Review: A Brown Tale
By Perry Tannenbaum
Notwithstanding the lingering leeriness I feel about going to see them, one-person shows can be memorable and truly special. Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Frank Gorshin’s Say Goodnight, Gracie and Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short stand out as the best that I’ve seen by men, while I’d point to Julie Harris’s Belle of Amherst, Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Tova Feldshuh’s Golda’s Balcony as the best by women – plus two more at Spoleto this year, Avital Lvova’s Angel and Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor.
Well, all of those stellar performers need to make some room for James T. Alfred, who has written and is currently performing A Brown Tale at Spirit Square. The OnQ Performing Arts production, directed by Lou Bellamy, runs through September 23, and you need to catch it or miss perhaps the funniest one-person show I’ve ever seen.
Quinn’s tour-de-force is the only show I can remember that was as howlingly hilarious as Brown Tale, but Alfred may deserve the edge because Quinn took all of human history for his subject while Alfred confines himself to his own life. Unless you saw Alfred starring as Martin Luther King in a touring production of The Mountaintop at Booth Playhouse in 2014, you might not even recognize his name.
I had interviewed Alfred for a Mountaintop preview feature three years ago, but while it was clear that the actor was closely acquainted with the playwright who penned that Olivier Award-winning script, there was never a hint that he himself was a writer. Alfred’s admiration for Bellamy certainly came through, and the esteem must be mutual, since Alfred is a permanent member of the Penumbra Theatre, the great African American theatre company founded by Bellamy in 1976 in St. Paul.
So aside from MLK, the Penumbra connection ensures that Alfred’s past credits include a swath of August Wilson plays, not exactly a harbinger of the rich array of broad physical comedy that A Brown Tale offers. Speaking to Alfred a few years ago, I got the word that he was currently based in Chicago. His performance at Duke Energy Theater shows that he and Chicago go back a long way, most memorably during years living with his grandma in the projects.
We get to hear about how déclassé the high-rise projects were compared to the equally humble squat dwellings that surrounded them. But the most amusing comparisons began at the top of the show when Alfred introduced us to his very rightfully estranged parents. Mom was a devout churchgoing Christian, while Dad was a spawn of Satan and emulator of James Brown – plus a hypochondriacal DJ forever questing after VA compensation for his PTSD.
What must have united them, for the short time it took to conceive James, were their foul mouths. Mom was the rare phenomenon of a cursing Christian, and Dad couldn’t finish a sentence with punctuating it with an expletive.
More daring comparisons occurred later after Alfred went to college, where we get the inside scoop on the difference between getting over on black women and picking up whites. A parallel episode, with greater scope for mimicry and physical comedy, subsequently compares the service we can expect at a black-staffed McDonald’s and what we routinely encounter in a “pink” neighborhood McD’s. Probably not material a white performer could get away with, which adds to the zest.
Alfred isn’t always going for the funny bone. There are segments about the neighborhood candy store, the local Boys & Girls Club, local schools, and the annual rite of shopping for new school clothes for the new school year. You get a hint of warmth in these vignettes, particularly when Alfred recalls how neighbors in the projects kept an eye out for the welfare of each other’s kids, and he spills over into anger recalling the politics that killed family life in the projects.
Three extended scenes are at the heart of A Brown Tale and why you’ll enjoy it. The first is a colorful travelogue taking you room-by-room through a project apartment, beginning with the daily conversion of the kitchen into a hair salon. Our end point is Alfred’s initiation into the world of substitute teaching – taking over a special education class that’s off in an annex separated from the main building of an elementary school.
But the greatest crowdpleaser last Friday night was clearly the evocation of a Sunday church service, with cameos from the preacher, the choir director, and a church elder, plus a coda on Christian dating. The highlight here was the elder’s testimony, beginning in subdued awkwardness and ramping up to a frenzied climax of shouting, high-stepping righteousness, sprinkled with some babbling in tongues.
It can’t be easy to walk the tightrope between crude mockery and hilarious gusto when you’re onstage evoking an impoverished special needs child or an ecstatic churchgoer bathed in the Blood of the Lamb. You need to be able to trust an objective pair of eyes watching you perform and sculpting a scene. Clearly, Alfred and Bellamy are a very special team that’s able to hit exactly the right tone, and we’re very lucky that OnQ brought them here so we can cherish their masterful teamwork.