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Beate Hein Bennett

Choose to Live…
“I Just Want To Tell Somebody”
Ronald “Smokey” Stevens

Jan. 6 – Jan. 23, 2022

Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at E. 10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thurs.—Sat. at 8 PM, Sun. at 3 PM
$18 gen. adm. $15 seniors & students;
Box Office 212-254-1109 or www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett January 8, 2022

Smokey Stevens in "I Just Want To Tell Somebody" at Theater for the New City

When live theater is in as precarious a situation as it is now, given the mercurial COVID-Omicron, the actors and theatres offering live performances safely to audiences hungry for life experiences in communal settings deserve applause. The audience last night in TNC’s downstairs Cabaret space demonstrated their appreciation with enthusiastic clapping. And it was well deserved! Ronald “Smokey” Stevens gave a hair-raising tour de force performance of his autobiographical one-man play “I Just Want to Tell Somebody” that follows his fabulous rise as a Black performer/actor on stage and screen to his cocaine driven fall into oblivion, even prison, and his ultimate recovery due to his basic will to live and his spiritual regeneration. The play is structured as a confessional memoir following specific markers in his career and his life. Historic video clips of his performances, projected against a back screen, illustrate his stage, film, and TV highlights, such as dancing with Charles “Honi” Coles in “Bubbling Brown Sugar”, in the “The Wiz” with Michael Jackson, “The Cotton Club”, and a TV appearance with Lucille Ball, and his own musical “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A” that evoked the 1920s Black vaudeville troupes.

Smokey Stevens and Lucille Ball in Bob Hope Special at Pantages Theater in Los Angeles (1977).
...and as D-MAN, his nemesis, in "I Just Want To Tell Somebody."

From his first entrance, Mr. Stevens, tall and handsome, dressed in a patterned gold brocade vest and black pants, fills the small space. He is full of panache, grace and elegance. Entering with a cell phone, we hear him briefly talk to a delayed interviewer, and negotiate for a job— sure enough, he breaks into song and dance: “I need a job” (his own composition) while smoothly “moon” walking towards what may be a full-length mirror on stage left, performing or rehearsing to himself a classic music hall dance routine (in profile to the audience). Then suddenly his alter ego, his nemesis, the D-Man, breaks into his joyous performance. It is his inner fiend who lured him into cocaine addiction when he was a young rising star. What follows is a brilliantly executed presentation of his double life-- that of a successful musical theater and film actor alternating in a terrible verbal combat with his drug addiction, played as a cruel “truth” talking demon, the D-Man. Mr. Stevens snaps in and out of these two characterizations with clearly differentiated facial and body expressions, from being the charming suave performer rising from one triumph to the next to being the snake-like demon that undermines his sense of existential control by harping on his fears.

"Smokey" Stevens in
"Bubbling Brown Sugar"
"Smokey" Stevens and Joyce Silvester
in "Inacent Black."

Stephen Byrd’s clear direction and his design of the small space as a cross between a living room and a dressing room support the performance organically. He balances the moments of introspection with moments of direct audience address by deftly pacing scenes that demand different tonalities and creating the arc of ascent, descent, and resolution. Alexander Bartenieff’s lighting design beautifully augments and clarifies the separate moods demanded by the dual action of “Smokey” as performer and person and “Smokey” as the cocaine fiend. Larry Law’s Audio & Visual Media Design, David “Oggie” Ogburn’s Digital Photo Design, and M. Anthony “Tony” Green’s haunting D-Man Sound Design, all add valuable documentation.

Smokey Stevens (L) and The Crows
in "The Wiz" (film).

While the play, adapted by Mr. Stevens from his autobiographical novel, focuses on his own trajectory, it encompasses many of the highlights of Black musical theatre as it emerged with great popular success on Broadway and through national and international touring companies, in film and television, beginning in the late 60s and throughout the 80s into the 90s before once again being eclipsed in the large Broadway venues by popular successes with largely white artists for largely white audiences. (The Black Lives Matter movement may change all this again due to greater pressure towards diverse casting.) However, Mr. Stevens gives in his production prime testimony to the tremendous artistry that burst forth in this period, and that celebrated and built on the rich traditions of African American music, humor, dance, and narrative from the earliest times, especially the 20s and 30s—also thanks to such pioneering Black producer/directors as Woodie King Jr., founder of the New Federal Theatre (1970), and Robert Hooks, co-founder of The Negro Ensemble Company (1967) and founder of the D.C. Black Repertory Company (1971), and the late Broadway producer Ashton Springer, all of whom Mr. Stevens acknowledges in his show and in his program notes to have been critically supportive at different points in his career. In fact, “Smokey” Stevens in his one-man/two character show artfully embodies and honors the fervor, the zest, the life-force, and the demons—which have driven and haunted so many of his fellow performers.

Rudy Roberson, Smokey Stevens and Sandra Reeves Philipps in Stevens' own musical "Rollin' on the T.O.B.A."



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