I went last night to see a friend’s one-person show. Yes, that’s a particular jumble of words that strikes fear into the heart of any theatergoer. But, in a wonderful surprise, I was treated to a heartfelt performance and some unforgettable characters.
Mario Burrell’s show "The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice” is a tour through his life, focusing on his relationship to his Father, a well-known black Hollywood journalist and publicist, and his relationship to performance, especially as it is filtered through being black. We meet several people in his life, and hear of some incredible experiences, from sitting on Cicely Tyson’s lap as a child, to having to go on in the Broadway production of Rent after two days’ rehearsal.
What really buoyed me, though, was a particular characterization of a teacher Mario works with. He is currently teaching kindergarten in the LA Unified public school district. He introduces us to the woman he teaches with, Mrs. Minix. Mrs. Minix is a confident talker. We meet her during lunch time, when she is treating herself to a tongue sandwich “You won’t see me trying to eat no health food,” she says. She has an opinion on everything. She tells us about the teacher next door, her, car, her husband, and her kids parents. It’s on the subject of the children that Mrs. Minix becomes fierce. To one mother, who says she may not be able to afford lunch for her son, Mrs. Minix says “I told her, ‘if you can afford to get those tacky nails done, and you can afford that cheap-ass weave on your head, then you can buy lunch for your son.” She then tells us the story of a child who is having a birthday on that same day, who has one brother in prison, and another who was shot and killed. He told her he never had a birthday party. So she gives him one. And it’s this love for the kids she teaches, seemingly boundless, that pulls us in. She tells us how former students stop by all the time to tell her hello and see how she is. She has bought them books, clothes, She has even put a couple of them through college. She says all they need to hear is that life is what you make it (she tells a story of interrupting another teacher’s classroom who was trying to tell her students how hard life is). The emotion for me is doubly strong, knowing that it’s based on a real person. Mario manages to pull off one of my favorite feats in the theater—introduce us to a character through comedy that we think we will know and can dismiss as stock, and then show us a huge heart and humanity underneath. It’s one that lights up the stage, and reminds you of the power that one person can have.
I have to say my other favorite comic creation of the night was the Fried Chicken Fairy. Mario does a great bit about auditioning for a TV show, one in which the casting director tells him to be more “urban”, then “a little less Sherman Oaks, a little more Inglewood”, and finally, “more black”. Confused about what this is, he is visited by his fairy Godmother, the Fried Chicken Fairy, a woman dressed in white with a bucket of KFC and a wand, who tells him to bug out his eyes and swivel his neck and he’ll be a star. Brilliant. He comes to realize he is “too black” for the white shows and “too white” for the black shows.
There is a point in here where Mario visits his Grandfather, who tells him how light skinned blacks are more beautiful, which is why he married a light skinned woman and had light-skinned children --“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, but if it’s too dark, what’s the use?” He tell us a poignant story about not being able to pass like the rest of his family, so he had to ride in the back of the train while his sister rides in front. He ends up holding a white woman’s bag for the entire trip so he can stand in the same coach as his sister. This is set in contrast to Mrs. Minix, who first brings up the “Blacker the berry…” while telling us that she has no use for “piss-colored” light-skinned black men, apologizing for offending Mr. Burrell while she says it. (Please excuse if I mis-quote for any reason—I don’t have a script in front of me and this is from memory). The brilliance here is that we aren’t presented ideas like these for shock, but rather as part of how complex all our attitudes are. Setting this against trying to get a job in the television industry is perfect, as its storytelling is based on easily identified characteristics. Anything that may confuse or challenge is kept to a minimum, so the stories told are all of a piece. I have been thinking lately about a lot of things I see, and feeling like they aren’t stories I want to hear or to tell. I applaud Mario for telling his own, and telling it with such grace that we all can’t help but want to hear it.