a drum set at 9 years of age (my drum set, need I add) and taught himself how to play fast. He's since taught himself three other instruments and fronts a band. He just had an ear for it. Me, I never really had formal training as a writer, but when I began writing, I just seemed to have an immediate feel for it. I've worked hard since, took to the books ('cause there's definitely a lot more to writing than people talking) but when I started, I just had the touch for characters right out the gate...

"I hear the characters, and I think that could be a stop-gap for a lot of writers... they're sitting there, trying to think of cool things to write as dialogue... me, I'm seeing whomever it is I've got pictured in my head, and once I can see them, I can hear them. I never try to write dialogue. That's an important key, I think. Hear the characters before you hear the dialogue. Tallboy Walkin' is a great example... it began as a challenge from a director friend, who wanted me to write a play that happened in real time, one scene, one set, a real play (the knock on me as a playwright, I should note, is that too many of my plays felt like movies, heh) and I lived in a boarding house with seven Irish men when I began writing it, and it was easy to picture who Sean was, really fuckin' easy. He's a combination of two Irish guys I knew well who were, well, fucking crazy and funny and could not stop talking if their life fucking depended on it. It just poured out of me. Funny, 'cause Sean isn't the focus of that play, was never supposed to be, but he wouldn't shut up. So it was easy, it just came out. It'd be harder now, because I'm not surrounded by it, but not impossible.

"Some of it is people I know, or once knew, or would LIKE to know... the important thing is to get that person locked, see them, even like a small character with three lines, if you locked them good, you got them. Even an imaginary character (well, especially those) you have to see them, put a friend in that role, and then you'll have it. I've done that in a couple of my screenplays, have a character with only a few lines and LOCKED them in, made even their one small moment ring true. When I figured out how to do that, that's when I had a break-through in screenwriting... Jesus Christ, I'm a long-winded bastard, aren't I? Cut me off, bartender!"


No worries, mate. I loved it.

How about some more bits of dialogue?

In no time, a trouble-maker by the name of Axel shows up.

AXEL: Problem? Somebody gots a problem?

SEAN: No, no problem.

AXEL: Fuckin’ right dere’s no problem. Hey you. Hey, Pointdexter. You gots the time?

SPENSER: Uh, eleven after.

AXEL: Okay Pointdexter, I gots a job for you. Uncle Axel wants YOU. I’m going over to that deli over ‘dere an’ grab me a tallboy. I want you to do me the solid of lettin’ me know when you see the bus is coming.


AXEL: It’s real simple, Pointdexter. When you see the bus coming, you skip your skinny white ass over to the deli and let me know, okay? That’s ALL I’m axing you to do. You can handle th'job, I gots faith in you, Pointdexter.


Axel stalks off.

SEAN: See, jobs is plentiful here in America.



SEAN: Eh, Look, look at that. A woman, a lovely woman. At this time ‘o night and you still have lasses ever’where. This country is truly something in that way, it’s like a fuckin’ candy store. Oh, she’s lovely. I’d lick her out.

PAUL: That’s a prostitute.

SEAN: Me bollocks. Really? She’s dressed just like any other lass. Aren’t they supposed to be dressed up in heels an’ tights an’ whatnot?

PAUL: She is definitely a prostitute.

SEAN: Maybe I wouldn’t lick her out then.

Axel returns. There is a skirmish. A gun is revealed. And suddenly, Paul manages to take the gun away from Axel and controls this moment at the bus stop. The other men are not allowed to leave. Axel must give Paul a good answer to the question “Why are you here,” or he’ll shoot him. And then, a great debate takes place between these men, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard.

AXEL: Yeah. How come you so nice to whitey?

PAUL: Why not?

AXEL: Sheeit.

PAUL: What?

AXEL: White man sold the black man to slavery.

PAUL: And what is it you sell to the black man, Axel? What are you selling to the black man while you’re working your street from here to there?

AXEL: ‘Dey still white, still look down on you. White man shit on the black man every chance he get, so why you be so nice to them?

PAUL: I don’t recall any of THESE gentlemen calling me “nigger”.

AXEL: Not to yo’ face.

PAUL: To my face is the first thing that counts.

Here’s another sample. Sean sees another prostitute. Except it’s a man. Thus, Sean makes gay jokes throughout the play. Spenser holds him accountable.

SEAN: I hate waiting. The transport in this country, I'm tellin' you Paul, the transport companies in this country are fuckin' GAY as Christmas, if you ask me.


SEAN: Another what?

SPENSER: Another HOMOPHOBIC comment!

SEAN: Was it?

PAUL: Yep.

SEAN: For fuck's sake, it's hard to keep track.

PAUL: You have to be careful. You can never be sure who you might be talking to.

SPENSER: You shouldn't say things like that no matter WHO you're talking to.

SEAN: That's what one of me lads told me when I first moved here, he said, "watch yourself here Sean, the homosexuals are plentiful and they like to lift weights!”

SEAN giggles at his own joke. AXEL joins in.


SEAN: Look buddy, calm down, don’t be stupid, it's just... it's just funnin' y'know? I'm just makin' a joke.

SPENSER: How come you always have to joke about homosexuals?

SEAN: Because... they're HOMOSEXUALS.

SEAN and AXEL giggle again.


SEAN: I know, I know. I couldn't help meself.

SPENSER: You shouldn't even JOKE about stuff like that.

SEAN: I know, I know. I'm sorry. No wait. Fuck it. I'm not sorry.


SEAN: I said I'm not sorry. I'm not. I'm Catholic, that's what I am and believe, and homosexuality is just fuckin' wrong and fuck anyone who thinks different.

SPENSER: Oh Jesus Christ.

SEAN: Hey, don't take the Lord's name in vain.

SPENSER: You know, people DIE because of those beliefs, you know that don't you? Homosexuals are the victimized everyday through hate and prejudice just like yours.

SEAN: Well then, they shouldn't be sinning as they are, should they. It's a sin and they're reaping what they sow, so fuck 'em. Fuck the fags.

SPENSER: I don't believe this. You don't really believe that, do you?

SEAN: It says so in the bible, sorry boyo.

SPENSER: It doesn't say "fuck the fags" in the bible!

SEAN: Well, not in those words.

SPENSER: It also says love thy neighbor!

SEAN: Yeah, love thy neighbor, not LOVE thy neighbor!

AXEL: Yo', I'm wit' him.

FRANK: It also says, "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone."

SPENSER: That's right! And I don't believe you're that strict of a Catholic. I don't believe you live a life free of sin.

SEAN: Well, there is sin, then there's SIN.

SPENSER: And you, the way you're thinking, that's the true SIN.

SEAN: Fuck you, you're not even Catholic, are ya?

SPENSER: You don't know what I might be. You haven't asked, you've just shot off your fat mouth.

There is so much more that I will leave for you to discover. This play DESERVES a production for all of the right reasons.

One last thought: I think the bus was intended to symbolize progress. At one point in the play, we witness this exchange of dialogue:

FRANK: The bus will come.


FRANK: The bus will come. It always does.

SPENSER: You’re sure?

FRANK: I’ve ridden this bus for over forty years. Sometimes it’s early, sometimes it’s late, but it always gets here. It’ll come. Just be patient.


Joshua James said...

Jesus Hamilton Christ, dude . . .thanks for the review! I totally appreciate it!

Mystery Man said...

I always wondered what his middle name was. Hehehe...


Christian M. Howell said...

That was a good read. Cutting dialog. Good characters.

Mim said...

Does the bus symbolize Godot?

I agree with MM. Good writing. Have you ever considered studying the screenplay format?

Joshua James said...

I have, very much, studied screenplay format (as fun as that is, heh) and written a number of them . . .

Ann Wesley Hardin said...


Truly awesome, Josh! Just all zingy and sparkly. I could visualize the characters, their movement and the whole freakin' scene from that dialogue.

PS--Erm, am I part of this surprise, MM?

crossword said...

Excellent. I loved reading this... great quality. Reminded me of the poet Tony Harrison.

Great job.

Michelle77 said...

Awesome post! I'm wit MM. This play has great dialogue and characterization. It's amazing how visually distinctive a character can become via dialogue. And I loved Joshua's comments on dialogue. (I took notes.) Anyhow, great stuff as usual!

Anonymous said...

You and those fucking drums! Are those two still in a band? Remember waiting for Godot? Outstanding