If “A Brown Tale,” James T. Alfred’s one-person show about growing up in the projects in Chicago, has poignancy and pathos, they are side effects of its rollicking humor.
The show, which feels like a confessional stand-up comedy set, premiered Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St Paul. It is hysterically funny.
Developed over the past 15 years, “A Brown Tale” is a demonstration of the power of imagination by someone who grew up in material privation. Directed by Lou Bellamy to maximize the humor even as the characters retain their dignity, this ‘Tale’ is an act of translation for middle-class theater audiences.
It is told with inviting heart and understanding even if some of the stories seem too crazy to have happened. Alfred deftly delivers us into a world of surreal absurdities. The 16-story building that he lived in was a community where people would communicate through the windows, borrowing some sugar or a stick of butter.
There were other places in the neighborhood that helped shape him. There was the recreational center that was lorded over by a stern disciplinarian and black nationalist who taught young men to honor young women and would comb the hair of some scraggly-looking kid. There was the corner store that the kids would bum-rush after school, sending its owner into hysterics. There was the church where the pastor took up 12 collections, one for each disciple.
Using gestures, vocal shifts and buttery dance moves set to the music of James Brown, Alfred cleanly limns the characters in his early life. The show is noteworthy for the talent he displays. Sure, he knows these people like the back of his hand. But he also has the skills to bring a whole community to life onstage.
The actor delivers to us his father, a profane, fleet-footed Marine who served two terms in Vietnam. We get Alfred’s uber-religious mother, who was sweetly holy even as she cussed people out. His grandmother treasured what she had, including nice towels in the bathroom that were strictly for use by guests.
Like many rooms in the house, the living room had multiple purposes, the actor tells us, noting that the furniture was encased in plastic.
Mostly, he said, it was a museum. “No one was supposed to sit on or touch the couch.”
Stories are how we organize ourselves. Ask someone who they are, and they tell you a story about the things they eat, their families, their education.
“A Brown Tale” is a collection of stories that let us marvel at Alfred, who went through so much and survived it smiling. Now, he’s looking back, and we can’t help but laugh.