Don Reed's East 14th opens at The Marsh in San Francisco
The story is a young man's coming of age story in the most unlikely household. Blended families have nothing on Don Reed, whose stepfather's conversion to Jehovah Witness means no more Christmas, while biological dad's belief in a good time means initially that the boy-child has a bit more freedom than he knows what to do with, when he decides he is tired of the authoritarian rule in his Mother and Step-father's home.
What East 14th shows, however, is the space between stereotype and reality, the fact that a kid could have a father who the world sees as an outlaw--his occupation outside of the law, yet get trophies in debate competitions, go off to UCLA...have a successful career in screenwriting, film and acting, including a Broadway run of East 14th.
A Pimp? Yes Donnie's dad was a pimp. I wish the actor's mother hadn't disappeared so quickly after the play--almost two hours without intermission.
The set is deceptively simple, a white hat, and a sign post with the infamous street name, E-14th Street, now "International Blvd." until one gets to San Leandro where the name shifts back to E-14th.
Energetic and engaging, Reed's characters, two brothers, mother, father(s), school friends, dad's girlfriends, his own and the wonderful musical interludes which are used as segues in adolescent angst and conquest and peril--make the theatrical experience memorable.
By the end of the play, Donnie's dad is a hero, a hero because he let his son believe he had a free reign, when actually Donnie's moves were planned, choreographed, his dance and the music on the radio prerecorded.
Other stars in the huge cast, all performed by Reed were his brothers, who morphed into Frankenstein's monster or flaming queens who could kick butt, at the drop of a kid brother's hat.
East 14th is also a love story, that between a son and his father. It's a tribute to the folks no one gives credit for moral sense: drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and the kid who misses the glitter for the substance. Donnie doesn't see what law enforcement sees or what the social critics see either, at least while he is a child. E-14th is not a tale glorifying street life, it is a story which shows how roses grow from gardens created from nails and string, glass cylinders filled with Christmas ornaments.
It's not a Manchild in the Promised Land or Claude McCay tragedy, because unlike the protagonist in that story, Donnie has a father, who cares and gives him guidance. He also has a community that watches over him: the drug dealer who refuses to let him throw away his life when he has options--college.
Donnie's household, four men when he arrives, is one where everyone is free to be himself...no judgment, just love, and with such ingredients a child can't help but grow--although I'm not certain I'd recommend the combination--LOVE plus an aberrant lifestyle, but children are sturdy and are pretty smart too as Donnie shows as he matures and develops confidence--watch his great dance moves.
The story we don't see is his school attendance and excelling in academics. We don't see the family at meals. I think E-14th like Brian Copeland's Not a Genuine Black Man, also produced by the Marsh, would make a great memoir. I hope he writes it, but as a tribute to his fathers and brothers and community who raised him, it works even with unanswered questions.
The play is up at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, in San Francisco, Fridays-Sundays, 8, 8:30 and 3 p.m., through June 16. It's not suitable for audiences under 17 years old. Visit www.themarsh.org or east14.com and 1-800-838-3006. The Marsh, by the way is celebrating its 20th anniversary and produces 400 shows a year--that's one active and hardworking theatre!
Photos are of Don Reed on stage and guests I met that evening, among them Donald Lacy, whose Colorstruck opens in Sacramento, May 29-June 21, at Images Theatre Company. Visit www.imagestheater.org