Bubba Boy is deeply in love with his wife. When she dies of a drug overdose, he steals a dress for her and is arrested.
Aunt Ester is an old black woman who tells fortunes and helps people find relief. Holloway claims that she is three hundred and twenty-two years old, which means that she is about as old as African slavery in North America, and this correspondence suggests that she may symbolize the black experience in the United States. She gives advice about how to cope with life rather than change circumstances, and she frequently advises black people to throw money into the river.
Hambone is a mentally disturbed, or possibly mentally handicapped, man who repeats the same two phrases continually. He is in his late forties, and his character description terms him, “self-contained and in a world of his own.” A major source for his deterioration seems to be Lutz, the white owner of the meat market across the street from the restaurant, who promised to reward Hambone with a ham if he painted his fence well, but then agreed only to give him a chicken.
Hambone is of great symbolic importance to the play, and the main characters all come to feel an affinity with him and sadness at his death. West reveals that he had scars all over his body, and this image recalls flogging marks of blacks from the South, helping to depict Hambone as a symbol of the oppressed black man. Hambone’s dogged insistence that the white man must give him his due seems pathetic and even ridiculous at first, but later it seems that he is not necessarily so different from the other characters. In some ways, Hambone is a foil, or a character whose purpose is to reveal something about another character, for Memphis, since they both make demands of white people with similar persistence, but seem to go about it in different ways.
Holloway, a wise and philosophical man who has strong religious beliefs, voices “his outrage at injustice with little effect.” His character description indicates that he has come to “accept his inability to effect change and continue to pursue life with zest and vigor,” but he has not lost his fury with the oppression that African Americans continue to face at the end of the 1960s. Somewhat cynical about people’s motives to make money and take advantage of others, Holloway’s opinions are nevertheless justified by his experience.
Holloway was deeply affected by his grandfather’s loyal and subservient relationship to white people and was ready to kill him until he came under the influence of the spiritual advisor Aunt Ester. After that, he was able to endure his troubles by believing that he can do little or nothing to make matters better for black people. Holloway serves as a valuable and articulate source of context and history for the audience; he is always probing for reasons for current problems and scolding blacks for failing to see the broader causes behind their desperation.
Lutz is the white owner of the meat market across the street from the restaurant. The black characters despise him, particularly after Hambone’s death, for refusing ever to give Hambone the ham that he promises him. They differ, however, in their opinion as to whether he will ever succumb to Hambone’s persistence. Lutz himself never appears in the play, and there is no indication that he regrets refusing to satisfy Hambone for nine and a half years.
Mellon is a rich white banker and speculator who may be exploitative of or racist toward blacks. Holloway indicates that Mellon had a shady alliance with Prophet Samuel.
The central character of the play is the restaurateur Memphis, whose life comes to the brink of tragedy when his marriage breaks up, and the city moves forward with its plans to demolish his restaurant. His character description states that he is a “self-made man whose values of hard work, diligence, persistence, and honesty have been consistently challenged by the circumstances of his life,” and identifies “impeccable logic” as his...