Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
Prophet Samuel is dead. A former reverend, Prophet Samuel became a powerful leader and adviser in the Pittsburgh neighborhood in which Memphis Lee’s Restaurant is located, and he amassed both followers and money. Memphis was particularly skeptical of the prophet’s virtues even when he was alive, and he continues to express his skepticism. His waitress Risa, who was a devoted follower, defends Prophet Samuel from Memphis’s attacks.
Memphis is also troubled by the fate of his restaurant. It has been reasonably successful, but the city has decided to tear it town, along with all the other buildings in the neighborhood. Memphis has accepted the inevitable loss of his restaurant, but he has fixed a price, twenty-five thousand dollars, as the minimum he will accept from the city. West, the local funeral-home director, warns Memphis that he will only receive, at most, twelve thousand dollars, but Memphis remains committed to getting his price before he will agree to the city’s demands.
Into this setting comes Sterling, a young man just out of the penitentiary and looking for work. When he asks for advice, Holloway tells him to go see Aunt Ester, a legendary sage who is said to be over three hundred years old and who always tells her visitors to throw twenty dollars into the river. Sterling remains noncommittal, but he is very interested in Risa. Risa, however, is resistant. She once took a razor and scarred her legs in order to avoid being treated as a sex object, and she seems disinterested in Sterling’s attentions. However, she does offer Sterling a lucky number to place a bet with Wolf, the neighborhood’s numbers runner.
Hambone arrives, much to the displeasure of Memphis, but Risa offers him some food. According to Memphis and Holloway, Hambone painted a fence for the local butcher over nine years ago with the expectation of receiving a ham. The white butcher attempted to pay him a chicken instead, and since that time, Hambone has been unable to complete more than two simple sentences, both of which demand his ham. According to Holloway, Hambone has stood outside the butcher shop every day since then, demanding his ham. Sterling attempts to bond with Hambone and even attempts to teach him a couple of slogans about Malcolm X and the Black Power movement, but Hambone reverts to his obsession with the ham.
The city makes Memphis an offer: It will pay fifteen thousand dollars for his restaurant. Memphis recalls the time he could not raise enough money to see his mother before she died. He vows to keep fighting until he is offered twenty-five thousand dollars.
Memphis and Holloway deliver monologues explaining bits of their past. Memphis reveals why he left his home in Jackson, Mississippi, nearly forty years earlier: He found water on the land he owned, increasing the property’s value. As a result, a white man named Stovall and some of his friends took the land, killed his mule, and ran him out of town. Memphis has been vowing to return to Jackson ever since, but he never quite manages to do so. Holloway tells a story about how Aunt Ester cured him of a desire to kill his own grandfather. From that point on, Holloway has been a devout believer in Aunt Ester’s ability to help people solve their own problems.
The number Risa gave Sterling to play actually wins, but the people running the game decide to cut the winnings in half. Wolf, who is merely a courier and feels that he is just following orders, dreads telling Sterling that his winnings have been reduced. He fears the former convict’s response to the news, worrying that Sterling will blame him and seek to retaliate against him. Wolf talks about getting a pistol for protection.
Holloway informs everyone that Hambone is dead. Both Sterling and Memphis decide separately to go see Aunt Ester for help. When Sterling returns, he dances with Risa and convinces her to go to a birthday rally for Malcolm X. When Memphis returns, he announces that the city has more than met his price, offering him thirty-five thousand dollars. He also repeats Aunt Ester’s advice to him. She compared life to a football game and told Memphis that, if you fumble the ball, you must go back for it: If you do not, there is no way to score. She then told him to throw twenty dollars into the river.
Memphis is delighted that he will get more than his asking price, and he starts making plans to return to Jackson and take care of unfinished business there. Meanwhile, Sterling, upon hearing of Hambone’s death, breaks into the butcher shop across the street and steals a ham. In the play’s final image, Sterling delivers the ham as a gift for Hambone’s coffin.