Don Reed’s ‘East 14th’ pays tribute to Oakland, flashy father who raised him

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Don Reed provides his own entry music.  

It’s an exuberant, ‘70s style tune that accompanies his slow motion walk into the center of the stage at The Marsh in Downtown Berkeley. The series of “oohs,” “aahs” and claps sound like a jaunty sitcom transition, all of which comes from Reed’s own mouth, the result of his uncanny knack for imitation and music-making.

For the next two hours of his one-man show, comedian Don Reed is on his own as he tells the tale of his coming-of-age in 1970s Oakland, caught between his strict Jehovah’s Witness stepfather and his glamorous, literal pimp daddy. Yet “East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player” never feels lonely as Reed easily inhabits all the roles of a sprawling cast of Oakland residents, scrunching his malleable face and adjusting his swaggering walk to play pimps, brothers, prostitutes and friends.

At young Donny’s mother and stepfather’s house, there is no Christmas, no birthdays, no partying, no harmless biodegradable littering, definitely no sex and a lot of waking up at 7 a.m. to go door to door and spread the word of God to a sleepy and unenthusiastic world.

His dad’s house on the other hand, is in a constant state of revelry. Christmas is celebrated with whatever charming, makeshift glass or string construction his dad can think up, beautiful women are everywhere and sons are encouraged to be exactly who they are.

This tale of two dads is personified by the two chairs that make up the totality of the play’s set design. One is a plain wooden chair and represents Reed’s mother’s home with its stark, harsh white lighting. The other is a plush, red velvet throne, and when Reed is at his father’s house, the lighting is a seedy, pulsating orange.

Tired of his rigid, celibate, proselytizing life and of knocking on the doors of classmates and crushes at 7 a.m. with no hope of Christmas on the horizon, Reed calls up his dad and asks to move in.

On the sleazier side of East 14th Street, Reed is welcomed by his charismatic, bongo-playing, white-cape-donning father, and by his two brothers. There’s ladies man and general fuckboy Darrell and wildly flamboyant and skilled-in-street-brawls Tony. Initially, Reed is unaware that his father is a pimp. “I just thought he was really into hats,” he says. It is at his dad’s house that Reed — an awkward, nerdy teenager with an uncool hairdo and a blinking tic that earns him the nickname “Blinky” — has his first sexual encounters, learns to dance, begins to blink less and works his way toward a college education his illiterate father dreamed for him.

“East 14th” is a touch overlong and relies far more on funny faces than the written quality of jokes. The best moments come when Reed, perpetually on the verge of dance, gives into his own internal music. His detailed descriptions of ‘70s disco outfits are also sublime. The worst are when Reed lays out the theme of the show like a Sparknotes page, announcing how exactly East 14th Street shaped him, rather than letting the effective story speak for itself.

Aided by the smallness of The Marsh’s stage, the show often carries the intimacy of a charismatic friend enthralling a dinner party with an anecdote, but with the same “you had to be there” quality of a joke that is funny in concept but doesn’t quite make you laugh. The effort behind the jokes is evident, like seeing the strings on a trapeze artist, and many moments lack the effortlessness of the best comedy.

That said, what emerges from this sometimes uneven play is a touching portrait of a father.

Of course, his dad, and the show, do not treat women especially well, as they serve primarily as opportunities for sex. Reed made a point to shout out MISSSEY, an organization that provides aid to sexually exploited youth, at the end of his show.

But to his sons, Reed’s dad is big-hearted and accepting, encouraging Tony to embrace his queerness and Reed to pursue his bright academic future. He is an indomitable force of hat-wearing and holiday inventiveness, the kind of man who gets Reed to do chores by teaching him a “waxing” dance. “East 14th” is a fitting, energetic, foul-mouthed eulogy to this Oakland pimp and a love letter to this Oakland street.

“East 14th” will return for an extended run at the Marsh in Berkeley until Oct. 2.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.