nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 18, 2008
Eric Lockley's one-man play Last Laugh introduces us to two African American entertainers. We meet Noman Whitfield in his natural habitat (i.e., on stage, in top hat and tails). His flattened-out voice feels a little unexpected, something Noman defuses right up front by telling us that he's known as the "whitest black man" in show business. He sings, dances, tells jokes. Most of his jokes are about race—thinly disguised diatribes about the foolhardiness of non-assimilation.
Lincoln Berry is in his living room, where he's being interviewed by a reporter. Tonight he is going to receive an award from the NAMCP ("the National Association of the Maintainment of Colored People"), for his contributions to film as the character "Slowfeet." Slowfeet is very much in the Amos-and-Andy mold: a slow-moving and seemingly dim-witted servant who is constantly getting in trouble with (and seems to live in continual fear of) his white master. Black audiences love Slowfeet, we're told, and now it looks like he may be about to "cross over" into more mainstream popularity.
Lockley interweaves our time with these characters during Last Laugh, so that we switch—more and more rapidly—from one to the other throughout the play. Early on, it's clear that Noman and Lincoln are two sides of one sadly self-loathing coin. As the play progresses, we understand that the relationship between these two characters may be even more complicated and symbiotic than that.
It's compelling and important work that reminds us how treacherous it is to try to navigate a path toward success against the odds of irrational, institutionalized bigotry; in this regard, Last Laugh transcends the issue of racism to take in every kind of hurtful pop culture stereotype, from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Tonto.
But the play trades specifically in the problems of African Americans, and I couldn't help wishing that the time period and the intended allusions were a bit clearer. Lincoln/Slowfeet feels very much modeled on Stepin Fetchit; Noman has some Sammy Davis, Jr. in him. That's two different eras already, and neither is what you'd call contemporary: Lockley might do well to explore more recent icons to really fill out his portrait of how African Americans portray themselves—and why.
If the structure of Last Laugh is a bit shaky, though, the performance is assuredly not. Lockley is a dynamo, inhabiting both of these characters and others with outsized brio and unstoppable energy. He can be endearing one moment and hilarious the next, and then jolt us with something jarringly authentic and disturbing from our collective past. He's an actor to keep an eye on, and I will be doing just that.