“We have a place in society - and I don’t just mean black society” - Myra Harrison.
Written by Don Evans in the 1980s, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has been billed as a ‘lost American classic’. It is a riotous affair that takes an insightful yet thoroughly tongue-in-cheek look at gender, class and ethnicity in 1970s America.
Myra Harrison is the matriarch of a respectable, black, middle class family living in 1970s Philadelphia with aspirations of grandeur. To the pretentious Myra, keeping up appearances is everything, and she is desperate to maintain her place in highly esteemed society with her involvement in book-of-the month and bridge clubs and a penchant for using vocabulary she cannot pronounce, much to the embarrassment of her teenage son Felix.
The audience watches as the Harrisons’ quiet, suburban, Christian life is challenged time and time again by a string of mishaps and personal crises. The discovery of her son’s copy of The Joy of Sex throws Myra into near-hysteria, sending the audience into fits of hilarity as she exclaims, “I wish I was white, so I could faint”. Her husband Reverend Avery’s imagination is captured by revelations from stolen glances at the offending book, and he suffers a mid-life sexual crisis, much to the dismay of his wife.
What really disturbs matters is the arrival of Avery’s niece Beverley after his brother’s untimely demise. She is sufficiently rough around the edges to throw the Harrisons’ bourgeois existence out of balance, and horrifies Myra by shamelessly claiming ownership of The Joy of Sex to save Felix from accusation. Nevertheless, she is shrewd enough to baffle her father’s former business partner and her reluctant guardian - Daniel Francis plays a convincing scoundrel as smooth talker Caleb Johnson; watching the relationship grow between him and his young charge is both heart-warming and hilarious.
One Monkey has been compared to a host of TV sitcoms: The Cosby Show gets a regular mention, and other names including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air have appeared in reviews of previous productions. Director Dawn Walton has taken this a step further and staged the play as if on a TV set, complete with ‘on air’ signs framing the split stage: half depicting the Harrisons’ pristine living room; the other, Caleb Johnson’s simply decorated bachelor pad at the club, with its vinyl record-lined shelves. Set changes are orchestrated by the fictitious TV station’s set crew without feeling intrusive and clunky, accompanied by the sitcom’s theme music and occasional canned laughter; while the latter begins to feel somewhat unnecessary, the overall effect provides an upbeat, feel-good backdrop to the play.
This sitcom set-up allows the acting to be warm-heartedly hammed up at times, and the cast combine one-liners and physical comedy to great effect. Jocelyn Jee Esein delivers Myra Harrison’s frequent malapropisms with panache, and Roger Griffith’s sexually frustrated reverend brings genuine guffaws from the (somewhat raucous) audience.
One Monkey strikes a healthy balance between light-hearted comedy and intelligent observation about the society in which it is set. There is wisdom among the wisecracks, and the TV context makes sense of spot-lit soliloquies, used to flesh out what could otherwise be one-sided characters, without interrupting the story; Caleb Johnson’s speech about being looked down upon by the bourgeoisie for his roguish behaviour is insightful and thought-provoking, and the play manages to explore ideas of class without becoming overly serious or heavy. Felix is as keen to escape the trappings of middle-class society as his mother is to keep them. Sick of being called a “bougie nigger” by his possibly-pregnant and comically brash girlfriend L’il Bits, he is mystified when she says that she would be a fool to marry him for love alone, saying of her previous accusation, “I said I didn’t want to be with one. I never said I didn’t want to be one”. While Felix tries to throw off his upbringing, his girlfriend’s mother, Mrs Emma Caldwell, has very different aspirations of using him as a ticket to move uptown and retire in style.
The play is not without its faults: some of the cast’s Philadelphian accents have a tendency to slip, and there are so many subplots that the story can at times feel a bit cramped. This aside, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is a joyful romp, and the audience leaves the theatre on a high. A strong cast brings life to a well-written script, with standout performances from Daniel Francis and Ayesha Antoine as the feisty Beverley.
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show was performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 1 November 2011.