Don Reed Mesmerizes with Divine Comedic Mastery
by Robert M. Gardner
“East 14th” provides the most entertaining 100 minutes of theater I have seen EVER. I highly recommend a trip to The Marsh in Berkeley to see how “East 14th” offers comedy and enlightenment.
Don Reed takes no prisoners in his one-man retrospective of life on East 14th Street in Oakland. When Reed was growing up in the 70s, East Oakland was a crowded Black neighborhood—exciting for a bright young man. Reed draws us into that lost 70s world where we see the comedy and pathos in his stories about growing up in the hood.
Reed, describes his life as a naive, sexually inexperienced boy. He has two fathers and two families—at opposite ends of Oakland’s 14th Street. The two households teach him opposing lessons.
After Reed’s Dad leaves his family behind to pursue a life as party loving pimp, his mom remarries. But his stepfather Jim is a strong-willed Jehovah’s Witness, who trains Don to knock on doors at 7 AM on Sundays. Unwillingly, Don becomes a “professional door knocker.”
You would think that the religious stepfather who sells BMWs in Oakland would be the preferable parent; but stepdad Jim beats him up! So, young Reed begs his pimp Dad to let him join him. He moves in with Dad and two brothers: Darrell, a player with the women; and Tony, flamboyantly gay. Reed depicts them all with genius and flair.
No matter how hard his life, Reed finds humor in the dysfunction between his two fathers —whom he imitates hilariously with lyrical movement. With equal skill, he plays his Mom, his sister and wonderful Oaklanders who fill his life.
Naïve Don enters a wild world of drinking and sex that looks wonderful at first glance. Dad’s house, a pleasure palace, intimidates the awkward teenager. Young Don suffers from a nervous tic and has no “game.” They call him “Blinky,” and we empathize with Don as he suffers through puberty, recalling our own ineptness.
Reed’s father makes his money from “the ladies of the night.” Yet this same Dad wakes him up every day for school. His player brother slips him into clubs when he is underage but looks out for him. His gay brother protects him from bullies by going all “kung fu” like the Bruce Lee films loves.
Seeing Don Reed, the successful comedian in TV and movies, makes us wonder about child-rearing. Looks like love far surpasses discipline for creating happy children. At his two fathers’ houses, he learns life lessons that bring us to laughter, while evoking sympathy for a kid torn between two households at opposite ends of 14th Street.
As his Dad proudly tells his son: “See, I set you up,” as we watch Don imitate his Dad’s pimp stride.
Don Reed is a pleasure to spend time with—his revelations about family life on 14th Street tell us a lot about our lives. He’s a joy—Don’t miss this classic show!
“East 14th” –written, performed, produced, & directed by Don Reed, original music by Don Reed, Jon Harrison Taylor, & Doyle Robinson, at The Marsh, Berkeley. Info: TheMarsh.org – to December 17, 2023.
Cast: Don Reed (many voices & roles)
Banner photo: The Marsh celebrates the 14th birthday of Don Reed’s “East 14th.” Photos: Aaron Epstein