I Just Want to Tell Somebody – A Return Engagement of Noteworthy Theater
I reviewed this excellent piece in 2022. It had an unfortunately short run and is being given a second chance. Recommended.
Ronald “Smokey” Stevens’ one man tell-all is worth the trip downtown. The Washington, D.C. born artist, who began performing at his mother’s card parties at age ten, is a multi-talented thespian with a helluva history. Stevens sings, moves like a Motown star, regales us with history and anecdotes and runs film clips from past work. The actor is a dandy; but intermittent descriptions of costume/physicality are immensely evocative. We ostensibly meet as he’s preparing for a show.
This is not another and-then-I-performed-in piece. Throughout, the protagonist confronts a sinister, seductive, perpetually high alter ego he calls D-Man (demon) representing his drug addiction. “I met you when you had your first drink, cigarette and weed. We go waaay back,” the cocky intruder hisses.
D-Man is marvelously manifest – physically curled in on himself, gimlet-eyed, spacey, with a growl and snake-like sss in his voice. Transitions between the two are seamless. “You back cause you know I’m about to do my show,” the hero says accusingly to D-Man. In order to be left alone, he makes a deal to include the character in his story.
We hear about Stevens’ trajectory from classical repertory theater (the DC repertory company founded by Robert Hooks) to dancing – lithe and young – in a Chevrolet commercial, backing up Vivien Reed and – wait for it – Lucille Ball, roles in films like The Cotton Club and The Wiz as well as half a dozen musicals. Friendships with the generous Charles Honi Coles (tap dancer extraordinaire) and initially snobby singer/dance band leader Cab Callaway of “Hi-De-Ho” fame (the first African American musician to sell a million records) feature.
D-Man regularly interrupts, pointing out omission of drug indulgence, primarily cocaine, and consequences the raconteur fails to mention. Many over time culminate in all encompassing loss. He tempts and disparages his victim sure of tonight’s outcome. “My batting average for destroyed souls is very high,” the presence comments sniggering.
Chorus jobs precede garnering the lead in successive mountings of Bubbling Brown Sugar – here and abroad – for years and finally Stevens’ own 1999 Broadway production Rollin’ On the T.O.B.A. which centers on the waning days of Black vaudeville through three African American performers. (T.O.B.A. was a nationwide theatrical entertainment circuit known as the Theater Owners Booking Association.) Though there’s mention of love interest, little is revealed but for a description of a ballerina so vivid he almost conjures her. It would be illuminating to know how pivotal women dealt with him on the roller coaster ride.
Stevens is masterfully in control, his energy level/delivery evangelical. One fears for the artist’s blood pressure. Though he glowers at incidents of falling back, most of his take is infectiously enthusiastic, often innocent and grateful.
A film I’m told he himself put together spotlights many of the entertainers we lost to overdoses as well as close-ups of viewing towards the end of the production allows it to land as a warning from someone who’s been there, not heavy handed proselytization.
I Just Want To Tell Somebody is thoroughly entertaining, Smokey Stevens a pleasure to watch. The play could successfully be cut by twenty to thirty minutes (too many unknown names for one thing) with ten minutes added back describing his state when high and perhaps what lead him inextricably back to it after respite. Both would add another dimension. Until then, this is a fine piece of storytelling in worthy hands.
Director Stephen Byrd manages to create terrific variation with one man (well, two) in a single room. Segues to music, dance, and film are smoothly integrated. D-Man is splendid.
All photos courtesy of the production.
I Just Want To Tell Somebody
Written and Performed by Ronald “Smokey” Stevens
Directed by Stephen Byrd
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue between 9th & 10th Street
June 1-18 2023