Robert Townsend’s one-man show is boffo, filled with yuks

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★½

Robert Townsend prepares for role in “Living the Shuffle.” Photo by David Allen.

My short-term memory may be fading a little but I can still remember with great delight almost everything back when.

Like 1987.

When Robert Townsend co-wrote, directed and starred in “Hollywood Shuffle,” a groundbreaking satirical film that tackled the way Tinseltown short-shrifted and stereotyped African Americans.

These days he’s reliving that time — and more recent ones — via “Living the Shuffle,” a one-man show at The Marsh Berkeley jammed with Big Name-dropping anecdotes about the movie biz (Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, Warren Beatty and director Elia Kazan — plus Sidney Poitier, who at one point becomes Townsend’s unlicensed therapist).

Townsend is the consummate hyphenated celebrity: comic/actor/storyteller/writer/director/producer/filmmaker.

And unlike some other hyphenates whose components are merely mediocre, he merges the pieces into a boffo whole that’s greater than the parts.

He mostly mines his life for yuks, but he also injects moments of poignancy into his monologue that transcend the black experience and mirror everyman’s vicissitudes in general — especially when talking about his mom.

His show — part of the 650 performances scheduled this year at either this offspring East Bay venue or the original in San Francisco — draws vigorous applause and repeated boisterous belly laughs from the crowd.

He begins with, as a TV-addicted child, taking circuitous half-hour routes home instead of a 10-minute trek so he can avoid gang and drug violence in the streets of Chicago, and finishes with doggedly ascending — with frozen and swollen feet — Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa, when in desperate need of a spiritual boost.

Along the way, he performs “Julius Caesar” at a convention of pimps and hos in New York City, makes a living as an “extra” and because of his playfulness earns $50,000 from as Pepsi commercial, tires of portraying bad black dudes and druggies, and hits depressing jobless patches.

After a series of recognizable impressions from yesteryear (Alfred Hitchcock, Ed Sullivan, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Stewart and the like), Townsend details being saved from death by a guy he’d partnered with on a neighborhood pickup-game basketball court.

He also outlines his relationship with Eddie Murphy, who’d beaten him out for a part on “Saturday Night Live” and whom he spoofed in his breakout “Hollywood Shuffle,” the $100,000 film he made with maxed-out credit cards and the encouragement and co-writing aid of buddy Keenen Ivory Wayans.

The movie, which grossed more than $5 million, was shot, he notes with a smirk, “in 12 days — over two and a half years.”

The 62-year-old with the apparent energy and rubbery body of a guy 20 years younger manages in a short hour and forty minutes to hone in on many of the highlights of a life crammed with a kaleidoscope of fame, failures and spiritual quests.

My wife sums up the star of “Living the Shuffle, which is being co-produced by Don Reed, a long-time pal who’s performing currently at the Marsh in San Francisco, this way:

“He’s a gifted man. There’s not one emotion he misses.”

I concur. But he’s not only obviously talented, he works really hard onstage — so hard, in fact, that he must frequently wipe the sweat from his face and brow with a towel.

His lone prop, by the way, is a wooden box on which he perches from time to time (if you don’t count the railings of a short staircase leading from the stage to the floor where the audience sits).

A flaw? Only the rear-screen projections, which show mostly stills (many fuzzy or dark) and are slightly cheesy.

Townsend nevertheless would like his show to end up on Broadway. With a little doctoring, it might.

But even the way it is, “Living the Shuffle” rates as one of my top five one-person shows of the decade. It’s definitely something I plan to tell family, friends and cohorts not to skip.

“Living the Shuffle” will run at the Berkeley TheaterStage, 2120 Allston Way, through Dec. 1. Performances, 5:30 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. $20 to $100. Information: 415-282-3055 or http://themarsh.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →