Don Reed's father had many ways of endearing himself to people. He would draw seven-foot cartoons of Popeye in crayon all over his kids' bedroom walls. When the TV broke he made a new one from a cardboard box and drew scenes on paper towels. He made Christmas trees out of blue string. He played conga at the UC Berkeley campus on Sunday, with a drumbeat that sounded louder than everyone else's. He had Peter Pan syndrome, a ribald sense of humor, and flashy clothes. He pulled practical jokes that could take the edge off a bad situation. He didn't know how to read, but was sly enough to keep it from people. Not to mention that he was a pimp.
Such is the set-up for Reed's new one-man show, East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player, which opens Friday, May 8 at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco. To say Reed had a strange childhood would be a gross understatement. For the first eleven years of his life, he grew up in a respectable East Oakland neighborhood with a mother who worked at Kaiser and a father who played conga in jazz bands while working blue-collar jobs with Granny Goose potato chips and General Cable — well, when he went to work. Everything changed when his parents divorced in 1972. Reed's mother married a successful car dealer who indoctrinated the whole family in the ways of the Jehovah's Witnesses. His father moved to the other side of town and started hustling. Reed and his siblings oscillated between two worlds.
East 14th Street — now called International Boulevard — has always been an iconic landmark in East Oakland, not only because it's the main thoroughfare, but also because it's one of the main places to catch pimps and prostitutes on their day-to-day. For Reed, it served as the dividing line between a cloistered middle-class home and a hedonist underworld. His mother and stepfather lived in a tidy house on East 14th Street and Bridge Avenue, which felt at times like a prison to Reed. Under his stepfather's regime, Reed was forced to finish homework on Friday afternoons so he could spend the weekends knocking on doors in the neighborhood and trying to proselytize people. He was given a lengthy reading list that included Watchtower, Awake, the green book, the yellow book, and the little blue book. He had to attend church every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. He was disciplined with fine leather belts. "Birthdays, Christmas, all the major holidays were suddenly vacuumed out of our lives," said Reed, who recalled leaving the house on Christmas morning with the same beater bike he'd rode the year before, trying to defend it. Reed acquired nervous tics, like the incessant eye-winking that earned him the nickname "Blinky." Six days a week, his life ossified into something cold and hard.
Then, on Sundays, Reed took the bus all the way down to the other end of East 14th Street to visit his father, who lived in various marginal neighborhoods on the south side. Reed's father hung out with "every over-colorful person you could possibly imagine," the playwright recalled — older drifters, fellow pimps, prostitutes, daughters of prostitutes, layabouts, and men who would constantly school teenage Reed in the whys and wherefores of hustling. For all his character flaws, the elder Reed had a way of accepting people that made him seem more progressive than other folk. He took in a maligned gay stepson named Tony and housed another son, Darrell, who was a small-time criminal and barrio lothario. And he created an environment that always felt warm and welcoming, said Reed, who only half-understood how his father made money. He said the Sunday bus rides to his father's house felt liberating. "You don't have time to think about anything except 'I'm in a cage, I'm out today, and she looks kinda hot.'"
Reed grew up a quiet, fly-on-the wall kid who taught himself to juggle and liked dancing to the Jackson 5 with his sister. He spent a lot of time watching other people and internalizing their speech patterns. By the time he entered high school, Reed could do spot-on imitations of all the strange characters in his life: His cruel stepfather, his compliant mother, the pimps in his father's cabal, a mouthy best friend with a pronounced lisp, and all the people he encountered at church. He learned how people reveal themselves in small ways — that his stepfather's obsession with arranging books by size was an indicator of OCD, for example, and that his father's decadent lifestyle was really a different kind of morality, rather than a form of moral lassitude. When Reed's stepfather enjoined him to deliver sermons to the church congregation, Reed figured out how to flip the script and manhandle his audience.
Thus, a dysfunctional childhood paved the way for Reed's career in stand-up comedy and theater. Though he never became a hustler like his father, he did learn the alchemy of pimping — i.e., how to exploit a situation and make it go your way. It began with the speeches at church, which Reed rendered into an art form. He illustrated all his sermons with elaborate anecdotes and character impersonations, which kept his audience entranced. He used the gift of gab to seduce women. At age fifteen he left the church for good, moved in with his father, and took what he needed from the player lifestyle. "The summer after eleventh grade I moved in with my father. I came back to school in the fall of '76 with burgundy boots, bellbottom pants, and my hair permed in a Lord Jesus cut," Reed said. He would eventually use that combination of loquacity and personal flair to slay the debate team at Chabot College, and land a partial scholarship to UCLA. His stand-up comedy career — alongside icons like Robert Townsend and Bill Cosby — owes a lot to both his degenerate father and anal-retentive stepfather.
Reed's life story has so much intrigue on its face that there's almost no way it could not be interesting and dramatic onstage. It's also chock-full of moral messages, many gleaned from a low-class character with a heart of gold. Reed wants to disabuse audience members of the notion that all pimps are alike. Nonetheless, he doesn't necessarily want to glamorize the pimp lifestyle. A reluctant player, after all, Reed takes care to show the downsides of his father's dissolute lifestyle. He said he wrote the play in part to memorialize all the folks who represented a particular time and place, not only in his childhood, but in 1970s East Oakland: The prostitute girlfriend Vernell who tried to stab Reed for not taking her to the prom, the slow-witted Troutmouth who loved dispensing advice, the women who would woo him with their fast talk and expensive clothing, if not their feminine wiles. "I keep looking on Facebook and trying to find all these people," Reed said. "Almost certainly they're gone."
Unfortunately, that point might be lost on some members of his audience. Reed said that a lot of pimps attend his play and come up to congratulate him afterward. One even brought a couple of his girls to a show in Los Angeles. "The girls were standing over at the bar ... He came over, and he went, 'I want you to meet somebody.' He pointed, and one came over, introduced herself, and went back. Then he pointed, and the other came over, introduced herself, and went back. ... Kinda weird, you know?"
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