Throughout the 90 consecutive minutes of Hollywood pioneer Robert Townsend’s autobiographical one-man show “Living the Shuffle,” it’s easy to see that in every way possible, he is a complete product of his environment. Nicknamed “TV Guide” as a young kid because of his obsession with every ounce of late 1960s television, Townsend carved a path that didn’t exist for a black artist who is equal parts comedian, classically-trained actor, filmmaker and producer.
In the world premiere of the show, now extended through Dec. 15th at the Marsh in Berkeley, Townsend, who also directed the show and co-produced with Don Reed, gives a performance that is deeply personal and exquisitely nuanced. Working with some of the greatest comedians at the peak of their powers, writing and producing a film funded by his own personal line of credit and creating agency for himself and fellow black performers all came from lessons he learned in his 62 years on earth.
Those lessons started with his mother, who ensured that he had a strong, spiritual background as he found his calling, doing everything he could to stand out in impossible situations. A bathroom became his incubator and theatre, a place he found respite while violence laid thick throughout the rest of the apartment.
His life education continued on the streets of West Chicago, when a basketball game with a few of the leaders of a street gang taught him how perilous and precious life is for a young black man. In a moment that has taken so many young lives, Townsend was able to find an escape due to a violent ally who appreciated his silky-smooth jump shot.
The truths he collects and shares are where the strength of the show lies. Consider his moment in the 1979 film “The Warriors,” one of Townsend’s earliest breaks, when he randomly stood guard over an actor’s body on set, which led him to a bigger role and a few more bucks. And in a huge moment after hearing some incredibly sage advice at a church service, he landed a commercial for Pepsi, moving up a row each time all because he committed to just having fun. For a broke young actor, an advancement of rows in that commercial meant a bigger paycheck, and booking a national gig with residuals kept him alive.
The journey of Townsend makes for a very poignant, wildly fun and hilarious show, with some sublime moments mixed in throughout (Townsend performing Shakespeare at a pimp convention and his full-on re-creation is wonderful). His trek through Hollywood is one that faces so many artists of color. How many auditions for gang bangers, pimps, murderers and maids does a brown or black face have to take just to have a career in movies and television?
For Townsend, one too many. And when he realized that he had heard from enough white directors trying to teach him how to act black, he and friend Keenen Ivory Wayans did something about it, creating art on their terms. That moment of agency led to his 1987 breakout film “Hollywood Shuffle.”
Townsend the artist is equaled by Townsend the man, and those discoveries of the latter are what gives the piece its heart and substance. While the chosen music does a bit too much to place the literal in the minds of the audience, so many moments peel back the perceived glitz of marrying in Hollywood. Townsend is no different than the divorced dad who feels the pressure of being the joyous master of revels every other weekend. But in this moment, when the goodbyes become a little bit further away after every visit, we learn that Townsend’s tears sting like any other divorcee, and his loneliness is deafening.
The piece is not always structured with a consistent theme, which can make what the audience processes a bit muddled. But in another way, it makes sense. Townsend is one of those entertainers that means something specific to multiple generations, and he has gone on to create a wealth of rich, luminous content in his storied career.
One of the funniest stories in the piece is when he learned that Frank Sinatra loved his film ‘The Five Heartbeats” and wanted him as a special guest at his birthday party. The evening was something straight out of 1970s Las Vegas, complete with Townsend awkwardly sitting at a table full of wise guys, who talked about all the different “businesses” they were involved with. The evening wouldn’t be complete without a full-blown roasting of Townsend at the hands of Don Rickles himself, a moment that furthered Townsend’s education about stardom.
Townsend has worked with everyone, and his thrilling Hollywood shuffle is still going strong. But through all of the stars and celebrities who have called Townsend a collaborator or friend, it just might be Ol’ Blue Eyes that he has the most in common with.
Like Sinatra, Robert Townsend has done it, and continues to do it, his way.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Marsh presents “Living the Shuffle”
Written, performed and directed by Robert Townsend
The Word: Few come more compelling than Robert Townsend, and his trek through Hollywood is loaded with lots of joy and heart.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
The Marsh Berkeley
2120 Alston Way
Through Dec. 15th
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $25 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 282-3055 or visit www.themarsh.org