Midway through his one-man performance Living the Shuffle, writer, actor and director Robert Townsend relives an event from earlier in his career. Having just delivered an unlikely stand-up routine (vignettes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) to an even unlikelier audience (a pimp convention in NYC) an audience member, as played and relayed by Townsend, approached the actor. “You’re a one-man movie,” the pimp declared.
In the biography of Townsend’s life, the prognosis comes after his film debut but before his first self-financed project Hollywood Shuffle, a satirical look at the experience of African Americans in Hollywood, and a film which Townsend co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in. Caesar had his soothsayer, Townsend a New York pimp. One-man movie indeed.
Living the Shuffle, as written, performed and directed by Townsend, and co-produced with Don Reed, is Townsend’s 90-minute account of growing up and getting wise, sometimes making it, sometimes not, as he works his way through showbiz from childhood to the present.
Though a one-person performance, Living the Shuffle is richly peopled. Townsend delivers comforting asides and stern lectures from intimate familiars, both real and imagined. Alfred Hitchcock, James Cagney and Ed Sullivan all make appearances, not to mention Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Lassie, God and the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. I could go on.
Townsend does. Go on, that is. When Sidney Poitier makes an appearance Townsend succeeds in making the august actor appear to the audience as though he strides among them (at any rate I certainly looked around). The spotlight is shared, occasionally even ceded, to those who aren’t even in the room. There may only be one actor on the stage, but Townsend contains multitudes.
Though named, in part, after Hollywood Shuffle, Towsend’s production does not restrict itself to theater and show business (emphasis business). It explores just as much the intimate and formative characters and experiences of Townsend’s life. A teacher who encourages a young Townsend to pursue an interest in oratory. Another teacher, equally influential, who dismisses it. A childhood basketball game at a public park whose climax arrives not on the court but weeks later at a gang initiation. The shuffle is the shuffling pace of a life as it progresses. Forwards, backwards, then forwards again.
The pace of the performance doesn’t shuffle. Townsend proceeds at a merry bob from story to story, articulating dour lessons that hit their mark not with morals but with punchlines. Living the Shuffle is not a play (though Townsend is certainly having fun) but dramatic autobiography punctuated with punchlines.
The exception to Townsend’s general rule of ‘cross the finish line laughing,’ is the last line of his last monologue, delivered as the climax on a quite literal climax — in this case Mount Kilimanjaro. One gets the feeling Living the Shuffle is performative therapy for Townsend, and the audience is lucky enough to witness it.