Don Reed Tells Life Tale In 'East 14th' Plenty of actors and writers turn their family lives into one-man shows. But how many can spin tales of their father being a pimp and their stepfather being a devout religious man? Farai Chideya talks with actor and comedian Don Reed about his play, East 14th.
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Don Reed Tells Life Tale In 'East 14th'

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Don Reed Tells Life Tale In 'East 14th'

Don Reed Tells Life Tale In 'East 14th'

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. Actor and comedian Don Reed has the kind of childhood stories that could have landed him on "The Jerry Springer Show."

(Soundbite of TV show "East 14th")

Mr. DON REED: I grew up on East 14th in Oakland, California.

(Soundbite of Mr. Reed impersonating '70s-style music)

Mr. REED: In the '70s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REED: When I was like 10 or 12 years old, my mother and father divorced and my mother remarried. She married a guy who made us be in that religion where they knock on your door at seven o'clock in the morning.

CHIDEYA: His father, he would later find out, was a pimp way down on the other end of East 14th. Don Reed turned his childhood memories into a one-man Off-Broadway show that runs in New York through the end of August. Don joins us now. Hi, Don.

Mr. REED (Actor, Comedian): Hey, how's it going? How's it going?

CHIDEYA: It's going great. I have been to East 14th, Fremont High.

Mr. REED: That's where I went to school.

CHIDEYA: You went to Fremont?

Mr. REED: I went to Fremont High School, I did.

CHIDEYA: Oh, my goodness. So, you know, East 14th is now called International Boulevard, and you lived in two very different worlds in that part of Oakland. Tell me a little bit about the best and worst of both sides.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REED: Well, I lived my - after my parents divorced, my mother remarried a guy who made us be in that religion that rhymes with tehova's sitnesses (ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REED: And no birthdays, no Christmas, no nothing. And at age 15, I couldn't take it anymore, so I moved in with my real father, but I didn't know he was a pimp. And the transition from living in essentially a middle-class, suburban area, because he sold BMWs and Porsche automobiles, he did very well. Moving from that middle-class area and the...

(Soundbite of Mr. Reed impersonating a bird whistling)

Mr. REED: And the picket fences, all the way to the other end of East 14th, where it was like...

(Soundbite of Mr. Reed impersonating a heavy beat)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REED: Cars sliding by, was a huge transition. Going from one spectrum to another. And I was essentially a nerd coming out of knocking on doors and moving into where my brothers and everybody was like, David, we're about to have another party. And like, oh, really? How do I fit in here, you know?

CHIDEYA: Right, right.

Mr. REED: So, it was quite extreme.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, let's listen to a little bit more of your show, describing how you and your stepfather would knock on doors for that religion.

(Soundbite of "East 14th")

Mr. REED: Jim's like, ring the bell, Boo. What are you waiting for? I'm like, I'm going to, I'm going to. He's like, you know, sometimes you act like you need me to tell you to put one foot in front of the other. Wouldn't it be a lot better if you just thought for yourself and, you know, just ring the bell, Boo. Go ahead. Go ahead, do it.

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

Mr. REED: He didn't know, but I knew that a girl lived there that I really, really liked. I'd had a crush on her from like the third grade. Her name was Jennifer, she was fine as hell, and she didn't know I was in knock, knock, who's there, that religion.

CHIDEYA: So, it sounds as if your normal teenage anxiety was completely overloaded by this who idea of going up to friends', family's, and strangers' houses and trying to interact with them.

Mr. REED: Yeah, it started out where our particular congregation was in an area that was nowhere near my friends. And we would always go in that general area. Then one day, one of the brothers gave a speech and said, listen everyone, what we're going to do is we're going to go in our backyards and start knocking on doors. I mean, I'm thinking like, Willy and Bobby and Bobo? I've got to knock on their doors? And I had to. I mean, so we went to our own neighborhood. So, one week after when they started saying go to your own neighborhood I was each week knocking on direct neighborhood friends like people from school. And then Monday they'd see me. So, you're knocking on doors. So, you're knocking on doors. So, you're knocking on doors. So, you're knocking on doors.

Walking actually across, you know, Fremont High School campus, with people going, ha ha ha ha ha ha, saw you this weekend knocking on doors, you know. And all the different people - there was one guy named Victor. We were actually pretty good friends before I had to get into the religion. And he was a Latino guy. He said, you know, Don, you know, Don, we always used to do something . We used to do something, we used to play the basketball, used to play the soccer, play the football. Now we never do something. All we do now is me and mi madre see you and tu padre coming and we pretend that we can't speak English. Mi no sabe nada. Mi no sabe tehova's sitnesses.


Mr. REED: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Well, you are someone who had a recurring role on "The Cosby Show." This is a very different animal. And the one-man show format is - can be extremely revealing and extremely emotional. Why did you decide to do this?

Mr. REED: It was time. I'd been doing stand-up for years and all my stand-up was fantasy-driven. A lot of people knew me from on "The Cosby Show" and from Robert Townsend's HBO specials doing takeoffs on kung fu flicks. You can't see my mouth, but I kind of did this thing, was like...

(Soundbite of Mr. Reed impersonating kung fu sounds)

Mr. REED: You know, kung fu style.

(Soundbite of Mr. Reed impersonating kung fu sounds)

Mr. REED: It was that kind of stuff, and it was all fantasy-driven. And I said at one point I should probably be telling these real stories, because people - we'd kick it, and we'd have like beers, or whatever, in the backyard, and they're like, why don't you tell those stories about your life, when you had to move from, you know, the middle-class area all the way to the hood with your father. Why don't you tell those stories? And I was afraid for a long time, and actually helped another friend tell his stories in a one-man show, and that was around '99 when I was thinking about doing it. 2003, I finally wrote it, 2006 I finally put it up. It was supposed to run for five weeks, it ran for five months, and then now, I mean, da-da-da-da-da daa, New York City, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So, very, very, very, quickly, any plans to put it on TV or film?

Mr. REED: There are some conversations, some talks. Robert Townsend actually came to the opening, it was like, you know this is a movie, right? You know, this is a movie? You realize this is a movie? I'm like, yeah, I think it is, I think it is.

So, there's conversations about it, but I want people to come out now, and see it in this incarnation, because it's original story telling form. Very much John Leguizamo, I dance in the show, I become 15, 20 different characters, and I actually dip into some other guys. I actually look like the people when I do them. I actually have the elasticity to flip my face up, and be like, wait a minute, he kind of looks like a whole different human being now. The chameleon is here.

CHIDEYA: All right, on that note, Don, thanks so much.

Mr. REED: Thank you so much. Everybody, come on out.

CHIDEYA: Actor and comedian Don Reed's one man show, "East 14th; True Tales of a Reluctant Player," runs at the New World Stages in New York City through the end of August. And he joined us from our NPR studios in New York.

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