FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
by Brad Rosenstein
Gene Sullivan, "Passionate Times call for overacting"
is one of many funny, insightful pronouncements gracing his solo
show Did Anyone Ever Tell You - You Look like Huey P. Newton?
That particular observation was prompted by one of William
Shatner's classic turns on Star Trek, a show that was, like
Sullivan, a product of the '60s. The original Star Trek,
Sullivan notes, took the social turmoil of the times to heart in
both content and form, and its actors demonstrated a justified
lack- of restraint unknown to the cool, technofogged Next
Lack of passion is not a problem for Sullivan, whose
supercharged comic performances have long been a mainstay of the
San Francisco Mime Troupe. His yearnings for social justice were
stoked early in his leftist African American family: the show
begins with the memory of five-year old Michael joining his
parents, siblings, and even the family bunny at an anti-L.B.J.
rally that was brutally suppressed by the police. It's an
authoritarian pattern Sullivan sees repeated continually as he
matures, particularly in his ongoing harassment by police for no
offense other than his skin color.
Through it all he cherishes the picture of Huey P. Newton:
minister of defense of the Black Panther Party the charismatic
and fiercely militant messiah who once seemed to assure the
fulfillment of the American dream with the promise of
revolution. Sullivan was thrilled when strangers began noting
his physical resemblance to Newton and invariably shared their
memories of the man himself. Under Velina Brown's simple, fluent
direction, this multi-character piece flips through time and
space, as Sullivan's consciousness is forged under the watchful
eyes of his hero.
Sullivan is a terrific actor whose energy and joy are electric,
and he's got a gift for detailed movement that instantly creates
a character, an environment, an atmosphere. For all its serious
intent, the show's tone is surprisingly playful. Things only get
dark as the stories Sullivan hears turn nasty, depicting Newton
at the end of his life as a drug abuser and rapist, a seeming
betrayer of every value he once exemplified. This key turning
point is abruptly rendered in the script, and it is one of the
few hollow notes in Sullivan's performance: he seems to be
straining to do justice to his overwhelming outrage, It's only
in the resulting episode that the true dimensions and pain are
fully and honestly, revealed, fittingly enough, through the
make believe prism of theater itself. When the actor is
cast to portray Newton in a play, his fury at his ill-prepared
colleapies reveal the ultimate truth to Sullivan: that he really
is Huey, Newton, as is everyone the flawed but inspirational
leader touched. "Can you listen to the message,"
Sullivan asks, and let the messenger be human?"
Did Anyone Ever Tell You is a rich, candid, and often delightful
appraisal of the lasting legacies of the '60s and '70s - a
subject that remains strangely under explored in Bay Area
theater. It's an encouraging sign that this first production of
the "new" Eureka Theatre now under the co artistic
direction of Andrea Gordon, Lane Nishikawa, and Benny Sato
Ambush, should showcase new work by, of, and about this
community. What's even more encouraging is that it's good.