Have you ever found yourself battling a case of insomnia, hypnotized by the glow of the boob tube, when suddenly you see a commercial for a stage show with a catchy title and a playwright you've never heard of? The show appears to involve comedy, about 15 musical numbers, a bit of romance, and a cast list that looks like the elephant graveyard of out-of-work black sitcom stars.
Having seen one of these spots, do you ask yourself, "What in the holy heck was it that I just saw?" Relax, you didn't dream it, and what your bleary eyes were seeing was simply a modern spin on a century-old tradition, a testament to the fact that regional theater is alive and well and living in places like Detroit's venerable Music Hall.
My Sweet Potato Pie is a new play rolling into town that chronicles the ups and downs of a tight-knit African-American community, held together by the love of matriarch Beulah Mae Jenkins and the gooey, delicious pies she serves at her diner. Employing the old "more stars than there are in heaven" tactic, My Sweet Potato Pie's roster is expansive and stocked floor-to-ceiling with names both famous and vaguely familiar. The lineup is highlighted by R&B sensation Ginuwine, who gets in on the action when his tour bus breaks down in front of Beulah's place after one bite of that lip-smacking pie, he never wants to leave. (No really, we can't make this stuff up.) The play also features actress and comedian Kym Whitley, who had a role on the long-running sitcom The Parkers and Terry J. Vaughn from The Steve Harvey Show.
The brash and bawdy Beulah is played by Laura Hayes, also known as "Ms. Laura," who was an Original Queens of Comedy member. She also did a tour of duty as Cedric the Entertainer's sidekick on his popular BET comedy series. Also on hand is a familiar face to WB and UPN mavens: John Henton, who appeared in the holy trinity of urban sitcoms, The Parkers, The Hughleys and Living Single.
All of this is well and good, but there is one name that practically jumps off the marquee, a titan short in height but towering in stature: the immortal Sherman Hemsley.
That's right; George Freaking Jefferson is in the house. With a CV that includes such landmarks as All In The Family, The Jeffersons and Amen, he's become a household name and a beloved TV icon to generations of fans of every stripe, even the folks laundry king George Jefferson once called "honkies." Specializing in irascible curmudgeons, Hemsley knows how to milk every last conceivable laugh out of a putdown or a raised eyebrow, and should have the crowds at the Music Hall busting a gut. In Pie, Hemsley gives a heartwarming performance as Bucket T. Wellington Esq. described in the play's literature as "a ghetto-fabulous lawyer" who dispenses advice and wisecracks Fonzie-style from his "office," which doubles as a booth in the restaurant.
No one will mistake this material for Ibsen, but that's not the point. Plays like this one are an evolution of the old Southern and inner-city "chitlin circuit," which emerged as a counterpoint to minstrel shows and stood out as entertainment created by African-American performers. The plays were designed for maximum entertainment value, blending styles and genres into a new kind of distinct theatrical gumbo. Such modern classics as One Monkey Don't Stop No Show and Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God have kept the form alive, though with plenty of modern attitude and fashion.
These shows are often far below the mainstream radar, but they're big business, with stunning successes that might shock the stiff upper lips of the "legitimate" stage into dropping their double-skim mocha lattes.
The poster boy for what Ebony magazine more demurely refers to as "the urban theater circuit" is Tyler Perry, who has created an ever-expanding media empire from his series of plays (and movies) about a sassy, pistol-packing grandmother named Madea. Perry may be scorned for lowbrow humor and coarse stereotypes, but he is also adored by vast legions. Even his greatest detractors can't argue with his numbers; to date, the box office and DVD receipts for his plays have reportedly totaled $75 million nationwide. Such massive success tends to create a ripple effect, and, as the old saying goes, "a rising tide lifts all boats." For good or ill, the attention Perry receives can't really hurt people like Angela Barrow-Dunlap (the writer-producer-director behind My Sweet Potato Pie), and more than likely it helps draw in new audiences. Of course, once you get an audience, you have to entertain it. And that's what live theater experiences like this aim one to do, in a refreshing and unique way. Besides, if you don't go check this out, Sherman Hemsley may be forced to start doing Surreal Life reunion shows, and we can't let it come to that.
Tuesday, May 2, to Sunday, May 7, at the Music Hall, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit; 313-887-8501.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org