Monday evenings at Fletch’s House of Laffs is “Urban Night,” the contemporary, politically correct moniker for a program of African-American comedy more traditionally known as Spook Night — which is also the title of T. Faye Griffin’s play, now debuting at the Lillian Theatre. The story looks at a group of black standups preparing for a big night when a TV casting scout will be searching for talent in order to fulfill his network’s “diversity” requirement. Like the barber shops and beauty salons depicted in recent African-American movie comedies, Fletch’s is more than a locale — it’s a metaphoric life raft for a variety of archetypes who sit around the rundown club’s green room.
Old Dog (Bill Lee Brown) is an ancient and ailing remnant from the days when Jim Crow ruled the entertainment roost; Smokey Mo (Mike Estimé) is the brash, supersexed ghetto personality; Diva (Nika Williams) is the tough lone female comic; while Minute Man (Trent Horn) is a luckless funny man who can’t buy a spot on the bill. The play is not really about them, however, but focuses, Cain-and-Abel style, on two siblings who were once a comedy writing team but who have since parted ways.
Years ago, fate — or, rather, another talent scout — chose Goody Reid (Kerie W. Edmead) to be the Next Big Thing, effectively estranging him from his idealistic brother, Benjamin (Antonio D. Charity). Now wandering the comedy wilderness of open-mike nights, Urban Nights and any other look-at-me showcases, Benjamin grimaces at the irony that not only is Goody at the top of the comedy heap, he’s gotten there by crafting precisely the same kind of trash-talking, misogynistic persona the brothers once set out to destroy.
It goes without saying that Goody, in a slumming gesture to his roots, is also scheduled to be in this night’s lineup, so there’s plenty at stake for everyone — a chance for one member of the green-room crew to grab the brass ring offered by the TV network scout, and a big swallow of bile for Benjamin when he is bumped from the program to avoid a fracas with Goody.
Griffin, who directs her own play, has a long résumé in the field, having performed onstage, worked on BET’s Comic View and written for Steve Harvey. She prologues Spook Night by invoking an early-20th-century black minstrel — Bert Williams (Paul A. Hicks), the first African-American entertainer to be accepted by mainstream white audiences.
However, Griffin abandons this historical frame to steer her plot toward sentimental melodrama. She adds a young, wannabe white standup named Andy (Steven Robert Olson) for no apparent narrative purpose. Similarly, Fletch (Alan Charof), the Jewish comedy club owner, and his cynical daughter, Nadine (Lauren Schnipper), make no real decisions and their characters have little dimension.
Spook Show is at its best when it lays out opposing philosophies of black standup and accusations of racism and joke stealing. Ironically, Smokey Mo, the foul-mouthed kid who’s all “bitches and hos,” has the funniest lines — both in the green room and during his routine. Estimé turns in a raucously energetic, love-to-hate-him performance that, nevertheless, shows the danger of Smokey Mo’s corrosive charm. His shtick is caustically parodied during a long scene toward the end of the play, in which a drunken Benjamin pulls a gun. Seizing the club stage, he sets a monologue record for dick and bitch references. It’s a moment of inspired satire that unfortunately stands as an orphan in this show that ultimately hasn’t the heart to dig deeper into the places where laughter cannot reach.
SPOOK NIGHT | BY T. FAYE GRIFFIN | At the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd. | Through September 30 | (323) 960-4443 or www.plays411.com/spooknight