Review: ‘In Search of My Father…Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins’ at Atlas Performing Arts Center

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In Search of My Father…Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins is an autobiographical exploration of identity and manhood packaged in a 90-minute one-man show written and performed by W. Allen Taylor. The play exposes the life-altering power of secrets and silence.

Since premiering in 1999, Taylor has rebooted this story several times and the current rendition sticks closely to Ellen Sebastian Chang’s original direction.

W. Allen Taylor. Photo by Bryan Hendon.

Taylor grows up an only child, never knowing his father despite repeated attempts to learn about him from his mother. He finds qualities in his uncles and other male role models to latch onto as surrogates, a small consolation for his father’s absence. After graduating from college in his early twenties he musters up the courage to ask his mother one more time about his father. This time, while still in the afterglow of deep joy and pride over watching her son and only child become a college graduate, she finds the strength to tell him. William “Bill” Hawkins is Taylor’s father, a well-known former radio DJ who shaped music and black radio in the 1940s and 50s. Taylor’s surprised to learn that he and his father share a common interest in radio.

The relief and hopefulness he feels in that moment are overtaken by daggers of grief, betrayal, and resentment when his mother also reveals that Bill Hawkins died several months earlier. “We made a mistake, we thought we had more time,” she says as a plea for forgiveness for never allowing him to know or build a relationship with his father. The remainder of the play’s plot coils around Taylor’s search to learn as much as he can about Bill Hawkins’ life, to build a connection to him and reconcile his feelings of abandonment.

Dream sequences are interlaced throughout the story that give the audience a glimpse into the conversations Taylor wishes he could have had with his dad. At times these scenes lack coherency and instead of driving Taylor’s emotional journey forward they interrupt it. On the other hand, Taylor’s acting range shines through in his portrayal of the different figures, both men and women, that helped him understand the man behind the microphone, Bill Hawkins. It all started with a couple that approached him while he was DJing at a wedding. Through them, he learned of his uncanny resemblance to his father and how well-respected he was as a radio personality. The historical journey of radio’s importance to Black culture in the 1940s and 50s is highlighted in a fascinating way throughout this play. In addition, the music that’s selected to represent that period is expertly massaged into the story as an ensemble character.

The set design is simple. Placed at center stage is a chair pushed into a desk with a vintage unidirectional microphone on top. Props and costumes are set behind either side of the desk, allowing Taylor to remain on stage the entire show.

W. Allen Taylor. Photo by Bryan Hendon.

Taylor opens his heart and brings the audience inside so that we’re able to share in the memories that shaped his life and views of manhood. There’s symbolism in nearly all aspects of the show, from the moment he places a broken album onto a record player setting the story in motion to the dim, shadowy lighting that’s used in the final scene, thus obscuring the audience’s view of a key figure in his life.

This is not a story where are all the pieces fit perfectly together, nor is it designed to be. It’s a poetic reflection of mystery, lure, and humanity. A collection of stories gathered over the years that create a mosaic of a man. Taylor tells his truth in a way that honors his father’s legacy but doesn’t let him off the hook for not being in his life. The questions he deposits in the audience’s minds about identity, secrecy, family, and forgiveness are universally relatable.

Run Time: 85 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.

In Search of My Father…Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins runs through Saturday, February 10, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theatre II – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets call the box office at (202) 399-7993, ext. 2 or purchase them online.