Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Thus begins a funny, heartwarming, two-hour autobiography by a master storyteller and skilled comedian. Don Reed is currently reviving at Berkeley's The Marsh his much-touted, critically acclaimed East 14th, a solo show that has played in past years at both at The Marsh and on New York stages and has even been heard in excerpts on NPR. The one-man writer, performer, producer, and director joyfully and playfully walks us through the journey from his unique childhood of prostitutes and pimps to later become both a star and executive of television as well as the first African-American comic to be a warm-up for a major late-night show (over 1000 pre-show appearances for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno").
His tale of growing up introduces an entire cast of quirky characters, all of whom must be seen (through his hilarious but loving characterizations) to be believed and each of whom leaves a lasting impression on the audience. Among the twenty or so folks we meet are his mom and two contrasting dads along with his two step brothersthe jive-talking, smooth-moving Daryl (who loves his ladies and his drugs) and the disco-bumping, fancy-dressing Tony (who loves his boyfriends and his high heels). We also become acquainted with boyhood pals Waddell (who jumps and spits, talking with a lisp) and "Steak Face" (whose scrunched up face resembles a grilled T-bone)both vividly recreated in looks, actions, and voices by our narrator. Coming in and out of the story is Troutmouth, a pimp whose reverse-smile expression and high voice bring the house down.
At one point, the teenage Blinky walks into what he thinks is a party at his Dad's with the room full of strangely dressed women, one of whom "looks like a black Cher in a Pocahontas outfit." It turns out that the gathering is "an employee meeting," he tells us with twinkling eyes and a laugh totally contagious.
On and on come the participants of his memory parade, and each is portrayed with unique stance, expressions, language, and voice in ways that have helped Don Reed accumulate a nation-wide following of avid fans. While many of those who passed through his earlier life might at first glance be labeled by the general society as outcasts, no-goods, and even criminals, for Don Reed they were family and community. His vivid portrayals of each help us to understand that behind the drug-and-drink-infused partying, the street-walking, and/or the petty crimes, there was a lot of genuine caring, protecting, and life-lesson teaching going on when it came to their looking out for him.
Sprinkled throughout his telling are songs and dance moves from the 1970ssome familiar and some created for this show. Mr. Reed delivers the era-setters with ease to the evident enjoyment of the audience, many of whom moved to the sung music with rhythms full of their own memories and souls. (The original music for the show was created by the performer in conjunction with Don Harrison Taylor.)
Many images, voices, and impressions surely remain with each member exiting from this outstanding tour de force performance. But the one I will never forget is a teenage boy with a preened, butter-filled do getting ready to impress the girls on Lake Merritt just as a swarm of flies and gnats decide his head is suppertime. That story and all its performed visuals are reason enough to get a ticket today to see Don Reed's East 14th at Berkeley's The Marsh.
East 14th continues in an extended run through August 21, 2016, Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m., at The Marsh Berkeley Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415-282, 3055, Monday Friday, 1 4 p.m.