Unmitigated Truth: Life, a Lavatory, Loves, and Ladies
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 22, 2009
Unmitigated Truth is hard to categorize or to pin down. In that way, it very much reflects the life and life choices of its creator-performer, Melvin Van Peebles. His program bio suggests that he's the guy the word polymath was coined to describe: in addition to his famous film Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in), he is the author (book, music, and lyrics) of two Broadway musicals (Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don't Play Us Cheap!) as well as mystery novels in French, cartoons, and a children's TV show (for which he won an Emmy Award). He's been a cable car driver and a stockbroker in Wall Street. Now, at the age of 76, he's giving audiences his version of a retrospective solo show. It's a marvelous theatre experience and not quite like anything I've ever seen before.
This is not, for example, one of those tell-it-all-while-looking-back shows that various Broadway divas have been performing over the past decade. Van Peebles finds truth and authenticity not in the specific events of his life and career, but rather in the art he's made from them. Some of the material in Unmitigated Truth is excerpted from his work—the "eleven o'clock number," for example, is a tour-de-force rendering of "Lily Dance the Zampoughi Everytime I Pulled Her Coattail" from Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, a heart-stopping, harrowing piece about passion gone awry. Van Peebles also performs the touching song "Quittin Time" from Don't Play Us Cheap! and another song from that show, the delicious "You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams," is done by one of Van Peebles's two co-stars, the multi-talented Carmen Barika.
The rest of the show consists of songs and spoken word pieces that each tell stories of African American men and women in every kind of circumstance, ordinary and otherwise, that together add up to a life philosophy that's far more revealing and involving than mere autobiography. "Mother's Prayer," performed by Barika, is a wry commentary on faith and prayer. A story that Van Peebles tells at the beginning of the show is a hilariously dry explanation of why he has stopped giving his friends advice. The multi-part "BM Suite" is a slightly scatological yarn about a man who flouts his horoscope's warning against going out. And the finale, the infectious and upbeat "Apple Stretching," is the perfect summation for all that has come before, and gets the audience in the thick of a celebration that can only be described as joyful, singing and clapping along with Van Peebles and his co-stars.
A word, now, about those co-stars. I've already told you a bit about Ms. Barika: she can sing opera and jazz and kick her legs up with the best of them, and she's called upon to do all that and more in Unmitigated Truth. Van Peebles's accompanist is guitarman William "Spaceman" Patterson, who performs all of the music in the show in the varied styles and genres that you come to expect once you understand that Van Peebles is not the kind of artist who puts himself into boxes or lets himself get labeled. Patterson does terrific work here.
As for Van Peebles, he's a force of nature, albeit a sly and unexpected one; with his gray beard and slow-but-steady gait, he looks his age—but then all of a sudden he'll break into a few seconds of a Charleston. And the gleam in his eye is captivating, especially in the pleasingly intimate Algonquin Theatre space. I am very glad to have had the chance to spend some time with him in this loose, rambling look backward that's he put together for us. I hope he'll be sharing it with audiences for some time to come.