Living the Shuffle
The climb to Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, begins with a day slogging through mud caused by snow melt from the mountain’s glaciers. Comedian, actor, and director Robert Townsend also tells of the unequalled views when reaching the top of the mountain. His take away from his trek is less the physical conquest, and more the metaphorical significance that reaching heights demands the willingness to suffer in order to reach the goal.
Robert Townsend brings his life to the stage in a poignant and entertaining one-man show, premiering at The Marsh in Berkeley. So why should we care to hear about his life? Apart from the drama of his escaping the mires of the ghetto and the mountain, he became a celebrity whose adult life tales center on people and situations of general interest to a curious public. And the racial and moral messages continue through his career.
Townsend’s origins are the mean streets of Chicago, where his walk home from school was a dangerous task that necessitated taking different routes from day to day to avoid whatever current trouble spot. This condition alone serves as a reminder that even for the talented and motivated black child, escaping the ghetto is an arduous task with dim and probabilistic outcomes. Indeed, he tells the story of happening upon a gang initiation ritual in which his life was threatened until reprieved by the head of the gang. By happenstance and without knowing who the young man was, Townsend had made this “small man” the first choice for his team recently in playground basketball.
Of particular interest is his 1987 breakthrough movie Hollywood Shuffle that he wrote, directed, and starred in. Based on his personal experience, it depicts another dimension of discrimination and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of blacks in this country. It relates that black actors not named Sidney Poitier couldn’t avoid being cast as pimps, drug dealers, and the like in blaxploitation films, and these films were in large measure the only window that the rest of the world had into black American culture. The crowning blow about having to accept deplorable roles in movies was when white acting coaches instructed Townsend how to act black.
Townsend’s appeal as a solo performer is that he is an affable person. And while he is a comedian, he succeeds as a raconteur of interesting stories rather than a stand-up forcing a new batch of one-liners into his routine every so often. Also, he does incorporate movement and projections to add dynamic elements to the show.
There is much humor in his life, and even funny aspects of more problematic incidents. He surprises by revealing his early love of Shakespeare, while not so surprisingly, he immerses himself in TV and movies, learning how to impersonate his favorite stars. He regales the audience with stories of the process of starting out as an extra in a Pepsi commercial to becoming a principal with a $50k payday. He relates being invited to Frank Sinatra’s birthday party in Las Vegas and being devastated by Don Rickles’ stage performance in which Townsend was singled out for humiliation. Only days later did he realize that he had been roasted, which is a sign of high regard.
As might be expected with a world premiere tryout, an occasional line doesn’t capture the response expected, but adjustments will be made. Most of the stories resonate, but one has a curious absence. Townsend was invited to a small dinner honoring Elia Kazan, not only one of the most important and influential directors in movie history, but one who attacked prejudice against blacks and Jews and repeatedly took the side of the oppressed. The great controversy that tarnished his reputation was naming names in the McCarthy communist witch hunt. Townsend wanted to ask Kazan about the incident, but didn’t, and as well as the vignette is developed, it lacks closure.
Another area for improvement is the technical side of the show. Lighting is imprecise and often floods the projections. And while there are a number of still shots, more would add to the experience. Finally, the sound is variable. Without using a mic, sometimes the performer’s words are lost. And while intersplicing his divorce story with the recorded song “Say something (I’m giving up on you)” works, his dialogue is sometimes overpowered by the sound system.
Despite some weaknesses, Robert Townsend’s magnetic personality comes across, and Living the Shuffle is already entertaining. Townsend and co-producer Don Reed, a Marsh regular, are professionals who know what to do, and the show will surely shine when polished.
Living the Shuffle written by Robert Townsend and produced by The Marsh, plays on their stage at 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA through December 1, 2019.