Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Three Men and Their Monologues

Whether a solo artist embraces a carefully-scripted approach to performance art or is comfortable enough to just get out there and "wing it" is often the measure of a performer's self confidence. With the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival in its final week of performances, I'm happy to report that two new monologues pushed the artistic bar back up where it belongs.

Not surprisingly, all three of the following performers are completely at ease in their own skin. How they choose to tell their stories takes the audience on wildly different rides -- one carefully programmed, and the other two filled with fascinating (and often hilarious) digressions.What was especially delightful to witness was how two fairly young performers developed and delivered their material to the audience and compare their performance styles to someone who is an old hand at storytelling.

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A new face in the Bay area arts scene, Rotimi Agbabiaka made his local acting debut in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's recent Posibilidad or Death of the Worker. Demonstrating an agile athleticism and solid comic timing, the 24-year-old native of Lagos, Nigeria, showed instant promise.

Agbabiaka's family moved to Katy, Texas 10 years ago, which allowed him to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin. Soon after finishing grad school at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, he headed to San Francisco where, in addition to beginning rehearsals with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, he became a member of League of Burnt Children (a queer performance and literary collective that meets at Mama Calizo's Voice Factory).

Agbabiaka's monologue, Homeless, is an auspicious debut. A performer with the muscular fluidity of a trained dancer, the nuance of a veteran actor, and a personality that audiences can't wait to embrace, Agbabiaka triumphed over a series of botched cues in the sound booth to take his opening night audience on an intensely personal journey.

Rotimi Agbabiaka (Photo by: Janna Giacoppo)

Homeless begins with Agbabiaka in an airport lounge in Central Europe (where he claims to be the only black person in Bulgaria) as he tries to decide whether to fly back to his homeland in Nigeria or return to his new life in America. His parents fully expect him to enter a profession like medicine or law, marry a good Christian woman and raise a good Christian family. They are not the slightest bit pleased about his desire to become an actor.

Rotimi's experiences in America, however, have made him wonder whether he can really call it his home.As an openly gay man, he has a lot more freedom than he might enjoy in Nigeria. However, he soon discovers that, in the eyes of others, he is often only seen as one big, tasty piece of black meat and muscle pudding..

When Agbabiaka meets a cocktail pianist who plays "Losing My Mind," he thinks he has finally found a  soulmate, someone who shares an appreciation for the depth and breadth of Stephen Sondheim's art. Instead, he meets yet another white gay man who can't look past Agbabiaka's dark skin and see that, in addition to his amazingly lithe and muscular body, there are also a fierce intellect and hungry heart waiting to be engaged.

In its present format, Homeless runs about 45 minutes. I'm pretty sure that Agbabiaka (who has studied with the Moscow Art Theatre, Bulgaria's Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory, and performed with Shakespeare at Winedale in Texas) has more than enough material up his sleeve to develop and expand his show to the point where he can be booked into venues like The Marsh or New Conservatory Theatre Center for longer runs. Whether or not he chooses to go down that path, his is a major talent that is well worth following.

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Another performer, with even a shorter act at the Fringe Festival, is an extremely congenial juggler. A martial artist since 1988, Aji worked his way to a black belt and three North American Alliance of Martial Arts national championships before running away to join the circus. To say that his parents were less than thrilled with his announcement that he "loved to play with his balls and was moving to San Francisco" would be an understatement.

Aji came to town in 2004. Three years later, he became one of the first recipients of an accredited degree in clowning in the United States. He has since toured with Ringling Brothers Circus, performed with Teatro Zinzanni, and delighted tourists at Fisherman's Wharf.

His 30-minute show, Bad Day To Be A Juggler, is a pleasant surprise for those who cringe at the juggling acts frequently seen in Las Vegas revues. Instead of merely juggling, Aji talks with the audience about what makes a person become a juggler (a certain kind of obsessive personality helps) and how juggling is one of the ultimately geeky forms of expression. Once you've seen him concentrate on stacking and unstacking a collection of plastic cups, you'll understand the curious appeal of his act.

As with Agbabiaka's show, one quickly recognizes that Aji has a fertile mind, a quick wit, and is so comfortable in his own skin that his physical ease of performance can often be taken for granted. The following trailer offers a good idea why Aji's stands out from the usual fare.

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Aji and Agbabiaka are mere babes in the wood compared to Leslie Jordan. At 55 (and with 13 years of sobriety under his belt), Jordan has had more life experience than the two of them could imagine. What makes Jordan such a wonderful entertainer is that he has such a good time dishing with an audience as he regales them with salacious stories from his lurid past.

Widely adored by audiences for his performances as Beverly Leslie (a role originally written for Joan Collins) on Will and Grace and Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, Leslie's one-act shows have been leaving people doubled over in laughter for years. The first time I saw him perform one of his monologues, I thought I might choke to death from laughing so hard. Having seen him numerous times in performance since, it's amazing how fresh his stories remain and how many new tales of trauma he keeps adding to his treasure chest.

Leslie Jordan

Appearing at the Rrazz Room through September 19, Jordan has some wonderful new material about his experiences with lesbian audiences (including one butch dyke who told him how to powder his chest so he wouldn't sweat so much on hot days and have to deal with chafing man boobs). Whether describing how he coped with the sudden onset of diarrhea just before being called onstage in New York -- or how his mother used to blame her inability to use her arm on his embarrassing behavior -- Jordan knows how to spin a tale and milk it for maximum effect.
Leslie Jordan (Photo by: Pat Johnson)
Jordan began his act describing how he had recently gotten into a fist fight in a Los Angeles restaurant. Afterwards, he was so ashamed about losing his temper that he felt he could never go back to the restaurant ever again -- until the staff called him and told him that he was their hero. His stories about show business personalities like Lily Tomlin, Rue McClanahan, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Megan Mullaly are choice material.

Although Jordan's act may vary dramatically (depending on what kind of mood he's in and which stories he chooses to tell), I doubt anyone would ever complain. The man knows how to dish the dirt with the best of them and continues to delight audiences every night.

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