It was a very smart idea to frame “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” African-American dramatist Don Evans’ 1980 satire of black middle-class pretensions, as a live sitcom complete with huge, red “On Air” light above the set. Too bad that helmer Dawn Walton didn’t follow through and drive the production with the energy and sitcom timing the material is begging for. Leaden pacing and lumpen transitions threaten to sap the evening’s strengths, but some glorious comic playing, especially from Jocelyn Jee Esien, keep the laughs coming.
Esien toys expertly with audiences as Myra, the Mrs. Malaprop of Philadelphia. Dressed in a Libby Watson’s perfectly pitched symphony of beige (we’re at the end of the 1970s) she assumes French affectations, lives for her garden club and intends to introduce her niece to the best people: “Reverend Thompson’s boy ain’t too dark.”
That line triggers a gasp in the audience while other more extreme ones raise big laughs, not least Myra’s horrified reaction to discovering a 70s bible in her house. No, not the religious one, the 70s publishing sensation “The Joy Of Sex.” Finding it lurking beneath her perfectly plumped cushion, she staggers and cries, “Lord, I wish I was white so I could faint.”
That book’s presence is symptomatic of everyone’s behavior, since almost all members of Myra’s family are falling inappropriately in love and/or lust. But as the one-liners indicate, beneath the farcical surface Evans is launching an attack on the manners and mores of urban black lives at a pivotal point in the power and representation of African-American lives, four years before “The Cosby Show” was born.
Given all that, it is puzzling that Walton doesn’t direct the material accordingly. The script works via broad comic situations and speedy one-liners, not Chekhovian subtext. But more than one scene, and almost all the monologues which are interleaved between scenes, lose their verve because they’re played so earnestly with actors pausing for subtext that isn’t there.
Clifford Samuel has charismatic swagger as manipulative, club-owning Caleb, who has the hots for the young woman to whom he’s supposed to be a guardian, but it’s mostly the women who steal the show. Jacqueline Boatswain even offers double fun. Her rangy, laid-back beautician Mozelle cunningly aligns every sloe-eyed look and every bone in her long-legged body towards her own satisfaction. Then she’s back as an delightfully squally, gawky mother bent-double with determination.
And, as the latter’s daughter L’il Bits, Rochelle Rose, in her professional stage debut, knocks out a performance as sassy as her giant afro.
The weakest element of the production is its lack of an angle on the material. It’s extremely valid to revive this fascinating comedy, but aside from the opening cast line-up for the audience and canned applause at actors’ entrances, the “live studio performance” aspect is neglected. Thus Evans’ 1970s-era analysis of racial and gender stereotypes is presented without any attitude. Small wonder then that in the less funny passages both actors and audience look uncertain.