TheatreFIRST made history Saturday night at Berkeley’s Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory with the opening of Skyler Cooper’s “A One Man Show,” one of two shows that are part of TheatreFIRST’s first annual “Queer Voices in Rep” event. The repertory seeks to highlight queer voices in theater, and TheatreFIRST has committed to putting on an honorary repertory every year, this year’s programming titled “History Keeps Me Awake.”
“A One Man Show” is what it says on the tin, and yet it was so much more. Perhaps the thought of a single performer telling their life story seems like it might be at risk of occasional lulls, but there isn’t a moment in Cooper’s show that isn’t exciting, heartbreaking or simply thrilling in the myriad ways his performance evokes emotion.
It doesn’t hurt that Cooper has lead a deeply felt life, offering audiences a narrative that is so rarely acted out onstage: that of a Black transgender man who is also a veteran, actor, writer, filmmaker and, at one point, even a bodybuilder. Audiences may in fact already know Cooper from his award-winning directorial debut, “Hero Mars.” That, or one of his many, many other endeavors as a performer and creator.
In the small, intimate setting of the Waterfront Playhouse, all the cards are in place for Cooper to not only bid audiences to bear witness to his narrative, but also to bid them to engage with it. If something in the show elicited verbal responses from the audience, Cooper responded back, which made some parts of the night feel like a conversation. His show even calls, at one point, for an audience volunteer. Still, it’s very much, and fittingly, Cooper’s show.
That said, “A One Man Show” is far from being about an hour of a man standing onstage and simply recounting his autobiography. Several different props help the stories that Cooper tells come to life; hats distinguish different characters from one another, simple outfit changes set the scene as Cooper shifts into another story. Music and lighting changes are critical for setting the scene as well.
Particularly innovative and clever is the use of image and video projections behind Cooper as he speaks, the presentation including family photographs and footage from various television series Cooper watched as a child. While certainly not the foundation of the show, these supplements go a long way toward helping audiences visualize Cooper’s story for themselves.
One notable use of multimedia supplements is an instance in which Cooper has an onstage back-and-forth with a recorded voice. This technique is only used once, which draws attention to the emotional significance of this moment; were it used more often, the idea of a “one man show” might be at risk. Instead, its isolation is a testament to the innovation behind this production. Cooper knows exactly when to “decorate” his performance and when to let his onstage presence be enough to convey that which he seeks to convey.
It wouldn’t do to not recognize the astounding merits of Cooper as a performer, who so seamlessly goes from acting as his mother to acting as his best friend to acting as himself, then to himself but in a different sentiment. It is impressive to be able to tell one’s own story in such a multifaceted way, sentimental yet unabashedly bold.
In the creator’s note to “A One Man Show” included in the repertory program, Cooper admits to feeling uncertainty about this production because he didn’t know how important his story was in the “grand scheme of things.” To see the performance, however, is to see exactly why it is so important — because it is allowed to happen, but also because with this show, Cooper has once again proved himself to be a queer visionary.