In the middle of Robert Townsend’s one-man show, “Living the Shuffle,” audience members don’t even pause to think about how this series of incredulous stories managed to surface — they are too occupied holding their stomachs from laughter. Once audiences are given a moment to rest, however, they realize that Townsend can definitely tell a joke.
It’s not primarily jokes that give Townsend’s smile a sparkle. He’s a connoisseur in all areas, and his solo act at The Marsh Berkeley demonstrates the amazing range he possesses. In the show, audiences are blasted through Townsend’s life story as he showcases significant, character-building moments through a series of vignettes. Townsend incites reactions of awe and ponderance as he dominates the empty stage, performing vivid reenactments and impersonations of experiences he’s had in his filmmaking career. Through these revitalizations, Townsend brings viewers into his past, allowing them to see life from his perspective.
Townsend has perfected the onstage tempo of “Living the Shuffle,” evenly shuffling through the countless adventures with a performative ease. This style and grace makes the play flow smoothly, leaving onlookers on the edge of their seats by creating a collective atmosphere that feels as if everyone is participating in the same conversation. It is not an exaggeration to say that Townsend’s natural gift for speaking makes everybody listen.
Townsend decodes his essence as an artist and how it’s deeply ingrained in his everyday walk — from stealing Shakespeare records from the library to crafting his own film without the controversial influence of white Hollywood, meeting Frank Sinatra at a dinner with mafia members to finally climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Townsend reveals the vulnerable tribulations of being a Black actor in Hollywood from 30 years ago to now; his experience is all the more relevant and applicable today. “Living the Shuffle” is an influential testimony to how far he’s come, from the dangerous West Side of Chicago in the 1950s, drawing from the many lessons he’s learned along the way.
In the play, we see how Townsend has developed his goals as a creator to continue filling the world with positive images of people of color, a manner in which he has invariably “looked at (his) life through movies and TV shows.” This play is an encouraging reminder to younger viewers who are pursuing the arts that as much as it is beneficial to collaborate, you are also your own independent inventor.
When Townsend realized the barriers to his artistic freedom, such as some white directors, as he said, “needing n——,” he risked spending $100,000 to make his film “Hollywood Shuffle,” which ended up earning more than $5 million. Townsend isn’t trying to say that it’s wise to rack up credit card debt. Instead, he urges his spectators, as mentioned in his aftershow Q&A, to sculpt one’s own path and take the initiative to change the game. “Living the Shuffle” isn’t purely for entertainment; it is a possible wake-up call for those that are, as Townsend explains, “stuck in the mud.”
During the escapades about his rise to fame and the boisterous Hollywood life that ensued, Townsend recalls how relationships can enrich one’s life. He opens up his life with the crowd, metaphorically inviting them onstage to see his built-up perspective over the decades. It’s clear that Townsend is using his deserved platform not only to exhibit the value of representation in art, but also to introduce a fascinating personal memoir, one that gives an astonishing answer to the question: “What advice would you give to someone my age?”
Cameron Opartkiettikul covers theater. Contact him at [email protected].