The actor, comedian, and filmmaker brings Living the Shuffle back to the Marsh.
Robert Townsend’s seminal 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle, a satirical take on Black movie stereotypes as seen through the eyes of a Black actor, helped launch a wave of Black-themed indie cinema. Self-financed with Townsend’s credit cards to the tune of $60,000 (it grossed $5 million) and starring the actor/comedian, it also transformed Townsend’s career as he began to direct films such as Eddie Murphy’s first concert foray, Eddie Murphy Raw, as well as The Five Heartbeats and Meteor Man. He’s also co-created TV shows like The Parent ‘Hood. Heck, he even ran a TV network, The Black Family Channel, in the 2000s. And he did it all without ever stepping foot in a film school. But with all the success he’s had behind the scenes, Townsend, who cut his teeth as a young stand-up comedian in New York in the 1970s, found himself itching to get back on stage. The result of scratching that itch is his one-man show about his incomparable journey appropriately titled Living the Shuffle that debuted at the Berkeley Marsh last fall. Now he’s back for round two of the critically acclaimed show, also at the Marsh. Inspired by his verve, I caught up with Townsend recently for this farewell “Kilduff File” in The Monthly before it migrates to Oakland and Alameda magazines, to see if any of his creative mojo would rub off on me. I think maybe it did. I’ll let you know.
Paul Kilduff: You said you weren’t really sure if you wanted to take your show out on the road, but you’re coming back to Berkeley to perform it again. Why?
Robert Townsend: I am just having so much fun. It’s funny because I wear so many different hats. I’m directing, writing, producing, so I’ve got all these different things that I’m doing, but I hadn’t performed in a long time on stage. And I got to tell you, I just started to have a lot of fun, and the show starts to tell you what it is. So I have an idea in my head. I want to do this and I want to do that. And then you can hear the audience and then you can feel certain things. And so I was thinking about what I wanted to do when Ishmael Reed came to the show. And we had breakfast and we were talking and he really inspired me. He was, “I want to give you a tour of Oakland, and I want to share with you these stories in Berkeley.” And so then we struck a friendship up and I said, “You know what? I’m going to come back up.”
PK: It’s been called “performative therapy” for you. Agree?
RT: Well, I would say, yeah. Here’s the thing: Real artists like Richard Pryor are my hero. And Richard bared his soul and I think you share real truth. And I think with my show, I share real truth. And sometimes after the show people go, “Oh, my god, Robert, you spoke to me. I identify. I was crying because that’s how I feel.” And so I think as an artist I share my journey as a man — the good, the bad, the ugly. But I think there’s a healing because people come up to me and I say, “Wow, man, after your show, it made me look at my life,” which is a beautiful thing. And I think that’s the reason I wanted to do this show. To say, “Hey, life can have its twists and turns but in the end, everything will be OK, and everything happens for a reason. There are no mistakes.”
PK: You’ve been described as one of the godfathers of independent film. What does that mean exactly?
RT: It’s so funny because there are so many filmmakers that were inspired when they read about my journey. A lot of people come up to me and say, “You made me want to be a filmmaker. You made me want to create. You made me want to take a chance.”
PK: How important is critical acclaim versus the film is doing well at the box office?
RT: It’s interesting because sometimes critics really understand the intention of the movie and they get what you are doing, and then sometimes, they don’t really get it. It’s funny, having my one-man show reviewed, people said some things, and I said, “Oh, OK, that does make sense. I could work on that.” One critic, she sent the review and said, “Well, Robert needs to work on this and this and this.” I was, “I agree.” And I just think that you’ve got to get the word out and it’s beautiful for somebody to look at your art and say, “Hey, I saw this; I saw that. I missed this; I want more of that.”
PK: Netflix has a new documentary series out now following Kevin Hart around — very revealing show — and in it he talks about the negative critical reaction to his first film and how he doesn’t care. All he cares about is the gross and the audience reaction.
RT: I saw the thing with Kevin Hart and I thought it was really beautiful and he was very transparent. The critics had their opinion of the film, but again, you got to put everything in context. It was the first film he had ever produced. So he is learning, you know what I’m saying? So there were certain things that probably worked and certain things that didn’t work.
PK: Hart said that he sent the writer of an especially critical review an $8,000 bottle of wine.
RT: Well, it sounds like the critic made out the best. He got an $8,000 bottle of wine, OK.
PK: I’m thinking I need to start writing some negative reviews of Kevin Hart’s performances.
RT: Oh, my God, that’s funny.
PK: Are roles less stereotypical for African Americans today than when you got started?
RT: I would say yes. It’s a funny thing because somebody asked me about making Hollywood Shuffle now — it’s a different time. Because, when we were doing Hollywood Shuffle there were no real images of people of color. They were limited to stereotypical roles. But now you can see doctors, lawyers, businessmen, executives on TV, and there’s a bunch of channels. There’s a lot of content, and there’s a lot of people of color in really key roles or stars of the shows. So it’s a different time. I mean, do we still have the shows that are shot in Coon-o-Rama? That’s what I call it. There are some shows that are very shucking and jiving and stereotypes. So, there are some, but people now can see a doctor on television, can see a judge. We didn’t have that before.
Got an idea for The Kilduff File? E-mail Paul Kilduff at PKilduff350@gmail.com.
What’s your sign, bruh? Aquarius
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